By Eric Freedman
I rarely read a book more than once, unless it’s for a course I’m teaching. Even rarer is the book I’ll read three times — except, of course, those read aloud to my children and grandchildren. (I couldn’t count the number of times I’ve read the Little Engine that Could or Green Eggs and Ham?)
The Last Algonquin (Bloomsbury, 1982) is an exception, and I hope to read it a fourth time and a fifth in the years to come.
It’s the story of a young white boy, an elderly Algonquin Indian, the intersection of cultures and friendships and sustainable living amid a changing environment.
And although the events took place in 1924 and earlier, the memoir written by that young boy’s own son decades later still resonates as we of the 21st century wrestle with our own questions about the intersection of cultures and friendships and sustainable living amid a changing environment.
It’s the story of two dramatically different characters whose paths cross in Pelham Bay Park on Long Island Sound in New York City’s the Bronx.
One is 12-year-old Theodore Kazimiroff Sr., an adventurous and curious lover of history and archeology who grew up to become a dentist and, more relevantly, the official but unpaid historian for the borough of the Bronx.
The other is Joe Two Trees, the last member of the Algonquin nation known at the time to live in New York City, who spent most of his life — on tiny Two Trees Island in Pelham Bay. By the way, to be precise, Two Trees Island isn’t technically an island, Marianne Anderson, the administrator of Pelham Bay Park told me in an email. Rather, “it’s very accessible across a small marsh area from Twin Island. It’s basically attached to Twin Island.”
There Two Trees literally lived off the land and the waters, alone and undetected — except by the boy.
After his parents died, leaving him with no living family or known members of his tribe, he ventured away from Two Trees Island — with near-disastrous results. In the run-up to and early years of the Civil War, his forays into Manhattan, Staten Island, the coal mining country of Pennsylvania and a rural spot in the Hudson River Valley of New York were fraught with cultural clashes, vicious racially motivated attacks and betrayals.
Born in 1840, Two Trees was in his mid-80s when he met Kazimiroff Sr. “on a day that can only be called fateful,” his son Theodore L., wrote in the book. “They became friends, this oddly matched pair, and the man told his story to the young white boy.”
Ted L. wrote, “Here was a man who created an ecological balance in his surroundings long before ecology became a fashionable work. The maximum use of all things, within a framework of no waste, was something Joe did as his ancestors had for thousands of years, He lived this way, apparently, for no other reason than it made good sense.”
As could be predicted, Two Trees ultimately found the path “to the land of his ancestors,” but
that’s not the end of his story, Ted L. wrote. ”In his telling, Two Trees asked no more of my father than that he remember and retell these exploits. In that way, believed Joe, he would never be completely gone from the trails and trees of his beloved land.
“When you go to the quiet places that still remain within our steel and stone city, it is just possible that you could meet him,” Ted L. continued. “I know you won’t see him as a person, but the vee of Canada geese obeying their ancient migratory imperative, or the furtive glance of a raccoon, the blaze of a gorgeous sunset, one of these will be Joe.”
In fact, as Ted L. foretold, I did meet Joe last December — not in a Canada goose, a raccoon or a sunset but in a petroglyph carved into a small boulder now on display in the New York Botanical Garden a short distance from Two Trees Island.
It had been found along the nearby Bronx River.
On the boulder is “pecked out the life-sized likeness of a turtle” that Kazimiroff had shown his friend Ralph Solecki when it was in its original location alongside the nearby Bronx River.
“This may well have been the mark of the Turtle Clan in the story of Joe Two Trees,” Solecki wrote in a forward to the Last Algonquin.
The sign at the botanical garden describing the petroglyph makes no mention of Joe Two Trees –and that’s the way the last Algonquin would have wanted it.
You can see video clips or interviews with Theodore L. and find other material about the book here.