Abenaki Fishing Places: Some Extrapolations

native net fishing

Fishing played an important role in the lives of the Abenaki/Aln8bak within their home riverscapes,  in a multitude of interconnected ways. The anadromous and catadromous migrations of salmon, shad, alewives, herring, and eels were especially significant. The seasonal cycles, the flush of spring and the awakening of earth’s gifts, the dependable and welcome return of the fish nations, the birth of new life… all of these give witness to a recognition that engenders a careful honoring of pervasive relationships.  Most of these relationships were severed or severely compromised with the arrival of the European colonizers, bringing a culture of separation and exploitation with the building of dams, roads, and bridges, and the choking and fouling of the rivers with logging, mining, industry, and large-scale agriculture. With this calamitous interruption, the People themselves were deeply affected as well.

Though most of the fish are gone in present-day 2019, the places where these harvests of the spring’s vast arrival of swimmers (and with eels, in the autumn) occurred are still honored and celebrated. Yet while these places remain, many of them are a shadow of their former vibrant, powerful selves, overtopped with mills, dams, bridges and blasted and channelized into ill straits in the service of commerce and convenience.

Every group of Abenaki has their home river (n’sibo – my river) and every river has these places, the Sokwakiak among them. In Sokoki country along the Kwenitekw, some of the fishing places are at the Rock Dam/Rawson’s Island/Montague, Mskwamakok/Peskeompskut/Turners Falls, the Azewalad Sibo/Ashuelot River, Vernon Falls/ Great Bend/Cooper’s Point, the confluence with Wantastegok/West River at Brattleboro, and Kchi Pontekw/Bellows Falls. At these places are found a set of conditions that act to focus the fish at constricting, usually rockbound features such as falls, rapids, narrows, and channels. Accompanying these settings is the tumultuous energy of rushing, swirling, shimmering, splashing  water in full voice.

8manosek peskeompskut kwenitekw rock dam

The convergence of spirit, the elements, and resurgent prolific life – epitomized by  over-arching sky, shaped and shelving bedrock, sunlight and reflection, deep and strong currents – create a place of exchange. Spirit is able to move between worlds more readily here; the edges between the underworld of earth and water, existence on the surficial plane, and the above world of sky, blur and cross over. Things are in a state of flux, moving and mixing, intersecting. The constant change of creation is present here, closer and better accessible. This is one reason that messages of acknowledgement in the form of petroglyphs are often found at these places. These ancient representations, placed by medawlinnoak, medicine people, as they worked to seek balance with and through the presence of spirit concentrated there, continue to speak their opportune truths into the present. We see and hear them even now, carrying through the dysphoria and disturbance of the modern milieu.

The Aln8ba8dwaw8gan (Western Abenaki) word for the action of fishing is 8maw8gan, with the root being 8m- signifying “to lift.” On a pragmatic level this can be seen as a simple reference to the fish harvesting techniques of using a net, or a spear, or a hook and line. On another level it speaks of active, upward transition from one place to another.

The great waves of sustaining life that swam up the rivers and streams in Sigwan – the Spring, the “emptying or pouring out” – in the form of salmon, shad, and their kin – were and are an embodiment of this free exchange of spirit, in the very real form of cyclic return of abundant sustenance. Converging on these significant places, met there by the Aln8bak (the Abenaki people) and joined by other relations – the feeding eagles, osprey, gulls, bear, and otter –  the swimmers were lifted up – 8mawa – from the under[water]world into the surface world of the Aln8ba, at that juncture transitioning into another form for the good of the people.

The recognition of this great transformative gift would result in an outpouring of gratitude and celebration, with reciprocal honoring (giving back) to the fish people and the life-giving river waters themselves. All of this in a ritual acknowledgement of “the way it is” – the connected circles of creation, the constancy of change, and the intention to find balance in the midst of it. If these agreements were not honored, and respectful acknowledgement made in the form of ceremonial practice (song, dance, gifts, prayer, proscribed or prescribed activities), it would have to be seen as a breach of conduct. It truly was unconscionable to not do so; that this approach of reciprocal relationship worked well and sustainably for thousands of years is ample testament to its efficacy. That these same processes are breaking down around us now is a corroborating witness to the ineptitude of the mindset that replaced it.

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Rev. Ezra Stiles Visits Wantastegok, 1763

ezra stiles diary excerpt

From Rev. Ezra Stiles’ travel diary, circa 1764, recounting a visit to the confluence of the Wantastekw/West River and Kwenitekw/Connecticut River. He traveled widely and recorded faithfully. This excerpt is from a trip up from his home base in Connecticut state, to scout what became the chartered town of Wilmington, VT. Note his references to particulars: There is no underbrush. White Ash trees 100 feet to the limbs and 4-5 feet in diameter at the base.

How did this happen? Indigenous people practiced a sophisticated permaculture. A nuanced, sustainable forest management regimen – working with water, fire, topography, seasonal changes, succession. This was and is not happenstance, circumstantial, or the divine gift of god. This is demonstrable evidence of reciprocal relationship in motion, the give and take of constant creation.

Mark Bushnell at VTDigger: Uncovering Vermont’s Stone Carvings

Bellows Falls Petroglyphs 1866

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.

Read the full article in VTDigger here.

S.68 Passed In the VT Senate Today: Indigenous Peoples’ Day

S.68 passed vt senate

This afternoon (03.21.2019) S.68, “An act relating to Indigenous Peoples’ Day” passed with its third reading in the Senate chamber of the Vermont legislature. The bill will now move over to the House of Representatives for a similar consideration. Kchi wliwni – with great thanks to everyone who has been in support of this timely and worthy effort!

Three Little Indian Sisters

watso sisters blodgetts landing nh

The daughters of Louis Watso and Katherine Tahamont. The Watso family kept a shop on the shores of New Hampshire’s Lake Sunapee following the turn of the last century.

From the Ne-Do-Ba website:

Louis Watso was born about 1874 and descends from an Abenaki War Chief. He married Katherine Tahamont on 20-Jan-1893. Katherine was born 5-Jan-1878 at Odanak or upstate NY. Louis died in 1959 and Katherine died 18-May-1943. Both are buried in Claremont NH, where they spent much of their lives. This couple had three daughters that grew to adulthood;

  • Jessie born 25-Feb-1897 at Odanak, married Mr. Barton
  • Eva born 7-Jun-1899 at Odanak, married Mr. Perry
  • Mable born about 1900, Married Mr. Turner

The Watso family continues, the Abenaki continue. #respect

K8g8gwibakw: the Wintergreen, Teaberry, or Checkerberry

wintergreen-brattleboro-vt-nov

Many are familiar with this cheerful, diminutive forest creeper (Gaultheria procumbens); it’s often one of the few wild plants the average contemporary northeasterner can identify. I grew up knowing this tiny relative, taught by my grandparents about its wonderful aroma as we picked a leaf or a berry to chew on while we walked in the pine barrens and oak scrub of eastern Long Island (NY). That it was growing under pine and oak is a good reminder of its preference for acidic soils. It is a readily encountered neighbor here in Sokwakik as well, in the hills above the Kwenitekw under similar conditions.wintergreen-hinsdale-2018

The name wintergreen is easily understood: the shiny, leathery leaves are evergreen year-round and it also holds its berries through the snow. Though a little dry, the berries have the same eponymous “oil of wintergreen” flavor as the leaves. The scent of this essential oil is primarily due to methyl salicylate, which metabolizes to salicylic acid, a common non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID). This is the same compound derived from aspirin, which is acetylsalicylic acid.  As a medicinal tea, it is best known for pain relief – an analgesic  for rheumatic symptoms, headache, fever, sore throat, and various aches and pains, along with treating kidney ailments and as a blood tonic. Otherwise, leaves are used traditionally for tea as a beverage and for flavoring in cooking. The berries are, of course, an edible nibble food much of the year.

Other common names are: teaberry, for the above reasons, and also the source of the name of Clarke’s Teaberry chewing gum – another fond childhood memory associated with my grandparents; checkerberry, for the red fruit’s fancied resemblance to that of the Old World chequer tree (Sorbus torminalis), but the resemblance ends there; partridgeberry, a common name I prefer to use for Mitchella repens, which is often found in damp sites under conifers – often hemlock; and boxberry, which seems to be provoked by another awkward fancied resemblance to the European Box tree (Buxus sempervirens), which has evergreen leaves in a somewhat similar shape, but again, the resemblance ends there.

wintergreen-chesterfield-2018

The urn-shaped, downturned flowers of waxy white (sometimes pinkish) appear pendant below the leaves in June or July and mature into bright red berries (10 mm) in late summer or autumn. Often it is the berries that catch one’s eyes first. While an extensive spread of wintergreen may appear to be a collective of happily cohabiting individuals, the colony may actually be a clonal extension of a single plant, spreading by shallow rhizomes beneath the forest duff. Also, these short (5-20 cm) clumping plants are classified as a sub-shrub similar to many other members of the heath family, and not as a tender herb, due to the woody nature of the lower stems. Not all wintergreen is found under the forest canopy; they may also be found out in the open if the soil is acidic enough, and may turn a deep wine red (pigments known as anthocyanins) as a protective measure against strong sunlight.

wintergreen-wantastiquet-early-spring-2018

The Abenaki name for wintergreen is k8g8gwibakw or k8g8gowibakw. There are a couple of ways to understand the meanings, and thus the inspiration for the naming. Gordon Day gives the translation variously (keep in mind that “k” is often interchanged with “g”, especially with Day’s orthography) in his dictionary as:

  • g8g8gowibagw – a sawtoothed leaf (the wintergreen plant)
  • g8g8gowizak – little sawtoothed ones (a variant for wintergreen)
  • g8g8gw8bagwiz- little sawtooth leaf (alternate name for wintergreen)
  • g8gowibagw – a dentate leaf (a wintergreen plant)

Here, “g8g8g-” means sawtoothed or dentate, describing the leaf margin; “-owi-” creates an adverbial form, in the sawtooth way; and “-bagw” describes a leaf, and a plant by extension. And indeed the leaf is sawtoothed, although very subtly (see photos above); each marginal tooth actually has a very small hair or spine, which may suggest the root “g8wi-” also, which signifies a thorn, or pricker, or quill (as with a porcupine).

Interestingly, the Penobscot name for wintergreen is kαkάkəwipakʷ which is raven[berry]plant, from kάkαko – the word for raven. The inspiration here is that the berries serve as food for the ravens, who are also frequenting the pine-covered mountainsides. Thus, the words for wintergreen in the two closely related languages (Western and Eastern Abenaki/Penobscot) are near-homophones, but with 2 different points of origin. It is thought the raven’s name is onomatopoetic, simulating its call. It is interesting that the raven also has a sawtoothed ruff of feathers at its throat. Other languages assign ravenberry to a different plant, red bearberry being one. There are many different trails to arrive at a destination.

 

 

Mozokas: Moose Hunter Moon

bull-moose-jean-polfus

The third month of the Abenaki annual cycle – Mozokas – has begun. The new moon following Pia8dagos (second month) occurred yesterday on March 6, 2019 here in Sokwakik. In Western Abenaki, Mozokas means “moose hunter moon.” It is pronounced MOH-zoh-kahs. The word is formed polysynthetically with the combination of  the morphemes moz (moose) + ok (hunt) + as (moon).

The deep accumulation of an entire winter’s snowfall makes it easier for the snowshoed hunter to track and take the mighty eastern moose (Alces alces americana) in the uplands. The moose is tracked, with the assistance of dogs, working from winter hunting camps in the hills. Initial processing is done onsite, then carried back to camp by sled for further treatment, and eventually to the settlements in the river valleys. As the end of the winter approaches and food supplies dwindle, the people are grateful for the many gifts of the moose: meat, hide, hair, sinew, bone.

Illustration by Jean Lieppert Polfus.