The River In Us

I was asked by someone recently what is it that makes the Kwenitekw, n’sibo, our river, sacred. Is it the traditional fishing places? Is it the burials of the ancestors? What follows is my reply:

Thank you for asking; these are understandings that are foundational and go below the surface of things. I hope we have a chance to speak together again some day, for it is simpler to express these things in person. But I will share a few things:
  • It is important to remember that words have power and they derive from our worldview, which is expressed in the cultural tool we call language. There are many languages, and many ways of seeing the world. They differ dramatically, and the use of a word, or concept, can mean very different things to different people. Thus, “sacred.” When speaking of Abenaki cultural concepts, one cannot look at it through a Western religious lens. The dictionary definitions that fit “sacred” best are (from Merriam-Webster): 1) entitled to reverence and respect and 2) highly valued and important, as in “a sacred responsibility.” It is not a religious designation, but rather a spiritual recognition.
  • So, with regard to your questions of the river’s significance regarding fishing locations or burial grounds, the answer is yes, all of that, and much more. The reason being that we are all related, all equally significant, and part of the same great circle of Creation. Time does not exist in a linear sense, but is a continuum, constantly changing but all part of the same. Thus, we as human beings (in common with, say, plant beings, fish beings, stone beings, wind beings) have a ongoing responsibility to honor these relationships. We cannot act to harm the River, as it is as deserving of respect as anyone else, and in fact, we derive our very life from it – it would be very shortsighted to do otherwise..
  • As indigenous people (defined as the original people of a distinct place), we so identify with our homelands that we see ourselves as part of it, inseparable and continuous. For example, when an Abenaki person identifies him- or herself, they would not say “My name is so-and-so and I live in Brattleboro.” They would state “… I am Brattleboro.” Consequently, one’s attitudes and actions toward the River, are as unto one’s very self and one’s family, because it is exactly that. We (most of us!) consider human life to be sacred. So is the river.
  • You have heard the expression, especially this past year with the action at Standing Rock, that “Water Is Life.” This plays out clearly in the Abenaki language, which by nature embodies its cultural worldview. Let me explain that, in a Native sense, the well-known term “medicine” means anything that promotes or sustains health and vitality – this makes complete sense, but in our Western way of thinking it has been separated and limited into a drug that addresses (often only symptomatically) sickness. It has got the relationship backwards and misses most of the bigger picture of the interconnectedness of life. The word for water in Abenaki is “nebi”; the word for medicine in Abenaki is “nebizon.” So, you can see, that water is at the heart of life. The River is our great provider, for which we can only be grateful.
  • To learn that burials are often at the edge of the River is no coincidence. I don’t think I even need to explain that one! It is a place where strong connections have always been made, and where they can be accessed over and over. We go there to pay our respects to our ancestors, to say thank you to the water, and to pray for the same blessings for the generations to come. It is our “church.” There are certainly other places that are important as well, but the River is at the heart of them all. It unifies and connects – think in terms of a watershed – a flowing cradle, a web, an endless cycle enveloping the people.
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In the Center of Everything

Tiokasin Ghosthorse was setting the scene for a story at a gathering which I joined this past winter. He recounted a little nondescript location far away, a place which is usually characterized as being “in the middle of nowhere.” But he turned that dismissal in upon itself, and stated that it was “in the center of everything.” It was an illuminating moment, demonstrating the power of words. It has taken root and stayed with me. Language, worldview, perspective, experience – these things matter, everything matters.

Rather than making a zero-sum equation, a calculation of worth, and finding it of little or no value – objectifying, a characteristic of an English-speaking worldview, noun-based and categorical – this place was seen as a core participant in the narration of what was occurring. It was in relationship. It is a very different way of experiencing a moment as part of a whole. It is “being in” rather than “looking at.” The difference between a point on a line / a separation of otherness, and an infinite web of connection in an expanding universe.

Asleep Rather Than Dead

alyssa hinton art transformation

I visited a reception for indigenous artist Alyssa Hinton (Tuscarora-Osage) yesterday, at the C X Silver Gallery in West Brattleboro, VT. We had a cheerful conversation about her artistic journey of discovery, first through intuition and then traditional knowledge – her focus being on her southeastern roots, but finding commonality with other native, earth-based cultures. One thing was clear through our exchange: the truth that traditional understandings are not destroyed, missing, or lost. All of this knowledge, these relationships, “ways of seeing,” are still here and still accessible to those who seek them. A Chadwick Allen quote from the exhibit program (using indigenous earthworks as its particular reference point) makes the point well:

“…like other Indigenous writing systems, they assert, earthworks and their encoded knowledge have been ‘asleep’ rather than ‘dead.’ Dormant but alive, they have waited to be awakened by descendants of their makers finally free to re-approach and even to remake them, finally freed of the psychological fetters of an internalized colonialism that has undervalued Indigenous technologies and ways of knowing. Earthworks have been waiting, they assert, for old scripts to be reactivated, for new scripts to be written and performed. A time of waiting appears near an end, near the beginning of a new cycle. That time of new beginning is now.” Chadwick Allen, University of Washington

The significance of this reality here in N’dakinna becomes more clear, and more affirming, each day.

Living in the Ancient-Present (with thanks)

By Carmen Hathaway, Abenaki artist – As Above, So Below

I received an email yesterday, through the Five College Native American listserv, sent out by Professor Lisa Brooks  (Chair of the Five College Native American and Indigenous Studies Program). Included was an invitation to celebrate the work of the graduating seniors in the program. The dissertation work of Malinda Labriola was to be featured: “Living in the Ancient-Present: An exploration and application of Native American creations narratives and oral traditions.”

Living in the Ancient-Present. It stopped me in my tracks and it caught in my throat. It drifted up silently from a familiar place and looked me in the eye. It said nothing, in volumes, over and over again.

This is the place I find myself. This is the place that found me. I had no choice. It was not mine to choose. It was mine to listen…

I am drawn to John Trudell’s posthumous gift Time Dreams:

Straight talk
With ancestor memories
Free without judgment
Answers to questions
And feelings
Dream time
Is part of our pulse
Memories in the shapes
Of life
We are a part of that
The breath part

Our memories
Come from the earth
And return to the earth
In the reunion
Our pulse comes from the sky
And returns to the sky.

*****

It is all here. We are a part of it, we are what was and will be. It is a great responsibility, it is an honor and a gift. We are given some understanding, we are told a story. We try to listen closely, and put it in a safe place, to ponder and to safekeep. We learn, we know what is the right thing to do – it has always been this way –  we remember. It is good to celebrate the breath, the wind, the spirit. It is all here. We are here. Together, in the Ancient-Present.

N’mikwaldam. Pamgisgak.

 

 

Christi Belcourt and Isaac Murdoch: Serpents & Thunderbirds

christi-belcourt-isaac-murdoch-serpent-thunderbird-art

A fundraiser from Christi and Isaac‘s Facebook profiles, two insightful and committed Native artists and activists.

48 Hour Auction! Ends Saturday March 4 at 9 pm ET. Winner gets both canvases!

Title: Serpents and Thunderbirds
By Isaac Murdoch and myself.
Two canvases make up this piece, each canvas is 12″ x 16″. Acrylic on Canvas.
Isaac’s painting of the serpent tells a tale of long ago. My painting is of the Thunderbird as it governs the night skies. The Serpent and Thunderbird keep the world in balance.

Happy bidding!

*****

An insightful juxtapostion to keep in mind, relative to the West River…