In this production, S8gm8 Roger Longtoe Sheehan speaks about the Abenaki relationship with the land and rivers of Ndakinna, and how these interactions take place within their worldview. The interview took place in June, 2018 at the Abenaki Heritage Weekend annual event at Lake Champlain Maritime Museum. By request of Vera Longtoe Sheehan, a co-producer of the film, I contributed some still photography from Kchi Pontekw/Bellows Falls, VT for the video.
Note: Mark Bushnell is a Vermont journalist and historian. He is the author of “Hidden History of Vermont” and “It Happened in Vermont.” Mark called me for comments as he was putting this VTDigger column together.
When Rev. David McClure of Dartmouth College ventured down the Connecticut River to Bellows Falls in 1789, he was on a scientific mission. As a natural philosopher – what we might today call a scientist – McClure was interested in stone carvings he had heard about from a local man. The carvings, cut into an outcropping on the Vermont side of the river, depicted a series of faces.
“The figures have the appearance of great antiquity,” McClure wrote, noting that the British colonists who first settled the area a half-century earlier had observed them. The faces were life-sized images consisting of a simple oval with markings for eyes, nose, mouth and perhaps ears, McClure wrote. Some had lines sticking out of their heads that various observers have taken to be feathers, horns or rays.
McClure’s was apparently the first written account of the carved rocks, which have been described as the oldest pieces of art in Vermont. How old? Though experts agree the carvings were made by Native Americans, they are unwilling to ascribe a specific date, or even era, to the petroglyphs, which literally means “stone carvings.” They could be anywhere from 300 to 3,000 years old.
The written observations of McClure and subsequent visitors during the 19th and early 20th centuries are invaluable because they offer a snapshot of these artifacts, which have been changing over time. If descriptions of the petroglyphs have varied since McClure’s visit, so too have the interpretations of their meaning.
A historical plaque at Bellows Falls claims “Here first canal in United States was built in 1802”; more accurately, it may hold the title of “the oldest canal in the US still used industrially.” A British-owned company, the Bellows Falls Canal Company, was chartered to make the Connecticut River navigable in 1791. It spent 10 years building nine locks and a dam to bypass the 52 foot high Great Falls; the canal was completed in 1802. The first bridge across the Connecticut River anywhere on its course was constructed by Col. Enoch Hale in 1785, crossing exactly at this narrow, deep chasm, from Bellows Falls, VT to Walpole, NH.
The book quoted above was published in 1807, as a compilation by D. R. Preston of scenic descriptions by a number of well-traveled contributors. It is quite possible the above entries describing the Great Falls were written previous to the opening of the canal in 1802, which would have drastically impacted the water volume and dramatic impact of the cascade in the gorge.
Alex Stradling and Mike Smith had an idea to raise community involvement in Bellows Falls.
The two run the local television station, Falls Area Community TV, Stradling as the stations executive director and Smith as the board’s president. FACT TV teaches young and old alike how to work in the broadcast industry. The station also films local town events like Select Board meetings. Lately, however, the station has been branching out into entertainment-based shows. From religion talk shows to news, to shows examining horror, FACT TV is expanding its brand.
In November, the station debuted a fictional series. “Strange Events at the Vilas Bridge,” is a roughly 49-minute show that feels like a small movie. Only the first episode has been produced and aired, but Stradling hopes to film the next episode in spring.
Stradling said the station worked together to pair experienced actors and crews with beginners.
The first episode stars four teenagers who work together to uncover the Vilas Bridge’s supernatural past. The episode has teenagers and adults working all aspects of the production.
Thoughts: This is rather disquieting… a new pilot production at Bellows Falls’ FACT TV brings Abenaki mystical mish-mash into the plot of its local supernatural suspense drama. I have doubts about the helpfulness of this approach… At 35 minutes in, the dialogue is pretty bizarre.
Robert McBride’s Everyday People video series on FACT – Falls Area Community TV – featured a recent episode with personnel from VTrans and the VT Dept. of Historic Preservation, along with guests who had an interest in the proceedings. The crew was in town to document and map the Vilas Bridge and the ancient petroglyph site at Kchi Pontekw on the Kwenitekw, using newly acquired LiDAR equipment. A non-intrusive technology, LiDAR uses a rapid, rotating laser sending and receiving unit to record a highly detailed 3D image of terrain, objects, and surfaces. This record can then be used for reference and analysis. With the possibility of a future repair or removal of the deteriorating Vilas Bridge (owned by the state of New Hampshire, and now closed), it is important to record the current situation so that proper care can be taken as plans may be developed. For indigenous people, respectful protection of the sacred ancestral rock carvings above the falls are of special concern. Several people were in attendance to oversee the work on September 22, 2017; the Brattleboro Reformer covered the story that day as well.
One cannot care about that of which you are ignorant.
Charity begins at home.
Education, awareness, understanding. #respect#indigenous
State officials saw in the Vilas Bridge and nearby petroglyphs an opportunity to try out their latest gadget.
“LiDAR,” Vermont State Archaeologist Jess Robinson said, referring to a terrestrial Light Detection and Ranging unit, “creates very detailed three-dimensional models. This is becoming very popular in archeology as a form of virtual curation; to preserve things in three dimensions and in real space and be able to broadcast them when the actual artifacts or, in this case, the petroglyphs are not available to people.”
Last Thursday, the Vermont Division for Historic Preservation and the Agency of Transportation tested out the equipment specifically purchased for documenting the Vilas Bridge. One of the officials had suggested scanning the petroglyphs to get “a very detailed record of them at this point of time,” said Robinson.
Eva McKend of Burlington’s WCAX Channel 3 News spoke with Vermont State Archaeologist Jess Robinson about the significance of petroglyph sites in Vermont, and specifically the fledgling effort to conserve those at Wantestegok – the West River in Brattleboro. Click on the first link for the video interview.