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“The Seven Trees and Ramapough Ethnicity" - A Critique
Altait än zômer
Stât de zûve bôme
äske’n aike än al de lang vôrbai
Kän nît rolle; wat er opstât
Always in summer
stand the seven trees;
ash and oak and all along past they
cannot proceed. What are they standing on?
On March 5, 2015, Ed Lenik sent me a link to this article, by Dr. Gary Van Valen, published in Voices: The Journal of New York Folklore, Vol. 40 (Spring-Summer, 2014). The article focused on the relationship between a “Negro charm" recited in the Jersey Dutch dialect, in 1910, by William DeFreece—described, by J. D. Prince, as "part Minsi Indian"—and the Lenape “Myth of Red Cedar and the Seven Stars." Van Valen, believed—quite rightly, in my view—that he had discovered a Ramapough Indian expression of a traditional Lenape story embedded in the words of this charm. He wrote (p. 28):
A reconsideration of William De Freece’s so-called “negro charm" shows that it could more properly be labeled a “Lenape charm" and examined as evidence of both Lenape culture and ancestry among the Ramapough.
The most thorough scholar of the Ramapough, David Steven Cohen, once wrote that, “They identify with the American Indians, but they possess no authentic Indian cultural traits" (Cohen 1972, 260). In light of the evidence in De Freece’s charm, such a statement can no longer be sustained.
You will note that I have placed two words in bold type, in each quotation. In the first is “A reconsideration;" and, in the second is “no longer." The fact is that Van Valen had never read pages 77-78 of Edward J. Lenik’s book, Indians in the Ramapos: Survival, Persistence, Presence, published in 1999, and in-print continuously since that date, wherein is found my interpretation of this charm as just such a surviving form of the Lenape “Myth of Red Cedar and the Seven Stars." This was 15 years prior to Dr. Van Valen’s article. And, as a matter of fact, I first set forth this interpretation in an April 28, 1984 letter to James “Lone Bear" Revey, Chairman of the New Jersey Indian Office, 30 years prior to Van Valen’s article. I made all this known to Dr. Van Valen via e-mail. He wrote back and said he would be glad to set the record straight in a future issue of Voices, showing that I discovered this cultural connection much earlier. I didn’t press him on it, since it was clear, by his very different exposition of the charm’s wording, that his discovery—though much later than mine—was made independent of my own. Whether or not he ever submitted this correction to the journal’s editors, I don’t know. I do know that, to date, one has never been published therein.
Before getting into the proper interpretation of the charm, I will offer this critique of some of the statements in Van Valen’s article:
Page 26: The linguist who recorded DeFreece’s charm, John Dyneley Prince, who published it in his article, “The Jersey Dutch Dialect," in Dialect Notes, 1910, p. 467, did not live at “Ringwood Manor," as stated in the article, but, at his own home in Ringwood. Van Valen must have copied this mistake from Wikipedia.
Van Valen states that the verses of the charm had only been analyzed, as folklore, three previous times—by Prince (1910), by John Holm (1989), and by David Steven Cohen (1995)—none of whom mentioned any connection to the Lenape myth. Of course, he didn’t know about my analysis when he wrote this.
Prince had difficulty understanding the charm and he made an attempt to make sense of it by offering an alternative rendering which changed one word in the last line. Because of this, Van Valen took the opportunity to accuse Prince of racism! Van Valen wrote:
...Prince, the university-educated linguist, assumed the necessity and right to correct the Jersey Dutch of De Freece, the uneducated, nonwhite laborer…
This because Prince suggested the word “rolle" might have originally been “râde"! How one concludes from this that Prince was a racist is beyond me. And, this suggestion was extremely hypocritical, as well; for later, on page 29, Van Valen (also a university-educated white man), offers alternative readings which change three words in the Jersey Dutch text and eight words in the English text!
Page 27: The author accepts and repeats Cohen’s suggestion that the New York militiaman, John DeFries, identified himself as “Indian" in the militia roll of 1760; yet, there is no evidence to warrant such an assumption. He could just as likely have been identified as “Indian" by the clerk or clerks who entered this information on the rolls of 1760 and 1761.
Page 29: This is where Van Valen begins his analysis of the charm. He notes that DeFreece’s identification of “the seven trees" as “the seven stars" is the key to understanding the charm’s connection to the Lenape myth. In this, he is correct. However, in attempting to reconcile the fact that the Lenape story speaks of the seven trees as pines and cedars, while the charm speaks of ash and oak trees, he delves into the realm of wild speculation, which causes him to postulate that three of the Jersey Dutch words are a corrupted form of what was originally one Lenape word. He muses:
The Jersey Dutch original recorded by Prince, aske’n aike, bears more than a passing resemblance to the Lenape word asi’skewtaya’sak. Meaning “bunched up," asi’skew'taya’sak is one of the Lenape names for the Pleiades (Ceci 1978; spelled asi’skewtaya’sak in Speck (1931) and Anschisktauwewak in Zeisberger (1910)).
First of all, Speck’s transcription of the Southern Unami form fails to show the initial nasal vowel, an- and adds the faint sound, -ew-. The proper spelling can be seen and heard in the Lenape Talking Dictionary (Look up “Pleiades."). And, for this to be a version of the Lenape word, the Southern Unami word would have to have lost eight letters: ansi-, -t-, and -esa-. The Northern Unami form would have to have lost eleven letters: anschi-, -t-, and -auwewa-. In addition, the Jersey Dutch form would have to have, then, added ä-, -e’n, and -e to the SU word; or, ä-, -e’n, ai-, and -e to the NU word. Such an alteration is closer to being impossible than any corrupt form of a Lenape word that I’ve ever seen, in thirty-five years of studying the Lenape language! Van Valen has to posit a theoretical bi-lingual Jersey Dutch and Lenape speaker, who was engaging in “bi-lingual double-punning." Or, alternatively, he conjectures that the original Lenape word was corrupted into its present form via “homophonic translation" as the Lenape language died out and Jersey Dutch speakers tried to make sense of the word. However, as just seen, the Lenape word and the three Jersey Dutch words (äske ‘n aike) cannot nearly be considered to be “homophonic," absent a heapin’ helping of imagination.
Instead of accepting William DeFreece as the chief authority on his subdialect of Jersey Dutch (as Prince had said), Van Valen consulted two speakers of modern Holland Dutch who “…questioned the accuracy of Prince’s translation, especially the last two lines (Tweraser 2014; Hartoch 2014). This trio of translators came up with the following elegant “…possible original meaning of the verses…":
“Always in summer / the seven trees stand; /
the Pleiades are long gone; / they cannot roll
by what goes up there.
In the first place, it is highly unlikely that Prince translated the charm into English. If he had, he would almost certainly have rendered “äske’n aike" as “ashes and oaks," taking care to translate these plural forms as plurals, and “al de lang" as “all the long," instead of “all along." Secondly, there is no reason to believe otherwise than that DeFreece, himself, provided the English version. He could, after all, speak English, as well as Jersey Dutch (as is shown by both the 1910 and 1920 federal censuses). Finally, I won’t suggest that these three academics were exhibiting racist or patronizing views by attempting to understand the meaning of the charm. (A position Van Valen didn’t accord to Prince, for suggesting one word might have changed.)
Van Valen’s argument that the trees always stand in summer because the Pleiades drop below the horizon from May to October, approximately, and therefore “stand still," is his answer to the question posed in the last line; but, I doubt that that is the right answer. The Jersey Dutch word, "opstât" means "stand up," not "stand still."
On why the charm was considered a cure for rheumatism, the author says that witches or evil shamans could cause the affliction, so people would naturally appeal to good shamans (e.g., those who became the seven stars) to cure them—especially since they were “associated with the healing powers of the cedar." He really didn’t have to take this circuitous route to arrive at his answer had he known that red cedar was traditionally used, by the Lenape, in the treatment of rheumatism, specifically.
As stated, early on, my own interpretation of this Ramapough charm—as a cultural survival of the Lenape—was quite different than Van Valen’s, although we both recognized its Lenape origin: I, in 1984, and he, thirty years later. Below is a quotation from my April 28, 1984 letter to Jim Revey, wherein I first wrote about my analysis of this charm.
“Always in summer stand the seven trees – they always stand in summer because they are ever green (evergreens--i.e., pines and cedars). The fact that these trees remained green throughout the year must have imbued them with a magical quality to the native Delawares.
“Ash and oak and all along past they cannot proceed – they cannot proceed past summer as the evergreens do. They lose their powers in the autumn and do not regain them till spring. The Dutch word vorbai (‘past’) carries several meanings which are all implied by the word, as befits a magical incantation. It implies that the ash and oak and all others cannot proceed beyond summer; but neither can they proceed beyond (to the heavens) where the seven trees go as the seven stars. It also implies that they cannot proceed past the seven trees (i.e., ‘surpass’ them in greatness or power.)
“What are they standing on? – I am inclined to believe that the right answer is that they stand on the Spirit-Path to heaven (i.e., the Milky Way). The Pleiades are situated just to the side of the Milky Way in the night sky.
“I think you can see by this that the charm is definitely alluding to the myth of Red Cedar. However, there is one more piece of evidence that confirms the common origin of the charm and the myth--at least, to my mind. J. D. Prince relates that "DeFreece regards this (the charm) as an excellent cure for rheumatism." Gladys Tantaquidgeon, in her book, Folk Medicine of the Delaware, lists the plants and plant uses of the Oklahoma Delaware. On pages 118 and 119 the following entry is found: 'Red Cedar - Native Use / Medicine (rheumatism)'!"
It is a fact that the pain caused by rheumatism is exacerbated by cold weather and lessened by warm weather. I believe the Jersey Dutch charm was used to treat rheumatism precisely because the evergreens—not being deciduous trees, like the ash and oak—seemed to exist in a perpetual state of summer. In addition, the Pleiades are seen as a cluster of very bright and very hot blue stars enveloped in a nebulous cloud of dust, which looks like a smoky burning hearth, visible only during the cold weather months in northern climes. In truth, even the name given to them by the Lenape also describes them as a source of warmth, for it literally means “firebrands gathered or laid together." It is not difficult to see sympathetic magic at work, in this age-old treatment of rheumatism.
I had intended to follow this critique with another one on David Steven Cohen's review of Van Valen's article; however, I have convinced him that DeFreece's charm was, indeed, a Lenape cultural survival among the Ramapough--something he had previously denied. Of course, he still doesn't believe it provides proof of Lenape ancestry, but might just be a borrowing from the Lenape. I countered that it is evidence of that heritage, if not "proof." We kind of left it there. I count it a small victory that he came as far as he did, though.
It occurs to me that some readers might not be familiar with the Lenape story of "Red Cedar and the Seven Stars." There are several variants of the story, one of which is this short version found in Speck, F.G., The Delaware Indian Big House Ceremony, p.48:
"The Delawares believe that some of the stars are living beings. For
example the seven stars [i.e., the Pleiades--R.W.] ...bear the identity
of clean or holy men, prophets. They are known only to shamans or those
who possess supernatural power. The legend says that at one time seven
meteors fell from the sky partly burying themselves in the ground. Some
shamans soon discovered them and they disappeared. The shamans found
them again in the form of seven pine trees. They used to consult with
these pine trees. Finally they became transformed into the seven
The longest version appears in this same book, as an appendix. In that version, some of the "pines" are said to have been "red cedars." In a version published by Gladys Tantaquidgeon, all of the trees were said to be "red cedars."