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  • Mj Pettengill

The Book of Numbered Souls:
 #140


Daughter of the Wild, Library of Congress, Public Domain

When I discovered the 100-year-old Indian Woman buried at the Pauper Cemetery, I knew that her voice was vital.


I brought a tobacco offering when visiting her grave. Surrounded by great white pines, I would sit and reflect—inhabiting the profound silence that would guide me. I focused on the importance of authentic representation and finding the appropriate words to express what was lost.

From this unearthing, I explored my own Abenaki roots, visiting medicine caves known only to a few, and living outdoors for several months on a solitary lake in the wild with no luxuries. Unaware of previously being lost, I stepped into a world beyond doubt.

I repeatedly told myself that if she could do it, then I could as well. At the beginning of the experience, I had several moments of uncertainty. In being aligned with unexpected and infinite possibilities, I was soon blown away. How was this possible? When my days in the wild came to a close, winter was around the corner. Yet, I was reluctant to leave. I was comfortable out there, just like others who comprehend the significance of reclaiming their place in the wild. Home had new meaning, and until then, I had been unknowingly adrift.

When shifting back to a contemporary setting, one of the most difficult changes was the loss of earth beneath my feet and the sky above my head. I was shocked at how much it meant not to have a barrier between myself, Our Mother, and Father Sky. I examined how this separation affected me and wondered how much of an impact it had on humans throughout time as they navigated the so-called modern world.

I learned to love the stars even more than I thought possible. I listened to and observed the trees, made peace with spiders and clouds of mosquitoes while remaining centered and grateful in the pouring rain. I became the conductor of what seemed like a thousand frogs and a million peepers. Until then, I only thought I understood music.

Humility, grace, and honor emerged from a place that I realized I had shared with my ancestors—the ancients—and others in the collective past. Yet, like so many, I had somehow wandered away from my origins. It's easy to do when you are running to keep up.

In this story, her birth name is Nanatasis, which means hummingbird or muted one. She is a silent, wise Abenaki elder. Her compelling narrative weaves an extraordinary tapestry of reflections, dreams, and memories.

She expresses her rich spirit through music, playing a spruce flute, hand-carved by her husband. As it was customary during that time, and to blend in with her new world, culture, and society, Nanatasis would take a Christian name. I chose "Nellie Baldwin," after my own great grandmother. Some day, I may learn more about the Native names in my past. They intended to erase their trail. It was about survival. So, if I don't, I say bravo for doing such a good job protecting yourselves. It means different things to different people.

The name of the woman who inspired this narrative is Mrs. Lewis, and she was from Maine. I took the liberty of writing fiction to bend, bringing me back to my own Native roots from Northern Vermont and Canada. This was an opportunity that I could not miss. Of course, had this remained a work of non-fiction, I would have strictly adhered to the historical data on hand. Although the fictional character migrated from Northern Vermont to New Hampshire, the details are thoroughly researched, offering a clear view of what could have been.

Her story reaches back one hundred years before 1872, to her childhood and the shores of Bitawbagok (Lake Champlain), where her people fished, hunted, and lived quietly in the woods. She takes us on a journey, sharing insight that led to her being a true medicine woman and midwife. This was vital in surviving the severe conditions at the poor farm. Through wildcrafting, natural healing, and nurturing, she offers wisdom, exemplifying her earth connection and Abenaki customs.

The profound opportunity to know Nanatasis—Nellie Baldwin—and the 100-year-old Indian Woman buried at the pauper cemetery had presented itself. She stood waiting in my doorway, which is often ajar. I invited her in and still carry her with me. I am that woman in the woods—Daughter of the Wild.


Nellie is a narrator in the first book and maintains a strong presence throughout the entire series.

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