Power of the Pen: Powers Shares Lessons of Native Americans
Jim Powers spent nearly 40 years teaching history at Guilford High School (GHS) before he retired in 2017 to focus on his work as James T. Powers, a prolific author of local history. Now, he’s using the power of the pen to share important lessons to be learned from this area’s indigenous people.
Their fascinating history and teachings come through in his back-to-back book publications of Shadows Over Dawnland (Beacon Publishing Group, August 2021) and Earth Spirit: Ancient Wisdom, Modern Hope—Relearning Environmental Connectiveness (Moon Books, October 2021). They are Jim’s fourth and fifth published books, respectively.
“A day doesn’t go by that I miss working with kids and I miss teaching history, but I’m thankful because retiring opened up a whole new avenue of things I’ve wanted to do and never had time,” says Jim. “One of them is writing, and the other is working as a historical researcher and advisor for different organizations.”
Jim’s a member of the board of the Dudley Farm Museum in North Guilford, where the inspiration for Shadows Over Dawnland is still very visible in the museum’s Dawnland Exhibit in the Munger Barn. The exhibit, which features scores of artifacts of local Native Americans, was established in the mid-2000s by the late Gordon Fox-Running Brainerd, who shared his vast personal collection. The Quinnipiac people of Southern New England called their homeland the Dawnland. A medicine chief of the Bear Clan of the Quinnipiac Tribal Council of the Algonquian Confederacy, Brainerd passed away on April 26.
“The collection is his lifetime work,” said Jim, who worked with Brainerd when conducting archaeological digs with some of his GHS classes in the 1990s. “One of the things that has motivated me on the Board of Directors at Dudley Farm is to continue his legacy. He was adamant about making sure the story of the Quinnipiac would be brought to life, that it would be something that people would be able to understand. And I sort of picked that up with him.”
Shadows Over Dawnland is a historical fiction based on local historical events. The book is available now at Breakwater Books in Guilford and from its publisher through Jim’s website authorjtpowers.com.
“It took me a couple of years to write the book, because I wrestled with whether I should write a history, or do something more where I can bring to life the culture of the Quinnipiac people, and more importantly, the impact that the arrival of the English people had on them,” Jim explains.
Jim chose the latter. He tells the story in the voice of a shaman, who would have been the person most responsible for helping the Quinnipiac survive all of the challenges they faced with the arrival of the English, he says.
On Wednesday, Oct. 6, Jim will give a lecture on “The Quinnipiac, the First People of the Shoreline” as part of a new Historic Lecture Classes series offered by Shoreline Adult Education (SAE) partnering with the Dudley Farm Museum (register at catalog.shorelineadulted.org). In November, he’ll discuss Shadows Over Dawnland at the Guilford Keeping Society (GKS) annual meeting.
“I want to talk about the book a bit within the context of the experience of Quinnipiac people, and more specifically what happened to the Menunkatuck, which plays a big role,” says Jim of his upcoming GKS talk.
Finding a Focus
The Menunkatuck were a band of the Quinnipiac who occupied a smaller territory, or sachemdom, that later came to be Guilford.
When researching and writing the book, “...I used the names that Henry Whitfield had written down when they came and bought the land for Guilford,” Jim shares. “The main character’s name is Ponaim. He was recorded by Henry Whitfield as being a young man.”
In the story, a shaman named Ponaim, orphaned as a child after his parents and sister died from smallpox in 1633, imparts the historical experience of the Quinnipiac during the first 50 years of English colonization. Through Ponaim, Jim also shares the cultural and spiritual beliefs and practices of the Quinnipiac people, even as their way of life is nearing extinction.
While researching the book, Jim says he also encountered “one of my all-time heroes, the woman sachem of the Menunkatuck. Her name was Shaumpishuh, and she was just marvelous, as far as I’m concerned, in how she struggled to help her people.”
Jim says he would have loved to have met Shaumpishuh, who should be remembered as important local historic figure.
“She was supposedly very tall, and very large, and she had one eye. She must have magnetized people when she talked and confronted them over an issue,” he says. “She was a powerful, wonderful person, and I would love to see a statue of her on the Guilford Green, to be honest with you.”
In his latest book, Earth Spirit: Ancient Wisdom, Modern Hope, Jim hopes to help the modern world learn from the Native Americans’ successful survival despite the impacts of devastating climate events over millennia, based on a philosophy and practice of living in spiritual harmony with all things, animate and inanimate.
“If we embrace the perceptive and consciously interconnected view of all creation that has sustained indigenous people for thousands of years, we can begin a transformation that will heal our relationship with the living earth for ourselves and future generations,” Jim notes.
Jim was inspired to author the book just about a year ago and threw himself into the research and writing, completing it in a matter of months.
“It was a quick book. I was possessed. I really got focused on it. What happened was last August we had [Tropical Storm] Isaias come through, and a week later we had a really horrific series of thunderstorms and mini-tornadoes come through, and there was a lot of damage done in Connecticut,” says Jim, a Durham resident who regularly hikes the wooded trails of Durham, Madison, and North Guilford.
“Gigantic oaks and healthy trees had been knocked down, and a lot of tops of trees were twisted off, like a gardener had come through and was dead-heading flowers,” says Jim. “The amount of damage in the woods overwhelmed me. I thought, ‘Things are getting extreme here—the climate is really out of control.’”
That motivated Jim to ask “how did we get to this place as a culture, where we have so devastated the climate to the point where we’re going to be facing catastrophe? Where was the basic idea where man is separate from nature and allows us to exploit it? So I was doing a lot of research in that area, and then suddenly it dawned on me: The native people have always had a different perception. They’ve always seen themselves, even today, as a part of nature, where they consider all of nature, both animate and inanimate, actually their relative.”
Jim is also an archaeologist. He put his expertise to work to help him delve back to the time of the Ice Age and research how native people in Connecticut survived over thousands of years, despite tremendous changes in the ecology, the environment, and the climate.
He found they survived “because they saw themselves as part of nature, not separate from it,” Jim says. “So I started to write about that in the first part of the book, and the second part started to get into teachings of Native American peoples, in terms of the relationship people should have with the planet. And it also delves into a growing movement called the Spiritual Ecology Movement.”
Write What You Know
In addition to his two latest works, Jim has authored three other books. His first was Saving the Farm; A Journey through Time, Place, and Redemption about the Dudley Farm (Homebound Publications, 2013); followed by Seeing the Past; Stories on the Trail of a Yankee Millwright (Homebound Publications, 2016.)
His third book, published by the Old Saybrook Historical Society in 2020, is On the Edge of Uncertainty; The Siege and Battles of Saybrook Fort during the Pequot War, 1636-1637. He’ll give a lecture on that book topic on Wednesday, Oct. 20 in North Guilford at the Dudley Farm’s Munger Barn (register at catalog.shorelineadulted.org).
During many of his years teaching history at GHS, Jim was also able to bring archeology into his classroom—and GHS students out into the field.
“In the ‘90s, when we were given the opportunity to create all kinds of wonderful courses for kids, I did a course called ‘Local History Through Archeology,’ which was very popular and lot of fun,” he says. “We always started with local Native American populations and with doing a dig at some point, usually at one of the house museums in town.”
While he may not be commuting to teach at GHS these days, Jim still feels very connected to Guilford, he adds.
“After spending so much time there, and being so involved with the historical organizations over the years, Guilford is near and dear to my heart. And my wife’s family counseling practice is in Guilford, too,” he says.
Jim is married to Adriana Restrepo-Powers, who has a Boston Street practice.
He says he’s also grateful to have a second career that he loves, and one that’s giving him the chance to share the important history of the area’s indigenous people.
“The point is to get the story out about the people who lived here in the past for 14,000 years and how we owe so much to them in a lot of ways and don’t realize it,” he says.
For more information or to purchase books by James T. Powers, visit authorjtpowers.com. Find an expanded version of this story at Zip06.com.