First in a series from the Brattleboro Words Project YouTube channel.
Again from Sokoki Abenaki country, a line of observations drawing from the statement in the previous post, quoting Hon. Charles K. Field (who married Julia Ann Kellogg, a descended cousin of Capt. Joseph Kellogg, second commander at Fort Dummer) in The Vermont Phoenix of July 7, 1876:
The intervales and meadows at Fort Dummer, upon West River, and at the Asylum farm, were found entirely bare of forest trees. Such was the fact with all the meadows on the Connecticut River at the time of the first settlement of New England. The Indians burned them over every year, and used them for planting grounds.
Much has been stated about this practice, in general, and I need not belabor it. One quote via William Cronon’s “Changes in the Land” (1983) is probably enough to stage the subject, and is appropriate here: “Selective Indian burning thus promoted the mosaic quality of New England ecosystems, creating forests in many different stages of ecological succession. In particular, regular fires promoted what ecologists call the ‘edge effect.’ By encouraging the growth of extensive regions which resembled the boundary areas between forests and grasslands, Indians created ideal habitats for a host of wildlife species.”
More specific and with a connection to Wantastegok is another quote, from the letters of Timothy Dwight IV (1822), eighth President of Yale, and grandson of his namesake, the first commander at Fort Dummer (1724) established in what would later become Brattleboro:
A good overview of the Eastern Algonquian practice in general can be found here, in a USDA publication entitled “Wildland Burning by American Indians in Virginia” by Hutch Brown (2000).
Grounding this locally, we can now take a look at Walter Needham’s “A Book of Country Things” (1965). Walter was a lifelong Guilford, VT resident, who wrote (with co-author Barrows Mussey) a rather popular little book recounting the things he learned from his grandfather Leroy L. Bond, born in 1833. Among them was a familiarity with locating the signs of indigenous presence in the local landscape, a skill that Walter modestly claimed was the only thing at which he had become more adept than “Gramp”. In fact, he is known as one of the more active “relic hunters” in the immediate area (present-day Dummerston south to Vernon, Vermont); regrettably, his collections, for the most part, seem to have disappeared leaving only loose, vague accounts. The memories that remain, however, bear out a story of widespread, active settlement and extensive usage of the Kwenitekw and its landscape, counter to the prevailing Euro-American narrative that held (and often still holds) otherwise.
Speaking of the land management practices of the area’s original inhabitants, Needham relates: “Instead of plowing the cornfields like we do, the Indians burned them over every year. In most of the flat places where I find Indian relics, there’s a black line at one level of the soil, and under a [magnifying] glass you see it’s tiny pieces of charcoal.” Needham refers several times to this thin black line in the riverside stratigraphy.
Finally, we can pull another quote from a legacy account in the immediate area, the voluminous “A History of the Town of Northfield, Massachusetts: For 150 Years, with an Account of the Prior Occupation of the Territory by the Squakheags” by Josiah Howard Temple and George Sheldon (1875). This compilation (which must be read critically, as is the case with many period accounts) is the single best historical source for an admittedly colonized perspective on the Sokwakiak, the indigenous people who preceded the European incursion. Temple and Sheldon implicitly acknowledge the provenance of the land the settlers eagerly apportioned to themselves:
And yet, “There Are No Evidences of Indian Settlements in This Town.”
From The Vermont Phoenix (Brattleboro, VT) July 7, 1876, an excerpt of the Centennial Address given by the Hon. Charles K. Field.
The final sentence of the paragraph above, following the previous observations, demonstrates the willful, almost ludicrous, elision of Native presence by descendants of the colonizers. The very same paragraph affirms the evidence of long-term indigenous occupation and specific resource-management practices.
“The Indian’s Great Chair”
Pulling together some local references, with some further afield, and some discussion as to the significance of mountains and mountaintops to indigenous ways of being in relationship to place, especially certain mountains associated with certain landscapes. Keeping in mind the essence of indigeneity as an understanding of the people and the land as one entity, these places close to the sky have sacred significance and are often reserved for ceremony and ritual. Specific knowledge of these places may understandably not be a part of the historic record, but some hint or allusion may be found in careful readings, and connections made, and remade, by implication from comparable instances elsewhere.
The mountain we now refer to as Mount Wantastiquet (Wantastegok Wajo, 1350′) stands on the east bank of the Kwenitekw/Connecticut River opposite the mouths of the Wantastekw/West River and Kitad8gansibo/Whetstone Brook and lies in today’s towns of Hinsdale and Chesterfield, New Hampshire. Its steep forested flanks, rising abruptly on the morning side of the long river valley (over 1100′), anchor the immediate landscape and provide a ready reference point from wherever a vantage can be gained above the trees, across the many dips in the rolling terrain of the Piedmont. Likewise, it looms ahead for many miles as a landmark – upstream or down – for any paddler on the mainstem, signaling the confluence of the two rivers that inform Wantastegok. Brief mention was made of its prominence in a recent post, noting that it was characterized in some old accounts as “the Indian’s Great Chair.” The nearly identical reference is made in two local history books: The Gazetteer of Cheshire County, NH: 1736-1885 by Hamilton Child (1885) and the History of Chesterfield, Cheshire County, NH from the Incorporation of “Township Number One” by Massachusetts, in 1736, to the year 1881… by Oren Randall (1882). The former gives credit to the latter as his source. Child’s description is worth sharing.
Let’s look a little further northwest in N’dakinna, Western Abenaki country, to one of the best known of Vermont’s Green Mountains, and its third highest, the peak known as Camel’s Hump (4081′). It is probably the most easily recognized of the state’s summits for its distinctive two-humped profile (featured on the official VT Coat of Arms, the 2001 state quarter, and the conservation license plate), which is a classic demonstration of its glacial past.
“The summit is an extreme example of a roche moutonnée, literally “sheep rock,” so named by geomorphologists because of a perceived similarity to sleeping sheep. As a glacier advances, it glides over ridgetops, smoothing them over. On the lee side, a steep slope forms as ice freezes into the hillside and plucks rocks away. Thus, on Camel’s Hump, the northern flank of the mountain—the lower hump—is smoothed over, but the southern flank—the taller rock hump—forms a steep rock face.”
The singular profile of Tawapodiwajo/Camel’s Hump from the east.
The peak has had its share of names from Champlain forward, but its original Aln8baodwaw8gan/Western Abenaki name has been variously reported as – according to John C. Huden’s Indian Place Names of New England (1962) – “ta wak be dee esso wadso,” or “tahwahbodeay wadso” (wadso meaning mountain),” fancifully translated as “prudently, we make a campfire in a circle near water (and rest) at this mountain.” But a more sober, simple, and accurate explanation is attributed by Huden to Rowland Robinson as “resting place, or sit-down place, mountain.” This is found more than once in Robinson’s own prolific writings, in one case within “Hunting Without a Gun, and Other Papers” (1905), in the footnotes on page 33. As a source, Dr. Gordon M. Day attests to the veracity and familiarity of Robinson with the Abenaki language, which he had heard for himself in the late 19th century from Native speakers, in his brief essay “Ethnology in the Works of Rowland E. Robinson.” Walter Hill Crockett cites Robinson’s place names as well, in his “Vermont, the Green Mountain State” (1921).
Day’s Western Abenaki Dictionary Volume II (1994) gives “dawabodi” (or “tawapodi”) as “something one sits down into; a hollow seat, can be used for a saddle.” And further, “dawaopodiiwajo” means “place to sit in mountain; saddle mountain; mountain seat; Camel’s Hump, VT.” Here, now, we see another reference to a mountain as a seat. (By the way, another Abenaki cognative for the peak, akin and antecedent to the Camel’s Hump moniker, is “moziozagan” for “moose’s shoulder or moose’s hump.”) The video below gives a good idea of the circumferential prospect from the mountain.
Going just a little further afield, at the edge of Abenaki homelands but still well within the Algonquian-speaking region of New England, we can find a couple other examples of the seat or chair usage in reference to rocky heights. Just below the Great Falls on the Kwenitekw on the southern edge of Sokwakik/Sokoki country, and at the southern terminus of the Pocumtuck Range at Wequamps/Mount Sugarloaf (read Marge Bruchac’s insightful explanation of the landscape here), there is a striking prospect of the river valley and surrounding hills from a sheer red sandstone bluff in South Deerfield. The bare ledges and strong profile form yet another landmark to orient an approaching canoe paddler on the River, or a traveler on one of the many footpaths converging at the Falls a couple miles upstream. Just under the brow, there is a lookout point known as King Philip’s Seat, referring to Pokanoket-Wampanoag sachem Metacom/King Philip. There are several legendary King Philip’s Seats in New England, and while this lookout’s toponymic genesis may not have a solid basis in fact, Metacom was indeed very much present in the area, during the intense war that bears his name, and the site meets anyone’s need for an elevated, comprehensive perspective. A mindful consideration of the mountain’s lofty vantage and its possible indigenous uses, written by area columnist Gary Sanderson, was featured in The (Greenfield) Recorder this past summer. His provocative thoughts lead us closer to the reconnections we are considering to the north at Mount Wantastiquet.
A souvenir postcard from the early 20th century and an extract from the Automobile Journal, Volume 35 (1913) promote the site’s legendary past.
One more area example can be found a little to the west in the Berkshires, in Mahican country, near the Massachusetts/New York border. Yokun Seat (2133′) is a peak in the Yokun Ridge, west of Lenox, MA and overlooking the valley of the winding Ausatenuk/Housatonic (“place beyond the mountain”) River – in Abenaki, Awasadenik, with the same meaning. The mountain’s name is explained in the Wikipedia entry for Yokun Ridge: “The name Yokun derives from Jehoiakim Yokun, a Native American of the Mahican tribe. As early as the 19th Century, Yokun’s name was applied to “Yokun Seat,” a summit of Lenox Mountain. This term was accepted by the Board of Geographic Names in 1894.” This Jehoiakim, Mahican-ized to “Yokun,” seems to have been a namesake for the community-accepted Dutch settler Jehoiakim Van Valkenburg, who moved to the area from Kinderhook, NY about 1728. It seems that Yokun’s name may have been affixed to the Berkshires peak partly as a reflection of his significant land speculation, but again, we find the word “seat” applied to the top of a mountain.
Now for a final example, much farther away and set in a distinctly different cultural and language family, but demonstrating an overlap in cultural practices: Indian Seats in the Sawnee Mountain (1963′) Preserve. Forty miles north of Atlanta, this is Northern Creek/Muscogean country; the Cherokee were very late arrivals in the late eighteenth century. Notwithstanding that, the mountain is said to be named for a Cherokee man (Saunee or Sawnee) who resided in the immediate area until he was forced to relocate far to the west, with his people, under Andrew Jackson’s Indian Removal Act. The Indian Seats themselves are described thus: “…carved in the lofty, sheer face of the mountaintop [there] are several natural depressions in the rock, legendarily used by local tribes as seats for lookouts and meditation for many centuries.” Some sources state that there is evidence of the site being used for ceremonial purposes at least as early as 2500 BCE by various Woodland cultures.
Indian Seats outlook at Sawnee Mountain Preserve, Forsyth County, Georgia
Two chapters which give some background, from an anthropological and archaeological viewpoint, about the spiritual significance of “mountaintop seats” can be found here and here: BernbaumSacredMountains. These are outside observers, but their remarks are pertinent.
Here I leave this trail up Mount Wantastiquet, and will let the mountain speak for itself, under the dome of the sky and encircled by the horizon.
Those who come afterward to these places, unaware, or arriving after the stories have been hidden, altered, suppressed, or rewritten, may not see what is present. Perhaps their perception is simply lacking, or more likely, has been co-opted by another way of being in the world, the way of separation and objectification. This lack of individual or systemic awareness does not mean these other, original ways are displaced or irrelevant. Those possibilities persist, seeking only acknowledgement and reciprocity from those who seek to be present.
Edward Augustus Kendall, “Travels Through the Northern Part of the United States, in the Years 1807 and 1808,” Vol. 3, 1809, p. 207.
It’s time to begin a concerted effort to post markers from the many story trails I am tracing, some faint, some bold, as a part of the project I call “Reclaiming Wantastegok.” Some are drawn from the (often scant) written European record, others are extrapolated from the land itself. This an exercise in, as Lisa Brooks has phrased it, “reclaiming Native space.” Stories are told, changed, omitted, discarded, forgotten, fabricated. But they are all still here, responsive to those who will listen – this is the land where they originate – they are of this landscape. Indeed, indigeneity is expressed as that which is original to a place – in fact, inseparable from it – and they are the aspects, be they human or other-than-human, that define it, with its complex relationships, as distinct.
Some of these traces may lead in several directions. Others may circle back and overlap. Still others may open up into a network of connections as yet unseen. Together, they can help to re-imagine, restore, reclaim, and revitalize what it means to “be this place.” The Sokwakiak Abenaki are the original people of this place. These understandings are for/with/of/from them – the Aln8bak, their ancestors, their allies, and all of their relations. Kchi wliwni – with great thanks. K’wlibaamkani – good travels for you.
The view downstream (SSW) from a southerly ridge of Wantastegok Wajo – one can clearly see the site of Fort Dummer, now submerged. Old accounts state that the mountain was the “Indian’s Great Chair, ” from which the comings and goings could be closely watched at a great distance.