Tribe of Ishmael: celebrating the once scorned 

18th-century clan is subject of song cycle

He calls himself Ishi Ishmael. That's a pseudonym - his family didn't want to be associated with his research interest, the Tribe of Ishmael, which was called, in its time, America's "worst" family.

Ishmael fronts a Cambridge, Mass., band called The IshmaeLites. The roots-rock collective is modeled after the Tribe of Ishmael, which, according to one author, anticipated "North American dropout culture." The band's Comin' Home to Indiana tells a scarcely known tale of Midwest life.

The Tribe, a band of itinerants comprised of Scotsmen/Irishmen, Native Americans, and runaway slaves, roamed the Midwest throughout the nineteenth century. They traveled a triangular route through Indiana and Illinois, singing and dancing for townspeople along the way, staying in Indianapolis for the winter. Ishmael says photographs exist purporting to show cabins where the Ishmaels stayed as late as the 1920s, on the present-day grounds of Riley Hospital for Children.

Members of the Tribe were deemed degenerate half-breeds by the day's main street society. The flourishing eugenics movement culminated in Indiana's 1907 Sterilization Law, which targeted those considered of inferior races, including the Ishmaels. By the 1970s, the Tribe had been unearthed and proclaimed as the country's first African-American Muslim community.

Ishmael heard the story of the Tribe from his family.

"I grew up a New Englander but with this Midwestern family whose memories were all from Michigan," he said during a recent phone interview.

Ishmael was told he had an ancestor from the tribe, which was enough to pique his interest once he came of age. A 1994 book about gypsy culture referred him to a 1970s-era doctoral thesis on the Tribe of Ishmael.

"I read [that thesis] and thought, 'Wow, that would be a great thing to do,'" Ishmael said. "I got this connection, tenuous as it was. Here are these people in the crossroads of America with this story that goes back to the early days of the Midwest."

A self-described bookworm, Ishmael began reading anything he could find on the subject. While Ishmael had to search through archives and library stacks for information, a monograph published last year by the University of California Press, Inventing America's "Worst" Family: Eugenics, Islam and the Fall and Rise of the Tribe of Ishmael by Nathaniel Deutsch, is more easily accessible. The 46-year-old teacher initially intended on turning his research into a play. However, being a longtime musician (though not by trade), he ultimately structured it into a song cycle instead.

"I've played music and sung every day for 25 years," Ishmael said. "I made a vow that even if I was away from my instruments I would sing for at least five minutes (a day)."

Ishmael described Comin' Home to Indiana as an "alternative epic tracing the forgotten history of the Tribe of Ishmael." Starting with the song "Ishmael," which tells the story of the biblical Ishmael, the album is a follows the Tribe through their associations with such notable figures as Tecumseh, James Whitcomb Riley and Booth Tarkington. The track about Riley emphasizes the author's connection with Mary Alice Smith, who he immortalized in his "Little Orphan Annie." Smith, who grew up in the Tribe before being abducted, was hired to work in Riley's home when she was young. The stories Smith told to Riley eventually became the inspiration for "Little Orphan Annie."

Ishmael took a photo of Smith's grave marker, which is in Philadelphia, Ind., and included it in the CD package. He said he had to peel off a carpet of grass from the tombstone before snapping the photo.

The finale of Comin' Home to Indiana is the title track. Ishmael describes it as a "collage of allusions to other Hoosier-oriented songs and musical artists, from Cole Porter to Michael Jackson." One line claims: "One day we'll play Mecca, Indiana." That town rests halfway along one side of the triangular route the tribe traveled between Indiana and Illinois. Ishmael fully intends to make that statement a reality, though he acknowledges a tour here is on a "slow boat."

"We're trying to plan it now," he says. "We do have some interest, but we're just kind of waiting to see who's interested. My grandiose fantasy is to actually have a wagon like the Mennonites have but customized for music, and pull it for some length of road but maybe not the entire Ishmaelite triangle."

He even hopes to negotiate shows in a cornfield or two.

"We'll see what county commissioners say," Ishmael says. "And the Department of Transportation."

Ishmael claims he spent six years researching the tribe for this project.

"Even as we were recording, I would read stuff that would force me to change lyrics because I fact-checked myself," he says.

Once he had the songs, he recruited a cousin (the other noted tribe descendant), two friends and two musicians he found on Craig's List to form The IshmaeLites. Some of them were witness to Ishmael's determination to bring this story to life, including one friend who lived with him at the time he first read that doctoral thesis.

"He's lucky because he didn't have to go through the pain of creating all this," Ishmael says. "At the last minute, when we started wanting to play out, I asked him to join."

For someone who has only visited Indiana, his fascination of people who once called this state home is total.

"I just think it's a great American story," Ishmael says. "It's totally out of left field. It's got so many different threads running through it."

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