Dan Ennis was 4 years old when his family moved from the Tobique Reserve in New Brunswick to Caribou, Maine. He has been afraid of water ever since.
At age 79, Ennis remembers vividly the night his father Louis, his older brother Gordon and his mother Louise carrying his infant brother John, were loaded into a canoe to be paddled by a friend across the Tobique River, leaving their home and Maliseet culture behind.
“Our canoe must have been loaded down really good because from my seat on the floor of the canoe I could look directly over the rim of the canoe and see the waves dancing at my eye level as we cruised over the waters,” he wrote in an essay called “My Fear of Water and the Indian Agent.”
“Between the darkness and the pitch black water looking me right in the eye, and the memory still fresh in my mind about dad’s encounter with the Indian Agent, I was petrified and speechless with fear as we made our way across the Tobique River in our little canoe. And for me, a scared 4-year-old child, it was if we were heading into complete blackness and on into oblivion.”
Ennis recalled his family’s departure from Tobique and his childhood in Caribou when he and his wife Carolyn visited me recently. I’m encouraging Dan to write a memoir and hoped the interview would get him started. Sitting on my front porch, he described the incident in Tobique with the Indian Agent that impelled his parents to leave the reserve.
It was March 1941. The Indian Agent was on vacation. Louis Ennis needed to cut wood on the reserve to heat his home, which wasn’t allowed without the permission of the Indian Agent. “The Indian Agent gave orders on when to cut wood and how much, and it was never enough for the [entire] winter,” Dan said.
When the agent returned, he learned that Louis had cut wood without his permission.
“Someone came to the house and said, ‘The Indian Agent wants to see you.’ It was like being called to the principal’s office,” Dan said. “[My father] never came back.”
When Dan’s mother went to find her husband, she learned he had been tried, sentenced and locked in a makeshift shack that served as a jail.
“Louis cut wood without permission and pleaded guilty,” she was told.
The penalty was $5 or five days in jail.
“Five dollars was like $5 million,” Dan said. So his father served his term in the crude, one-room structure in a pasture, and his mother started making plans to leave the reserve.
“I’d have jumped over the desk and strangled [the agent] if I weren’t worried what would happen to you and Gordon,” Dan’s mother told him years later. “When you get out, we’re getting out of here,” she had told her husband when she visited the “jail” to bring him food.
“My father never would have left, but for my mother,” Dan said, explaining how Indian men were controlled by fear. “He would take it. She wouldn’t allow it.”
Failure to comply with the white man’s rules could mean denial of food and privileges. “Everything was based on fear of authority … to this day,” Dan said.
By autumn, plans were in place for departure from the reserve. Family members had worked in Aroostook County, both as domestics and as farm laborers during the annual potato harvest. Contacts in the Caribou area helped them to find housing and to arrange for someone to meet them with a potato truck after the canoe crossed the river.
“The thing that kept me from forever disappearing was my mom and my brother who were sitting in front and behind me,” Dan said of that nighttime canoe trip. “I got as close as I could to Mom, and clung dearly to my brother for safety and security.”
When they reached the shore, Louis, Louise and the baby climbed into the cab of the potato truck; Dan and Gordon rode in back for the ride from Perth-Andover across the border into Fort Fairfield and on to Caribou.
Dan remembers seeing the lights of the town as the truck crested the hill and descended down onto a wooden bridge over the Aroostook River. He remembers the railroad tracks and the small apartment with “nothing in it” where they spent their first few days as residents of Caribou. His mother was not pleased, and soon they moved to “a little tiny house” two houses from the tracks.
As Dan and his brother Gordon, 18 months older, began to venture from this new home, they learned they were the first Indian family to reside in the community known locally as “French Flat.” While French was the dominant language, they heard the term “Goddamned Indian” so often young Dan thought that was the name of his tribe.
“Nobody wanted to admit they were from Canada or were French,” Dan said of his neighbors, one of whom translated his name from the French Levesque to the English equivalent, Bishop.
“We got acquainted by fighting,” he said. “Three, four, five or six kids would come out and beat us up. I was always apprehensive about walking to the store.”
The brothers got used to being attacked, but once they started fighting back, things got better and the fighting trickled off. One of those fights ended up in a friendship that lasted for years.
When the boys’ mother told them they would be going to school, Dan said he didn’t want to go if she was not going to be there. With his big brother by his side, he reluctantly entered Holy Rosary School where he and his French adversaries had something in common: both Indian and French students had to speak English.
Stay tuned for Part 2 of this column in two weeks.
Kathryn Olmstead is a former University of Maine associate dean and associate professor of journalism living in Aroostook County, where she published and edited the quarterly magazine Echoes for 29 years. Her column appears in this space every other Friday. She can be reached at email@example.com or P.O. Box 626, Caribou, ME 04736.