As a boy, Joseph Bruchac learned a great deal from his Abenaki grandfather, but they never openly discussed their shared Indian heritage. “I know now that my grandfather did this because of the prejudice against Indians that his family and many other Native families in the Northeast had experienced.” But Bruchac could not deny his heritage. While listening to his grandfather’s stories, learning to love and respect nature, and imitating his grandfather’s graceful, economical movements, Bruchac assimilated his culture. During his teen years he met other Native Americans and began to take a deeper interest in his own Abenaki roots.
Bruchac first dabbled in poetry with Native American themes as a student at Cornell University, but it wasn’t until he met Chinua Achebe, a Nigerian novelist, that Bruchac’s Native American immersion began. “He is one of my greatest inspirations and dearest mentors. I taught his books when I was a volunteer teacher in Ghana [West Africa] and I have tried to follow his example—portraying my own Native people honestly, using stories as a source of inspiration, countering the bad images other writers have created in the past.”
Bruchac has published numerous award-winning picture books, poems, plays, short stories, and novels for children and young adults. Many of his stories come from the rich storytelling tradition of his Abenaki ancestors or their history. Bruchac just completed a novel about a raid on an Abenaki village in 1759 during the French and Indian War. “You’ll find it and the Abenaki people described in a very biased—even racist—way in the ‘classic’ novel Northwest Passage by Kenneth Roberts. . .I’m approaching the story from the point of view of an Abenaki boy whose mother and sisters are taken captive by the white soldiers.”
Sometimes Bruchac’s ideas come to him in dreams, as with the upcoming Skeleton Man(HarperCollins, 2001), based on an Abenaki monster story. Eagle Song (Dial, 1997) andHeart of a Chief (Dial, 1998) were written because children at various Native schools suggested he “write a book about us as we are now.” Other books started as suggestions from Bruchac’s editors. One editor requested a how-to book on storytelling; Tell Me a Tale (Harcourt, 1997) is the result. Another editor wanted a book on plays adapted from Native American stories and Pushing Up the Sky (Dial, 2000) was born.
When an editor suggested he write Sacajawea’s story, Bruchac read all twelve volumes of Lewis and Clark’s journals and more than 100 related books. He traveled hundreds of miles of Lewis and Clark’s route, and corresponded with present-day relatives of Sacajawea and other Shoshones. Sacajawea (Harcourt, 2000) blends history with a personal look at the heroine herself.
As Bruchac begins to create a fictional character, he hears and sees that character. But his involvement goes beyond that. “I feel as if that person is making their own decisions and I’m just taking notes! I often don’t know what my characters will do until they have done it.” Young Hunter and Rabbit Stick from Dawn Land (Fulcrum, 1993) are Bruchac’s favorite characters because they remind him of the close relationship he had with his own grandfather.
Bruchac considers himself “a writer whose work is sometimes (or often) written for younger readers.” He’s a disciplined worker, typically writing a few hours each morning. When writing a novel, he tries to create at least three to five new pages a day, plus edit previous pages. Bruchac has previously taught creative writing and African literature at Skidmore College, edited and published the Greenfield Review, taught creative writing to inmates of Comstock Prison, and coached wrestling. Currently, he makes time for oral storytelling, performing with The Dawnland Singers (a musical group featuring Bruchac, his sister, and his two sons), and preserving the Abenaki culture, language, skills, and crafts. His home in the Adirondack foothills of Greenfield Center, New York is the very one in which he grew up. His roots are deep and he’s developed a strong sense of himself that pervades his work. “I truly love the life I’ve chosen, though in many ways it is a life that has chosen me.”