Native Americans’ Report Reveals History of ‘Cultural Genocide’ in Maine

An article in the Bangor Daily News sums up the final report of the Maine Wabanaki-State Child Welfare Truth & Reconciliation Commission. The five-member panel “gathered more than 160 statements from 13 focus groups in Maine” in their two years of work. Their final report, presented June 14, 2015, outlined 16 points of concern in summary of their disquieting findings.

Maine Owes the Wabanaki People Sovereignty and Respect; It’s Long Overdue

An op-ed article in the Bangor (ME) Daily News ( June 29, 2015), as a followup to the final report  of the Maine Wabanaki-State Child Welfare Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The Commission, also referred to as the Maine TRC, presented their complete findings and recommendations on Sunday, June 14.

American Beech

…Known to the Western Abenaki quite simply as the mountain tree: wajoimizi, from wajo (mountain) + i (connector) + mizi (tree). The moist, well-drained slopes of eastern North America are where you will find the American Beech, an unmistakably familiar inhabitant of the forest. No other tree has bark so smooth and imposing.  Its preference for rich soil was an indicator to early settlers of fertile ground but by the same token, its hard, heavy, tough wood meant a large beech was often left standing, being too difficult to work into lumber.

Wajoimizi is a stalwart, handsome member of the northeastern climax community; its sleek gray muscled trunks rise, twist, and spread into a fine-twigged crown. Though quite tolerant of shade itself, very little grows beneath its broad canopy other than perhaps its own slender offspring, since the beech will spread through root sprouts as well as reseeding with its bristly nuts. Beechnuts are an important food to the woodland creatures that travel beneath its shelter; turkey, bear, squirrel, deer, and grouse enjoy the bountiful crops that fall every autumn after frost. They were perfectly edible for the Aln8bak as well. Sometimes tracking a four-footed harvester to its cache or collecting them from the leaf litter, the Sokwakiak would gather them for winter storage, pound them into flour, roast them fresh, or boil them to extract the oil – over half of the content is fat. A slow grower, a beech will not begin to bear nuts until it is 40 years old, gaining in strength ’til it reaches 60, and then producing heavy crops every 2-8 years; if it is fortunate, it may live a full life of up to three centuries. Sadly, many of today’s beeches are succumbing to bark disease and entire stands are slowly dying. But not all…

american beech wajoimizi

A simple way to estimate a tree’s age is to multiply its diameter by its specific factor, a multiplier which reflects its rate of growth. Wajoimizi, being one of the slowest growing trees of N’dakinna, has a growth factor of 6; by comparison, white oak and white pine are both a slightly faster 5 and cottonwood is a downright speedy 2. As I was circling around a river terrace above the Wantastekw the other day, scouting out the site of a proposed solar farm and thinking it may likely have been a past encampment, I came upon a giant beech in the treeline. I stopped in awe… perfectly healthy and thriving, this monarch (surrounded by its children) rose majestically from a tangle of roots, to a multi-branched trunk and vast crown, just beginning to leaf out. I came back the next day to take its measure: 144 inches around gave a diameter of 46 inches, with an estimated age of 276 years. I was stunned, again. This chief of the wajoimiziak was born around 1740; it is older than the town of Brattleboro. It may very well have seen Abenaki war parties stealing down the River to raid Fort Dummer, built just 16 years before and only 3 miles south on the Kwanitekw. What changes this ancient one has seen! Its wise spirit speaks quietly to those who will stop and listen beneath the broad arms and green cloak of centuries. Wligen – it is good.

Wantastiquet

This story strikes close. I live in Brattleboro, Vermont, in the Sokwaki homeland. It’s the largest population center in the southeast corner of the present state of Vermont. It is known for having a distinctive “personality” – a diverse, tolerant, liberal town in a liberal state. But even Brattleboro seems to have turned its back and forgotten the people that belong to this land, and, for the most part, abandoned that close relationship with this wondrous landscape.

connecticut river north at wantastiquet

Looking upriver on the Kwanitekw, the Connecticut River, with the northern end of Mount Wantastiquet to the east, and the confluence with the West River, Wantastekw, just around the bend.

If you live here, you cannot escape the fact that this border town, nestled on both sides of the “Y” formed by the meeting of the West River and the Connecticut, is dominated and defined by the steep mass of Mount Wantastiquet to the east (elevation 1351′). Rising abruptly on the far bank of the river, on the New Hampshire side, its forested flanks form a steady yet subtly shifting backdrop to the comings and goings of the brick-faced Main Street. A good deal of the 4-mile-long ridge is protected public land, which thankfully keeps it in red, white, chestnut, and scrub oak; mountain laurel; white, red, and pitch pine; and rough ledge outcroppings frequented by hawks and hikers. Its name often trips up the visitor, but it is pronounced exactly as it is spelled. For the record, the mountain has had several different monikers since European settlement: Chesterfield Mountain (after the NH town within whose borders most of its bulk lies), Rattlesnake Mountain (after the population of timber rattlers that frequented its talus slopes), West River Mountain (more on that momentarily), and the current identifier, Wantastiquet. It is gratifying that the latter name has persisted, as it is very close to the Sokoki placename for this landmark.

west river spring banks

A side channel of the West River, Wantastekw, in late spring.

The challenging spelling, of course, derives from its Abenaki origin but here the story takes a turn, as often happens with transliteration of native names. The mountain is, in fact, named after the tributary river which meets the main stem at its base, so by learning the source of the name we come to understand both features. Now called the West River (and thus the West River Mountain extrapolation), the Western Abenaki know it as Wantastekw; consequently, the long mountain which faces its confluence with the Kwanitekw is Wantastegok Wajo. We’ll work our way through the meanings… Conventional wisdom has it that “West River” is a simplification of the assumed meaning of “Wantastiquet,” usually given as “river that leads to the west.” Unfortunately, that translation is substantially off-base. Working with the original form Wantastekw, let us note the Abenaki word for “west” is ali-nkihl8t and no form of that noun appears here. More to the point, Western Abenaki linguist Jesse Bruchac has lent some clarity to the meaning of wantas- :  wan- (the root inside wantas-) can mean “forget or lost.” In this case: wantas = “a lost or misplaced thing” and tekw = flow (the ending -tekw is a commonly encountered Western Abenaki bound morpheme for “flow,” as in the moving water of a river). As an illustrative aside, it is interesting to note that wantastasid = “one who gives bad traveling directions.” Gordon Day recorded its meaning rather concisely: “literally: lost river, i.e. river on which it is easy to get lost or easy to lose the right trail.”  As for Wantastegok Wajo (the mountain itself), the -ok ending is a common bound locative suffix meaning “at the place of” and wajo is a free morpheme for “mountain.” Put it all together and we have “the mountain at the place of the lost river.” It’s not the river which is lost, but rather the unfamiliar traveler.

Also, it is fair to mention that there are a number of other citations of  the river’s original name Wantastekw being translated as “waters of the lonely way,” which hearkens much closer to the true meaning than today’s West River. And in a broader sense, a further extension of the usage of the name Wantastekw is the understanding that it was used by the Sokoki (and probably the earliest Europeans) to refer to the immediate locality we now know as Brattleboro. In this case, the proper Abenaki form would be Wantastegok, which would mean simply: “at the place of the lost river.”

west river wantastekw duskA broad reach of the lower Wantastekw at dusk. 

So then, this begs the question: why was it so easy to lose one’s way? The river served as one of the main cross trails over the mountains to Otter Creek and Bitawbakw (Lake Champlain). Following its course to the headwaters, one travels northwestward 54 miles through Windham County, passing through Wantastiquet Pond in Weston, then a corner of Windsor County, before ending in Mount Holly in Rutland County. Over the ridge to Mill Creek a couple miles and Otter Creek is a clear route north and west to the expanse of Lake Champlain. The watercourses dwindle and fork many times, and the crossover at the drainage divide of the watershed would be anyone’s guess, although the trail was probably blazed by its earliest users. Was it a more difficult route to trace than the other watery Green Mountain cross trails (among them the Black, White, and Wells Rivers)?  Maybe I’ll  try to recreate it one day… a journey made by many generations.

Ruffed Grouse

ruffed grouse pakesso abenakiKnown to many New Englanders as the partridge, the ruffed grouse is a solitary dweller in our northern woodlands, the size of a small chicken. Expertly camouflaged with its banded and speckled feathers in brown, gray, and white, it is often unseen by a passerby until it explodes into noisy flight. In the spring of the year, the male woos his mate with a courtship display, fanning his wide banded tail, flaring his eponymous neck ruff, and lifting his head crest, like a dancing warrior. But the defining nature of this performance is his drumming: standing on a favored log or stump, he beats the air with his wings, in a progressively faster thump…..thump….thump…thump..thump thump thump. The deep throbbing beat carries far through the trees and undergrowth, sounding like someone repeatedly trying to turn over an engine – very puzzling until one knows its source. These birds can still easily be found (when seen!) in the deciduous and coniferous forests of Sokoki territory. The landscape management practices of the indigenous people, the Sokwakiak – which can be termed agroecology – with controlled burning and specific forest selection, would have encouraged the varied edge habitat in which the ruffed grouse thrives. To this end, it can sometimes be seen on the edge of a roadside in the morning, picking up gravel for its gizzard and catching the early rays of the sun, or in the late afternoon, taking a dust bath. In characteristic Aln8ba8dwaw8gan fashion, the Western Abenaki name for this warrior of the woods is pakesso, the drummer. The word for drum itself is pakholigan, an instrument/tool for hitting. From Kerry Hardy’s Notes on a Lost Flute

The ubiquitous Algonquian root pok-, which indicates some kind of hitting or beating, shows up in the following [ruffed grouse] names: pahpahkahas (Natick), paupock (Narragansett), pohpohkussu (Massachusett), and pakess8 (Loup, Maliseet, and Passamaquoddy).

Arrow Hill

On a mountaintop in Surry, New Hampshire, above the Ashuelot River, a large flat boulder sits in a clearing. Pecked and hammered into the surface of the stone is the image of a curved bow, with the bowstring drawn back into a sharp V and a three-feathered arrow, aiming southeast. Below the bow is a grid of three long horizontal lines, crossed by three short vertical lines, tilting in the direction of the arrow.

Marge Bruchac  Sokoki Homeland from Monadnock: K’namitobena Sokwaki, 2006.

The origin of this provocative wonder is, by nature, uncertain. Some believe it was carved by the original people of this land – the Western Abenaki band called Sokwakiak (or their ancestors). This southernmost group of the W8benakiak, people of the Dawnland, have inhabited this New Hampshire region of mountains, rivers, and lakes for time immemorial, a part of their homeland known as N’dakinna. Others have said the image is the more recent historic work of a Surry farmer named William Mason, which seems odd at the least. Anthropologist and historian Marge Bruchac makes further reference to historian Samuel Wadsworth’s account which seems to qualify the site as pre-dating the European presence in these hills, well before Mason.

arrowhead trail spring granite runoff

Spring runoff courses down the granite bedrock of the trail.

arrowhead rock trail sign

 The last signpost to the peak.

Arrow Hill lies in the extreme southwest corner of the heavily-forested Cheshire County town of Surry, northwest of its better-known neighbor of Keene. It is a part of the Indian Arrowhead Forest Preserve, held by the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire’s Forests. The poised arrow etched into the boulder’s granite face points almost due southeast. I have heard that many hills in southwestern NH have such carvings, all directed toward a very special place, Mount Monadnock; I don’t yet know whether this is true. There is a line of sight cleared toward the prospect (although now overgrown) and in the winter you can see that singular  peak in the distance.

arrowhead rock surry monadnock sight line

The sightline to Monadnock, brushing up but still visible in winter.

There are other lines engraved in the stone to the west side, a series of straight rays, some parallel, some oblique and crossing the others. Their significance is unclear and might be a subject for further investigation. The shallow relief  of the petroglyph is difficult to photograph, so I added a few more needles of the koa (white pine) towering overhead into the grooves to clarify the shape. Another reason the outline can be a challenge to distinguish is the fact that the granite inside the bow has been partially flaked off. One would hope that this was at least the work of the freeze/thaw cycle, and not vandalism, although I fear the latter since the neighboring lines are intact with no gaps in the surrounding matrix. Several other photographs located online also show the damage,

arrowhead rock carved lines

A pattern of graven lines immediately to the west of the drawn bow with its arrow.

A quick look at the Aln8ba8dwaw8gan (Western Abenaki language) etymology of the modern place-name Monadnock: Gordon Day says that “menonadenak” translates to “smooth mountain”, and there is also some credence to the idea that it could be from “menadena” meaning “isolated mountain,” working with the root “mna” or “mena” for island. The current popular explanation is that it translates as “one that stands alone,” which is not far from the latter derivation. Joseph Laurent held that it derived from “moniadenak” or “m8nadenak,” literally “money mountain” or more figuratively “silver mountain.” This seems questionable if it is true that “moni” did not come into use until late encounters with the European currency system. Significantly, however, this Abenaki-derived name “monadnock” has become the defining geologic term for any such type of mountain, anywhere in the world: a single peak rising alone from its surrounding plain.