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October-ganza Day 28: New England’s Native people in Lovecraft and Lovecraftian Gaming

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October 28, 2015 by Bret Kramer (aka WinstonP)

New England’s Native Americans* in Lovecraft’s fiction

Howard Phillips Lovecraft was cognizant of the place in colonial history of the Native people, even while he fell prey the very prejudices consolidated in the aftermath of King Philip’s War.  In addition to the passing reference in the baldly xenophobic story “The Street” we quoted at the start of yesterday’s entry, he mentions the war in passing in his farcical “Ibid” (the skull of the eponymous Ibid being seized during the burning of Providence).  Among Joseph Curwen’s other dubious habits is his retaining the services of “a sullen pair of aged Narragansett Indians; the husband dumb and curiously scarred, and the wife of a very repulsive cast of countenance, probably due to a mixture of negro blood”, recalling not just forced labor of some Narragansett after the war, but also of their acceptance of escaped slaves into the tribe.

More often for Lovecraft Natives were a marker to demonstrate the age or alien nature of a place or knowledge – consider the ancient Pennacook legends mentioned in “The Whisperer in Darkness” hinting at the dark secret of the Mi-Go.  Linking some place or knowledge to Native people is used to re-enforce their potency and imply a malign nature to the reader.  Consider the magic known to the titular character in “He” which were learned from “cartain half-breed red Indians”; or Dunwich’s curious hill which saw “unhallowed rites and conclaves of the Indians, amidst which they called forbidden shapes of shadow”; or “The Thing on the Doorstep” and its erroneously identified “certain Indian relics in the north woods”, stones older than any human civilization; ditto for that unnamed island in the Miskatonic and its “curious stone altar older than the Indians” used by Keziah Mason in “The Dreams in the Witch-house”.

In the fragment “Of Evill Sorceries Done in New-England of Daemons in No Humane Shape” (revised and incorporated by Derleth into The Lurker at the Threshold) the sorcerer Richard Billington who augmented his own black magic with certain rites from a Wampanoag ‘wonder-worker’ named Misquamacus. Later Misquamacus lead a group of his fellows to tear down’s Billington’s ‘Place of Dagon‘ and seal the horrors he had called down from the stars in that place, warning the nearby English colonists not to disturb that which they had trapped their with certain signs.

(*I am leaving aside Lovecraft’s treatment of Plains Tribes (as in “The Mound”) or those in the southwest (as in “The Transition of Juan Romero”) for this discussion.  While I’ve not read it, Lovecraft is discussed in Sturgis and Oberhelman’s The Intersection of Fantasy and Native America: From H.P. Lovecraft to Leslie Marmon Silko.)

New England Native Peoples in Call of Cthulhu scenarios:

The Native people of New England have fared somewhat better in roleplaying game material, though they’ve often served a similar purpose as they did in Lovecraft – as a marker of antiquity or as a source of supernatural power.  Since I will describe how Native people are involved in the scenario below, spoilers are inevitable.

With Malice Aforethought (Adventures in Arkham Country): Perhaps no other scenario has its Native elements at the fore as this two-parter set in Arkham.  While the first section involves a murderous escape from the Arkham Sanitarium, the second part heavily features the involvement of a Native tribe invented the scenarios authors – the Misqat.  The Misqat were in part guided by the trans-human intelligence of at least one member of the Great Race and built a supernatural construct beneath Arkham.  A Native ritual involving the use of Jimson weed is key to resolving the scenario – I cannot speak to how historically accurate that portion is.

The Dark Woods (Adventures in Arkham Country): The investigators are called to an archaeological site near Dunwich where an acquaintance is convinced he has found proof of a Viking burial.  Unfortunately for the wrong-headed archaeologist has managed to hire a local man who is descended from local Native tribes who interbred with survivors of the lost Hyperborean city of Krannoria and who has gone mad seeking revenge against the many he imagines have wrong him by use of a stolen Hyperborean artifact. His schemes can be stopped more easily if the investigators gain the trust of the other Native in the area who can reveal some portion of the antagonist’s secret supernatural connection.

The Watcher in the Valley (Tales of the Miskatonic Valley): Another invented tribe – the Anakoke – were the builders of somewhat out-out-place mound on the upper Miskatonic, in order to worship of the Lloigors who linger beneath the earth there.  Centuries before, neighboring tribes banded together to exterminate the Anakoke to put a stop to their raids and kidnappings.   Much of this information is delivered via a monologue from an aged Pennacook who arrives at the dig site to warn the archaeologists against continuing their excavations. The scenario also introduces a historically plausible semi-academic organization – the Boston Society for American Indian Research – that can be possibly used as a core of a Native American-focused Lovecraft Country campaign.  When I was developing Witches’ Hollow (based on the Derleth story) I took Lovecraft’s reference in the Commonplace book entry #130 to “witches’ sabbaths and Indian powwows on a broad mound”, which inspired Derleth, and incorporated the Anakoke into the location.

A Painted Smile (Tales of the Miskatonic Valley): The mystical ‘macguffin’ of the scenario, Split Rock on  Meadow Hill, has a helpful Wampanoag custodian who provides the Native American legend about the origin of the stone’s supernatural powers.  The bulk of the scenario is focused on an unusual haunting and the Native American element serves more as a window dressing.

(I like the original cover better.)

H.P. Lovecraft’s Dunwich: Numerous mentions of the Native tribes that once lived in the Dunwich area (and based on Lovecraft’s comments about supposed Indian burial sites on the hills of Dunwich).   Among other elements are:

  • ‘Indian’ Hill
  • an NPC hunter and tracker who says he has “Indian blood” and has the skill “Indian Legends”
  • A valley (section 2) once inhabited by an Abenaki group, including a small Native burial site here that causes nightmares to any that disturb it
  • a site where a yearly visit from a Native American from New Hampshire – “the last of his tribe” – attempts to ward against the power of Mythos
  • an Native-built mound of uncertain purpose
  • an ‘Potumcock'(? Pennacock perhaps was intended?) NPC who knows a Native protection against the Whippoorwills and much “Indian lore” about the region

Let the Children Come to Me (Island of Ignorance): A grove sacred to Shub-Niggurath lays undiscovered in the woods near Aylesbury.  Centuries ago a band of Natives of no tribe worshiped the Dark Mother there until a heroic Nipmuc warrior destroyed the cult there.  The investigators can be assisted by not only his tomahawk, which is held by the Aylesbury Historical society, but by members of an (ahistorical) Nipmuc reservation to the south of Aylesbury.  The reservation presented is very much in lines with modern Native reservations in the central and western parts of the U.S., rather than New England, especially in this era.  The Nipmuc NPCs also do no reflect the naming conventions or ethnic makeup of the actual tribe in the 20th century.

Passing Mentions:

The Hills Rise Wild (H.P. Lovecraft’s Arkham): The hellish animate idol of the scenario was created by an insane Abenaki shaman, driven mad by his contact with Mythos powers and the back story references  at least some accurate Native legends (I cannot find an reference to the goaskoi in any of the sources I usually consult) are cited, though there is no way for the investigators to learn this information.

Escape from Innsmouth: Fish-head rock near Boynton Beach (I1009) was created by an unnamed Native tribe to aid in their worship of the Deep Ones and was used to summon the creatures from the depths offshore.

The Occulted Light (Before the Fall): A deep-one sorceress, dubbed ‘Sedna’ by the now-extinct Native tribe that venerated her and the Deep Ones offshore, still lingers at Skivern Rock and still appears as a Native woman sometimes to those she encounters there.  The motivating NPC for the scenario possesses a Native stone talisman depicting Mother Hydra.  (The name Sedna is actually taken from Inuit mythology.)

The Dig (Terrors from Beyond): The investigators can learn some useful information about the Dunlow Creature from the young shaman of the (as far as I can tell invented) Wammic tribe who live outside the little village of Dunlow in north central Massachusetts.

Miskatonic University: The Exhibit Museum displays a Nipmuck “ritual fetish” inscribed with characters in the Tsath-yo language.  Additionally the Native American researcher Prof. Mills, as described in the scenario “The Watcher in the Valley”, appears here as well.

The Crystal Cavern (More Adventures in Arkham Country): A tribal group known as “The People of the Fox” dwelt near Foxfield in the pre-Colonial period and worked to guard the supernatural site at the heart of the scenario.

H.P. Lovecraft’s Kingsport: A book written by Kingsport’s amateur archaeologist Morris Wheaton (sometimes spelled Morris Wheedon elsewhere) entitled Studies of the Indians of the Miskatonic Valley can be found at the Kingsport public library which details his investigations into the various Native peoples of that region.  This work appears in “The Watcher in the Valley”, which gives more information about the work.

How can we use New England’s Native Americans in Lovecraftian Gaming?

Fundamentally I would hope that Keepers and authors would treat New England’s Native Americans as people and not just as props.  Much like the 17th century witch trials, knowing the actual history rather than the superficial pop culture version of events will given the Keeper a deeper well to draw from when incorporating those historical elements and provide for a richer gaming experience.  This applies equally well to non-Native history in New England – when developing places or NPCs with some connection to the Colonial period, consider how they might been impacted from events like King Philip’s War.  Native place names offer one easy way to do this but there are my other clues that can enrich your game.

The Nipmuc called his hill Chapochaug – the place of restless spirits.  That can be bad, can it?

Why was the remote coastal hamlet of Werenotfishmen abandoned in 1712?  Historians say it was due to raiding Wabenaki during Queen Anne’s War but these letter we found in the Archives nationales du Québec suggest something much darker…

Professor Willet notes about the Mohegan of this region record several folk tales about the importance of avoiding the water from a certain spring not far from what is now Mount Haddam, saying that Moshup formed it when he tricked an unnamed serpent to dig it for him…

If you think that incorporating some element of Native American history or culture will improve a scenario, do a least some cursory research and know at least enough about the particular group – even if you are inventing a tribe or nation, look to real world examples for inspiration – and remember than what is true of the Cherokee or Ute or Snohomish might not apply in New England.  Stereotypes should definitely be avoided, if for no other reason (and there are plenty) than they are familiar and the familiar is comfortable and will therefore undermine horror:

  • New England’s native people, at least those of the 19th century and onward, almost certainly were raised speaking English (or perhaps French if we go far enough north) and should not converse in the standard pidgin of old Westerns.  Most are at least partially European in ancestry and have European names.  Many of New England’s remaining Native peoples were associated with the Praying Indian towns and are Christians.
  • Native interactions with the Mythos and their interpretation of it should be no better or worse than Europeans – there is no reason the aged Wampanoag understand the secrets of Tsathoggua than any other Mythos source.  While ‘Indian’ might have once served as shorthand for ‘mystical’, remember that this is just a version of the ‘noble savage’ myth and, at its core, is racist, no matter how benignly we might intend this separation from the rest of humanity to be.  Likewise, please avoid having who swathes of Native American religion boil down to “it was Nyarlathotep” or “they worshiped Cthulhu”.  Large scale worship of the gods of the Mythos is something we should save for when the Stars are Right.  For example – Hobamock might be how the Abenaki would interpret an encounter with Nyarlathotep but Hobamock should not always be Nyarlathotep.
  • If you are using some Native account or artifact to lend historical depth to some place or event, know roughly what a plausible source might be, how such a thing might be interpreted in that people’s cosmology, and how that information might have been passed down to the investigators.   As we can see from the above list, there are already a lot of helpful octogenarian shaman lurking about waiting for investigators to start poking into some dangerous Mythos site in order to warn them of some lurking horror.
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