Abenaki Heritage Weekend Celebrates Tribe’s History and Culture

Vermont Public Radio’s Alex Keefe picked up the story of last weekend’s celebration at the Lake Champlain Maritime Museum in Vergennes, VT. A wonderful time was had by all in attendance: the people are the culture.

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Red Pine I

A mature grove of red pine, pasaakw, thriving atop Black Mountain in Dummerston, Vermont.

Written history tells us that when the British first ventured up the Kwanitekw in the early 1700s, they found a glorious stand of yellow pine covering K’tsi Mskodak, the Great Meadows of Putney, Vermont. George Sheldon’s History of Northfield (MA) recounts “The Indians had not burnt over the country above West River; and the meadows in Putney and vicinity were covered with a magnificent growth of yellow pines.”  This fertile floodplain, encompassing 500 acres of well-drained sandy loam, projects eastward toward New Hampshire nearly a mile, with the Connecticut River sweeping in a broad arc around its fertile expanse. Today, we think of yellow pine as a group of North American species found from the mid-Atlantic states southward. Consequently, this description seems completely incongruous – until we recognize the intricate and evolving bond between a language and a people.

red pine bark pinus resinosa pasaakw

Red pine derives its common name from the more or less reddish cast to its loose, flaky bark, often with more color toward the top or crown.

It turns out that “yellow pine” was the eighteenth-century British settler’s vernacular for the red pine, Pinus resinosa; a web search turns up the fact that Northern Yellow Pine is, in fact, a term still used for salvaged, antique red pine which had been harvested back in those days. Red pine is notably denser and thus harder than its more common cousin white pine, and was used for flooring and shipbuilding extensively; early on, it was eagerly sought out by the white settlers and then, in keeping with colonial attitudes, clearcut. The stand at K’tsi Mskodak certainly caught the attention of the merchants in New London, Connecticut, already a well-established center for shipbuilding. In 1732, a party of seventy men was sent upriver to cut the tall, arrow-straight pines for the use of the King’s Navy – it was British law that all such trees were Royal property. Accounts indicate that the trees were cut and floated down the river continuing into the following year. Save for Massachusetts’ frontier outpost 16 miles downriver at Fort Dummer (at the south edge of what is now Brattleboro, Vermont), this was an exceedingly rare venture into the northern unknown by the English interlopers.

As one digs deeper into the national character of the Americans, one sees that they have sought the value of everything in this world only in the answer to this single question: how much money will it bring in?

Alexis de Tocqueville 1831

On the other hand, the native people, the Abenakiak,  knew this place and its grove of trees well. In the Western Abenaki language, this stalwart of the forest was called “pasaakw” – pah-sah-ah-kwah – with two morphemes, pasa + akw combining in prototypical Algonquian polysynthetic style. The suffix -akw is seen often in the naming of trees, meaning a rigid object, or perhaps more specifically in this instance, a “woody stem.” The prefix pasa- is a bit trickier: it seems to translate loosely as “swollen.” To bolster that approximation, the more common descriptive prefix psa- means “to be full of.” This generates a compounded word that means “swollen tree” or “tree full of” and conjures the meaning behind the naming. My thanks – wlioni! – to Jesse Bruchac for his help in extracting the origins of this word; I will be citing his insight often.

In Red Pine II, we will look at the relationship between these two original inhabitants of N’dakinna, the land of the Sokwaki, the southernmost band of Abenakiak. Whence the name pasaakw? How did these two relate to one another? How did the coming of the new people impact this affinity? What was the nature of this divide?