When Dan Ennis, 79, was very small, his father carried him on his back in a pack basket when he walked to the general store in Perth, New Brunswick, to barter for food and supplies.
Louis Ennis made ax handles, baseball bats, ash baskets and peaveys to trade for provisions. He paddled across the Tobique River from the Maliseet reservation and made the rest of the seven-mile trip to McPhail’s General Store on foot.
That routine ended in 1941, when Louis and Louise Ennis moved to Caribou with their three sons, as described in this column two weeks ago. Dan Ennis was 4, and he has never shaken the fear of water resulting from that nighttime departure from the reserve in an overloaded canoe.
The family settled in French Flat, the only Indian family in a neighborhood near the Aroostook River where most adults spoke only French. By the time they entered Holy Rosary elementary school, Dan and his older brother Gordon had learned that when they met up with other kids in French Flat, they had to decide whether to walk toward them, run or be prepared to fight.
“That [fighting] pretty much stopped by the time we were teenagers, and the older boys had moved on to the military,” Dan said recently as he reflected on his childhood. “I met my best and only friend when we got into a fight,” he said. “After that we were best friends.”
Dan was so quiet in school that he was labeled a slow learner. He liked his math teacher and did well in math, but when his mother questioned why his brother advanced faster than Dan, she was shown records with the letters “S.L.” beside the name of her younger son.
“He never talks,” his teachers said, unaware that native children are taught to be silent.
As high school students, Gordon and Dan told their father they wanted to quit school. He insisted they work instead and got them jobs in a potato house. After three days of working 12-hour shifts, coming home with bleeding hands from hauling 50-pound bags of potatoes, they decided to return to school. The boys’ father got his way and they both graduated from Caribou High School.
Dan and his best friend, Tom Hartley, were setting pins in the local bowling alley when they decided they no longer wanted to hang around Caribou. Tom dreamed of joining the Navy like his older brothers.
“I remembered my fear of water and knew the Navy was not for me,” Dan said. He settled on the U.S. Army, but when the recruiter in Presque Isle examined his application, he said, “You were born in Canada. You’re an alien.”
Dan wasn’t sure what that meant, and the recruiter didn’t know what to do, so he put him on a bus to Bangor with free room and board at the YMCA, letting the Bangor recruiter decide whether Dan could enlist.
“The [Bangor] recruiter never asked about my being an alien,” Dan said. “He put me on a bus to Fort Dix, New Jersey.” It was November 1959. Basic training did not begin until January, when there were enough recruits for a company. Bored waiting, especially when others left for the holiday, Dan asked his sergeant if there were any way he could leave.
“When you sign on the dotted line,” he was told, “your ass is grass and Uncle Sam is the lawn mower.”
Once basic training was completed, Dan was sent to Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland for ordnance training.
“I enlisted for technical education as a heavy equipment operator and mechanic,” he said. “I was assigned to ordnance instead. I learned about weaponry, guns and tanks.”
After nine weeks of training, he was given three choices: Vietnam, Korea or Okinawa. “I went to the Nike site in Rehoboth, Mass., as a glorified auto parts supply clerk.”
In 1961, he sailed to Germany where he spent two years as an infantryman at the U.S. Army base in Esslingen. The effects of World War II were still evident in damaged German towns and in attitudes of Americans who said “nasty things about Germans.” But he came home grateful for the time in Europe, feeling that “Germans are nice people.”
Dan returned to Caribou from military service with a habit he had managed to avoid (thanks to his mother’s influence) in high school: drinking. It was a vice that landed him in jail until an aunt was able to hire a lawyer who bargained for his release on one condition: that he leave Caribou in the custody of his aunt and uncle who lived in Tarrytown, N.Y.
The expulsion from his hometown led to a series of jobs in New York and Connecticut that convinced him he would need to get a college education. He worked on the assembly line of a General Motors factory driving the same four screws into a car body over and over. He worked in a stifling foundry, on the grounds crew of a luxury golf course and as a surveyor for the town of Fairfield, Conn.
He reconnected with, and eventually married, a woman from the Tobique reserve he had met before going overseas. The couple lived in Brockton, Mass., and Bridgeport, Conn., before returning to Canada in the 1970s where Dan began college classes in Fredericton, first at the University of New Brunswick, then St. Thomas University where he graduated in political science.
During college he came to appreciate the activism of native women. He was inspired by his wife Carolyn, as she protested the government policy that denied women housing, education and other privileges if they married white men.
“The conditioning of suppression was so ingrained, our own men were against us when we questioned the Indian Act,” Carolyn Ennis said recently. “They identified with their oppressors and became oppressors.”
But the more native men resisted the women’s protest, the more Dan supported it. He remembered how his mother took action to move her family to Caribou when the rule of the Indian Agent became intolerable. He continued her fight for justice.
Now he and Carolyn are back in Tobique, where Dan was elevated to Grand Chief (K’Chi Saugam) of the Wulustuk (Maliseet) Grand Council in 2000. As an elder in his home community, he expresses the traditions of his ancestors in essays and, perhaps, in a memoir. He is contemplating two titles: “The View From My Father’s Backpack” and “Journey through the White Wilderness.”
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.