Destiny Kinal Interviews Delphine Montour from Linen Shroud
metis woman of 55 years
French and Seneca/Haudenosaunee (Iroquois.)
Born 1810 at Buffalo Creek
Interview conducted by Destiny Kinal, author of Linen Shroud
DK: Did the boarding school experience at the Thomas School account
for your separation from your tribe? After all, the boarding schools’ avowed
purpose was to take the Indian out of the Indian.
DM: (A long silence, then:) So we are going to play hardball? Yes! Yes! Is that what you wanted to hear?
DK: What made you walk away from your People? Was it the taking of Buffalo Creek, where you were raised, and the sale to Ogden Land Company?
DM: I hate feeling like a patsy. My People gave way under, yes, considerable pressure–we were the vanquished after all–and allowed Buffalo Creek to be sold. Our People’s honor. No wonder so many of our People could be found in Buffalo’s gutters. Regalia in tatters.
DK: Your platinum hair advertises your Dutch bloodlines. Has that been a source of embarrassment, that blazon of your metis (mixed blood) status among your Seneca People? Did that contribute to your leaving the tribe?
DM: After Thomas School, after the selling and dividing up the spoils of Buffalo Creek, my hair–my hair! (she laughs)–was just another signal that I didn’t belong. Now Mother–or Grandmother Marguerite as everyone calls her–says that she feared for my life. That after the attempt on my grandfather’s life was made (yes, my grandfather was Handsome Lake), that she wanted to “hide me away in plain sight.” And so I entered the Thomas School. They taught me all my ladylike manners and etiquette, how to set a table properly, how to conserve quince paste, the importance of white gloves…” (She bends over laughing so hard she cannot breathe.)
DK: What led you to discover the potential of the Zouave companies before the Civil War?
DM: One day at the Thomas School, I was looking through a history book and found a picture of North African elite warriors. They all had dark faces…or at least brown faces. They were said to be terrifying. I developed a fantasy life of brown-skinned people–men and women–who were fierce and unconquerable. (Her voice becomes subdued.) You will think I am delusional. But tell me: who DID start the Zouave trend? Companies fighting for both north and south adopted the costume, the ethic, the fierceness, the battle cry: Zhou! Zhou! Zhou! Zhou!
DK: You were the first to design a role and costume for women in the Zouave companies. What gave you that idea?
DM: Before the Peacemaker, both men and women were warriors among my People. A woman could be a War Chief. Their weapons were named, ancestral, legendary.
Mother understood that about me: I am a warrior. I am a hunter. I am a Wolf Tree, alone in a field maintained by fire. The hard part was convincing high-ranking white officers that a woman has a place of honor on the battlefield. The viviandiere, with her bandolier of comforting liquids–brandy, water, smelling salts, precious oils to anoint the dying, opium–filled that bill suitably.
DK: Was it a pure coincidence that you had access to cochineal for that bright red so important to the Zouave costumes?
DM: (Laughs.) Of course not! (She stage whispers:) “Do you believe in coincidence?” (Laughs again.) No it was my landlord who brought back cochineal and gave me an exclusive on it for five years. Yes, the villainous Wilhelm Shaffer who had been in Mexico for twenty years after being shunned by the Duladiers. (sotto voce) Him and his perpetual hard-on.
DK: How were you received when you travelled in Europe? Did you bill yourselves as native Americans?
DM: Yes of course. This interview is beginning to bore me a bit.
DK: I really want to know just how cynical you are. Did you do it for the notoriety? Was it a significant point of difference? Set you apart from all the other metis in Paris at the time? A chic thing? Give you cachet?
DM: Now you are teasing me. And I hope you are not baiting me. Because I will leave this interview at any time I don’t appreciate where your questioning tries to take me. An interview that started in discomfort. With the Thomas School.
DK: Did you consider staying in Paris?
DM: No I considered staying in the Cevennes Mountains. Blaise and I seriously discussed it.
We both have French Huguenot bloodlines. The bloodlines spoke to us. Bread made from chestnut flour. Silkworms being raised in everyone’s third story. Tradition. And I am a tradition glutton.
DK: What happened at the Battle of Fredericksburg that made you seek a return to your tribe?
DM: I am not going to answer that question. It’s too personal.
DK: I read the book. I WROTE the book.
DM: Hmm that’s questionable.
DK: What do you mean?
DM: Having called me out onto center stage halfway through the book, you should have known that I would have my way with you. You know what the Seneca say: A story will stalk you. And if it finds you worthy, it will come to reside in your heart.”
DK: (Nods.) Yes I was looking for a female voice on the battlefield. And you stepped out of the wings, a minor character, all dressed up and ready to go.
DM: I stalked you. So who wrote the story after all, hmm?
DK: I’m going to let that go. But tell me: Why did you think you would have to prove yourself? Didn’t you think your tribe would welcome you back?
DM: All the great stories of heroes tell the same tale. In order to go through the travails and win the prize, the heroine must transform. Yes metamorphosis again. The clanmothers gave me the terms–“you must stalk a buck and kill it yourself, skin it and make a cocoon of buckskin.” In order to do that, I had to transform myself, from a petulant spoiled European woman to a clanmother-in-training. I had a lot of catching up to do when I returned from the battlefield. And it wasn’t clear to me or any one of the clanmothers including my mother, that I would be able to do that.
DK: I’d like to take a risk and continue this interview just a bit longer. (Pause) There’s something I want to know.
DM: (Lifts one eyebrow.) You want to know about that scene on the battlefield at Gettysburg. (A long silence, the kind that the Haudenosaunee consider digestive.)
This interview is over.
Destiny Kinal’s obsession with the historical record of the eastern United States in the nineteenth century stems from her years living as a counterculturist during the late 60’s and early 70’s. Values cherished by our ancestors are being reinhabited by young people, who have analyzed the cul de sac we find ourselves in as a species, choosing a way-of-life that reamimates values lived in utopian communities over the last two hundred years, from the Sixties to the social experiments of Tolstoy, the Transcendentalists.
Her MFA from Bennington College 20 years ago, and her residencies at Saltonstall and Vermont Studio Center, gave her a powerful foundation for her life’s work writing and researching The Textile Trilogy. As a late bloomer writing literary fiction, Kinal chose to take her research into the native American presence in the nineteenth century and meld it into the research on textiles as a stand-in for European women’s work. Although little known, the influence of the matrilineal eastern tribes on the European women and their drive to secure their rights has been well documented as a positive outcome of the Contact between the two races with diametrically opposed ways-of-life.
Kinal’s novels of ideas ask, “What does the past tell us about the future? Here at the end of an era of extractive energy and exploitation, with climate change looming as a doomsday scenario, it is incumbent on the arts to act as prophet once more. Although we are stuck in a dream that is killing us, history could help us see what might be right under our noses, building on strengths we evolved with as a species–agriculture, community, craft, devotion to Mother Earth. Although we abandoned those values willy-nilly a century ago “in that vast cemetery of forgetting,” today solar, wind and water sources of energy are there to help us marry the best of modernity to a life lived sustainably.
Linen Shroud, the second novel in the Textile Trilogy, puts that vision on the ground, in the daily lives of both native American and European vibrant characters facing conundrums in their culture not dissimilar to those we are facing today.