It's time. I'm moving Sir William Johnson and the Iroquois out of my writing Cave and up to a new library room we've created on the top level of my house. This is shifting the fulcrum of my life in an interesting way. Let me explain.
When I moved to a farm in upstate New York on the edge of Mohawk country in the mid-1980s, I started dreaming of people of an earlier time. I dreamed of a powerful white man, who sometimes appeared in the clothes of a colonial gentleman, or a redcoat general, or in the skins and feathers and fetishes of a native chief. Through the operations of a shelf elf in a used bookstore, I came to know his identity. He was Sir William Johnson (1715-1774), an Anglo-Irishman who came to the province of New York in search of fortune and adventure, and stayed on to rule a vast frontier domain in the style of a tribal king.
I not only dreamed of Johnson; I dreamed of people who were central to his life dramas. I dreamed of a "woman of power" who became Mother of the Wolf Clan of the Mohawk nation, and is known to history as the grandmother of Molly Brant, the only woman who managed to tame Billy Johnson, with his raging appetite for life. I dreamed of a sorcerer who tried to raise ghosts to attack Johnson, and of a white conniver who sabotaged Johnson's efforts to set a curb to the theft of Indian land by westward-teeming settlers and speculators.
I became so immersed in these dramas of an earlier time that I found them playing out around me, in my interaction with contemporary people. I felt driven to learn everything I could about my dream character and his world. I ransacked archives in Ottawa and New York; I walked the scenes of Johnson's childhood in Ireland; I studied Mohawk - which he spoke fluently - with native speakers on native land along the Canadian border. I gathered a personal library of books including the 14 volumes of the Sir William Johnson Papers and the 73 volumes of the Jesuit Relations, the records of the blackrobe missionaries from North America's first frontier. Night after night, in visionary journeys, I traveled in Johnson's world. I saw, close up, each episode in the Battle of Lake George (1755) in which he led a ragtag force of militia and his Mohawk warriors into victory against French professionals. I saw where and how he bedded his women, an what happened at war feasts where the killing frenzy of bear or wolf and angry ghosts was called into Mohawks who were going into battle.
I knew that my fortunes and those of Johnson were linked, in a way I declined to explain according to any hand-me-down model. But enough is enough. We must live into our own times. So I began to set a boundary between my life and Johnson's by writing my way through. I wrote a narrative told in the wry voice of a fictional kinsman of Johnson's who enters his world, and that of the Mohawk, in the violent era of the Pontiac "rebellion". This was titled Fire Along the Sky, and in the second edition - now available in a handsome trade paperback edition from SUNY Press - the narrator's phallocentric assumptions are balanced by the mocking but also highly intuitive reflections of a brilliant woman, a lover from his later life.
I gave a one-man performance as Johnson and spoke for ninety minutes in front of an audience of 600 in Johnstown, the city he founded, about "my" life, loves and Indian intrigues. This was a grand evening, but a backward step in terms of effecting a separation of identities! I tried to go away and do other things, but my dreams and the play of synchronicity kept calling me back. So I wrote two more books in which my "far memory" (to borrow Joan Grant's phrase) and years of historical research were masked as fiction: The Firekeeper and The Interpreter. Later in Dreamways of the Iroquois, I offered my version of the shamanic dream practices of the First Peoples that Johnson came to know so well, and of the ancient clanmother who seemed to be calling me in my own dreams.
Why was I drawn into Johnson's life? Why (to come at it the other way) was he drawn to me? Proximity and affinity are both relevant. I moved my home to his part of the world. I also acknowledge that, for good and bad, we have some character traits in common, and perhaps even a distant blood connection in Ireland.
We are likely to learn more about the lessons and precedents of a certain "past" life experience when our current life choices and travels bring us closer to the themes of that time.
We are permitted to see more of our counterparts in our soul families as we grow in the ability to understand and integrate these connections without being swamped by them. When I had worked my way through the Johnson connection to a sufficient degree, I had a night vision in which I found myself in a hall of mirrors where I was able to look at 14 different selves - including Johnson and my present self - in 14 different mirrors, arranged around a reflecting pool where I saw what I believe to be the central self of these connected lives.
We must live into our own time and understand that both past and future are created, in a certain sense, in this moment - and can be changed.
Now I'll return to carting books up the stairs. There is room for 2,000 books on the new library shelves; already they are nearly full.
Oh-oh, and just as I gather an armful of books on the Mohawk people, an email comes in from a Mohawk woman inviting me to speak to her community on a reservation near Montreal...
Portrait of William Johnson by John Wollaston (1750) in Albany Institute of History and Art