The second month of the Abenaki annual cycle has begun. The new moon following Alamikos (also known as Anhaldamawikizos) occurred on February 4, 2019 here in Sokwakik. In Western Abenaki, Pia8dagos means “makes branches fall into pieces” or ‘falling in pieces branches maker.” Last night’s windstorm made the reasoning abundantly clear.
In the interests of sharing some of the insightful conversations happening here and there… A discussion of the Abenaki names for “fox” and its variants on the Western Abenaki Facebook page this past week (02.09.2019) led to a discovery about its original and expansionist range. I would like to archive that dialogue here.
How would you conjunct “red fox” as a person’s name aln8baiwi? I was thinking mkuigow8kwses
Niswak k8kwak – two porcupines.
Pazgo k8gw mkazid ta pazgo w8bigid – One black porcupine and one white.
Sipsis – pronounced seep-sees – #Abenaki for small bird
S8soseli – pronunced sohn-SOH-seh-lee #Abenaki for White Throated Sparrow
The pure, simple song of the white-throated sparrow reminds us of the conversations to be joined outside of our own minds. This was going to be a post observing #NationalBirdDay, then realized it was a rather ludicrous construct. So, I will let sparrow speak for himself.
In English, the song is often described as “Old Sam Peabody, Peabody, Peabody” or, if you are a little further north, “Oh Sweet Canada, Canada, Canada.” I grew up having been taught and hearing the “Oh Sam Peabody” mnemonic. Many small birds are now known (in Western Abenaki) simply as “sipsis” (literally small bird), with no surviving differentiation between species. But a number of specific names have persisted into the present, mostly the more common and larger individuals such as crow, robin, blue jay, eagle, and turkey. I wondered if the #Abenaki had an onomatopoetic name for this little songster, a device often employed in the language, given that the song of the white throated sparrow is so memorable. To my joy, I was able to locate it! Father Rasles gives it as “sôhsohseli” – which I might rewrite as “s8soseli” pronounced sohn-SOH-seh-lee. It is a pretty good evocation of the song.
As it usually does, this year (2018) the winter solstice in Pebonkik – the North Land – lands on December 21st, specifically at 5:23 pm in our region (EST). In our modern scientific understanding, as a detached observer with the perspective of an imaginary point in space, this the time when the North Pole of the earth, in its annual orbit of the sun, is facing farthest away from its light and warmth, due to the fixed tilt of our axis. The seasonal calendar lags behind a little, due to the earth’s great thermal mass, but on the solar cycle, this is actually Mid-Winter, and is known as such in many old cultures. As we continue our yearlong orbit, we find ourselves tipped relatively more toward the sun, lessening the ratio of night to day, until we reach the summer solstice position on or near June 21st, half an orbit and half a year away.
But now, back here in the northeast part of the continent, the approach of the winter solstice means the daylight grows scant and the nights extend their long darkness. The noonday peak of the sun’s circuit across the sky sags toward the horizon, dropping lower every day, until it slows to a virtual stop at its nadir. Here it seems to pause for a few days: in fact, the English word “solstice” derives from “sun stands still.” This is how it is experienced for a person standing in their own familiar landscape, watching the changing sky with the passing of days. Indigenous cultures have developed protocols based around these celestial and seasonal rhythms, manifesting as both practical and ceremonial, to ensure their continuity and prosperity. They are encoded in their respective spiritual belief systems, with the assurance that the diligent observance of these practices is necessary for the ongoing mutual success of both cycle and celebrant.
To a community of Abenaki people, living in a close relationship with the landscape, marking the change of seasons and understanding the implications is a matter of necessity. Planting, harvesting, hunting, fishing, material and medicine gathering, and sheltering must be anticipated, planned, and achieved, with ample provision made until the cycle comes around again. With a close awareness of the changing signs, at the appropriate times these activities are signaled and marked with traditional practices such as feasts, dances, ceremonies, songs, and stories, reminders of the importance of what is at hand.
As winter sets in, the annual circle of seasons is seen as slowing to a quiet, still place: a time for resting, reflection, and renewal. The year is made of 13 moons, the approximate number of full lunar cycles in a solar year. Each lunar month begins with the new moon, with a 29 1/2 day cycle through the full moon until the next new moon.
The old year ends with the new moon before the winter solstice. This last moon (the current one) is known as Pebonkas – Winter Maker; it may also be called Kchikizos – Great Moon (kchi=great + kizos=full moon), due to the clarity of the shining disc in the cold, clear sky. The solstice lies within this moon and signals the time when the sun stands still, low in the sky, and then begins to climb higher. This is known as “Peboniwi t8ni kizos wazwasa” – “In winter when the sun returns to the same place.” Two other names, for reasons already given, are first: “kwagwanidebokak” – “the very long night” (kwagwani=very long + debokak=when it is night) and second “n8wiponasik” – “midwinter” (n8wi=middle + pon=winter + asik=the one that is).
On these long, cold nights stories are told around the fires in the wigw8m, more so than at other times, when the longer days and warmer weather are better utilized in other pursuits. The stories entertain, teach, remind, and reinforce, important for a culture that depends on oral transmission of tradition, wisdom, and history. This is how the next generations learn who they are, from whence they have come, and how they in turn may become good ancestors of those yet to appear. Circumspectly, many of these stories are only told at this time of the year, when the subjects of the discourse are asleep and dreaming beneath the ground or ice, or caves, or gone until warmer days return. Their rest will be undisturbed, not overhearing their names and their stories being shared in the firelight within the snug bark lodges.
The next month is called “Alamikos” or “Anhaldamawikizos” – Greetings Maker or Forgiveness Moon. It is the first moon of the Abenaki annual cycle and it begins on Jan. 5th this year with its own dark phase, and has its own traditions, which we will address in another post.
A response to an article by Tom Slayton in the online Vermont magazine Seven Days today, November 1, 2018:
This article includes a classic example of the minimization of a 10,000 year-long (or longer) indigenous presence in the landscape, exemplified by characterizing cultural usage patterns as ephemeral and insubstantial. This biased historical trope is deployed typically in comparison to later European land settlement practices such as fence- and wall-bounded properties, permanent structures, commoditized agriculture, and extractive industry.
The narrative device is used so often it has become de rigueur and may not even raise an eyebrow in notice. In this case, the statement is made: “There’s no evidence that Native Americans lived on the mountain, but they may have used it as a strategic lookout.” This, in spite of the fact that the subsequent post-Contact history (to draw a fuzzy gray line) was and is exactly that as well.
Given that the Champlain Sea is estimated to have been about 450 feet above current Lake levels, Mt. Philo and a few other nearby elevations would have been islands at the time, projecting only a fraction of their mass above the surrounding brackish water. They would have been heavily utilized by the region’s first inhabitants for occupation, food processing, resource gathering, and reconnaissance. With a broad prospect over the water- and landscape, the eminence would play a significant and lasting role for the Native descendants of these first peoples. It is not hard to find evidence for this supposition. The Abenaki have their own name for the landmark: Mategwasaden – Rabbit Mountain. Immediately west, Thompson’s Point remained a significant Abenaki community well into recent times. The Point and the surrounding Lake are well-documented for archaeological significance.
With a twist of irony, the State of Vermont’s management plan for Mount Philo State Park states: “In the late 1800s, William Higbee, a Charlotte resident and journalist, wrote that Mt. Philo was named for an “Indian fighter and famous hunter” named Philo who camped on the mountain. One of the first written references to the “Devil’s Chair” [a slopeside feature] was in an 1896 article that describes a natural rock outcrop by that name.” People who are able to “read between the lines” will recognize here another common displacement trope masquerading as quaint local history: the Devil epithet is often attached to Native sacred landscape features, and a description of “chair” or “seat” will often refer to an elevated ceremonial site, used in recognition of its prominent exposure to the sweep of landscape and sky.
We are not served well by such dismissiveness.