Claude Clayton “Bud” Smith ’66, professor emeritus of English at Ohio Northern University, is an author who throughout his career has worked behind the scenes to bring Native Siberian creative writing to an English-speaking audience and to promote global indigenous literature. In that spirit, before Smith’s story starts, he recommends we tune in to the PBS premiere of N. Scott Momaday: Words From a Bear, on Nov 18.
Smith’s connection with N. Scott Momaday is personal. In 2016, Smith co-edited and translated Meditations After the Bear Feast, a collection of poems exchanged between Momaday, a Kiowa writer and the defining voice of the Native American Renaissance in American Literature, and Yuri Vaella, a writer, reindeer herder, and political activist of the Forest Nenets people in western Siberia. But Meditations After the Bear Feast nearly did not see print. How did Smith, a descendant of one of the founders of Hartford, Conn., on his father’s side and an immigrant Czech on his mother’s—who does not speak Russian or any native languages—become the critical player in bringing Meditations to publication? According to Smith, the story begins where it does for every writer, in his childhood backyard.
Smith grew up a 45-minute drive from Wesleyan, in Stratford, Conn. Despite the erasure of Native American history, Smith became aware of his hometown’s long past through local Stratford history and the stories of the Sioux man who rented fishing boats to his grandfather. He remembers that, as a child on a field trip to where the Paugussett tribe first encountered settlers in 1639, “my imagination went wild.”
By 1978 Smith had published his first book, The Stratford Devil, and begun teaching when his mother sent him an article from the Bridgeport Post that mentioned the Paugussett tribe. The tribe had just won a yearslong struggle to protect from termination their quarter-acre reservation—a small remnant of their ancestral lands and the oldest continuous reservation in the United States. The reservation happened to be three miles from where Smith grew up, and so Chief Big Eagle of the Paugussett tribe became the subject of Smith’s first book of creative nonfiction. After hours of taped interviews on the Chief’s front porch, Smith began writing the tribe’s story in the voice of the Chief. Miscommunications often arose; of one such conflict Smith said, “I was discussing the gustoweha (the chief’s headdress), which has antlers. The Chief had evidently led quite a love life, marrying four times, and so when discussing the headdress I commented, in the Chief’s voice, something to the effect that, ‘the antlers remind me of myself as a young buck.’ The Chief fumed, and I changed the line to, ‘reminds me of the deer, a noble animal.'” Through the Chief’s editing of his drafts, Smith learned how to write in another’s voice, a skill that would serve him well in his translating work later. The book, Quarter-Acre of Heartache, was published in 1985, a first-person account from the perspective of the Chief, and today, when Smith reads the quotes on the novel’s rear jacket, “half are the Chief’s actual words, half are mine. I’d so absorbed his voice that I can’t now tell which is which.”