Kwenitekw: The River as Constant Change

ask the river cyanotype lovett billings wasserman

A cyanotype from “Ask the River”, a community art and creative place-making project, part of an ongoing collaboration with artists Elizabeth Billings, Evie Lovett, and Andrea Wasserman. The Brattleboro Museum & Art Center will host an associated exhibit and opening event, with details here.

I am quite smitten by these cyanotype images… I must admit they convey so much more than I had previously realized was possible, not having been very familiar with the medium. The artist team of Evie, Elizabeth, and Andrea have opened my eyes with these works (thank you!); they will play a large part, on a grand scale, with the “Ask the River” project this year. The blue is a perfect agent.

I appreciate the interaction of light and dark (they co-create each other), the suggested uncertainty of “which is which?”, and the realization that it all works together to present a recorded but dynamic moment of fluid relationship. The “capture” is open-ended, fading in and out, but it is a single depiction of circumstance. Linear time is unclear, and yet it is documented – this juxtaposition did happen, in this way. The images allow metaphor, layers of possible interpretation.

Constant: 1. not changing or varying; uniform; regular; invariable 2. continuing without pause or letup; unceasing 3. regularly recurrent; continual; persistent.

Change: 1. to make the form, nature, content, future course, etc., of (something) different from what it is or from what it would be if left alone 2. to transform or convert.

This is an Abenaki view of the world, and it is the way the language – Aln8ba8dwaw8gan – works as well. A word can have more than one meaning at the same time, as with the name of the Connecticut River, Kwenitekw. On the surface, it is usually translated “Long River”, with “kweni-” being an adjectival modifier suggesting extended length, and “-tekw” being a bound suffix used for rivers, tides, and waves.

But by bringing the underlying concepts of these two morphemes – these basic root words – forward, the name Kwenitekw can evoke something much more encompassing and suggestive. “Kweni-” can also mean a “duration”, as in a continuance – a length of space/time. An ongoing, sustained moment (like the cyanotype). And “-tekw” literally means “flow” as in “water in dynamic motion” – thus, it is used for rivers, tides, and waves – but not lakes, ponds, and bays. Rather, it is water, which is the essence of life, that is moving and shifting, transitioning from one place to another – it is imbued with power.

And so, while Kwenitekw can be seen to express the “Long River” as a rather straightforward toponym, it can also describe an expansive concept, in sentence form: “a continuous, connecting flow of spirit-power in transition.” This is an Abenaki expansive understanding behind the expression attributed to the Greek philosopher Heraclitus “No man ever steps in the same river twice…” Once this broadened perspective is absorbed, it begins to inform many other cultural situations, such as kinship, relationship, change, presence, and balance, to suggest a few. This is the way of it.

The Return of Pia8dagos

pia8dagos falling branches moon

The second month of the Abenaki annual cycle has come around again, as we continue peboniwi (in the winter). The new moon following Alamikos (also known as  Anhaldamawikizos) occurs today here in Sokwakik, on January 24, 2020 by the Gregorian calendar.

In the Western Abenaki lunar cycle, Pia8dagos means “makes branches fall into pieces” or ‘falling in pieces branches maker.” The days grow a little longer as Grandfather Sun edges higher in the sky, but we know there will be more snow and cold before the maple trees begin to lift their sweetness from the earth.

Abenaki New Year’s Day 2019

Joseph Joubert Facebook Abenaki New Year

Today – December 26, 2019 – the new moon following the winter solstice marks the beginning of the #Abenaki calendar: it is the New Year. On this day, it is customary to ask for forgiveness of our family, friends, and community as we enter a new cycle together. And so, I say to you all “Liwlaldamana (please) anhaldamawi kassi palilawlan.”

 

Pamgisgak – the Winter Solstice

prospect cemetery december morning
The present, here and now.
#Abenaki ways of being with this day, December 21, 2019:
 
Peboniwi, t8ni kizos wazwasa – “In winter, when the sun returns to the same place” (the solstice)
 
Kwagwanidebokak – “the very long night”
 
N8woponasik – “midwinter” (the solstice)

Pebonkas: Winter Maker Moon

 

pebonkas winter maker moon 2019

The full moon shines tonight – in the last month of the solar year – just after midnight, on December 12, 2019 (by the modern Gregorian calendar). It is the middle of the final lunar cycle that began with the new moon on November 26 and which will renew on December 26. The lunar moon again comes close to aligning with the calendrical month within this cycle, as we pass from Tagu8go, the Autumn season, into Pebon, the Winter.

The twelfth full moon of the Western Abenaki solar year is the Winter Maker, Pebonkas, following the preceding eleventh month of  Mzatanos, the Freezing Current Maker. Another name for this moon is Kchikizos, the Great Moon. Within this cycle, the shortest day and the longest night of the year approaches on the Winter Solstice, on December 21st. Bare trees are silhouetted against the crystal blackness as Nanibosad, the all-night walker, crosses the sky world in all her glory.

The name of the moon is a combination of simple roots: “pebon” which signifies “winter” combined with “k-a-s” as an abbreviated form for “maker” and “moon” together. It is pronounced PEH-buhn-kahs, the Winter Maker Moon. The alternate name, Kchikizos, is a combination of the two words “kchi” for “great” and “kizos” for the “full moon.” It is pronounced kih-TSEE-kee-zoose, the Great Moon.

As the Solstice marks the reversing of the sun’s path, the daylight very slowly begins to grow in length – the beginning of the new year. The winter weather, however, continues to grow colder, due to the delay caused by the earth’s thermal mass. It continues to lose the heat it soaked up in summer, until the sun’s rays become strong enough to counter the loss with life-affirming Spring. In the cold and dark, stories are told around the fire as a reminder of how everything changes, over and over. And as this cycle ends, another begins.

Wanascatok: Wanaskatekw

wanasquatok wanaskwatekw

A deep, green pool at Broad Brook, toward the top of the main gradient, near the site of one of the first mills in Guilford, Vermont. 

Wanascatok (sometimes, later, as Wanasquatok) is the name historically attached to Broad Brook, which flows from the heart of today’s Town of Guilford, Vermont into the Kwenitekw just below the Brattleboro/Vernon line. It is recorded thus in the 1687 colonial land deed, the last of several that together constituted the Town of Northfield, Massachusetts. The deed covered an area of about 65,000 acres identified as Nawelet’s land, and was signed by that person, identified as a chief of the Squakheags, along with Gongequa, Aspiabemet, Haddarawansett, and Meganichcha (as recorded). The legality of these deeds will be discussed elsewhere; suffice it to say this document is a good primary source on several counts.

1687 nawelet wanascatok northfield deed

A transcription of the 1687 Northfield land deed by Nawelet with four others, from Temple and Sheldon’s “A History of the Town of Northfield, Massachusetts: for 150 Years, with an Account of the Prior Occupation of the Territory by the Squakheags.”

A contemporary Abenaki spelling would be Wanaskatekw, which roughly translates as “end of the river” or even “the rivers meet.” Wanask- signifies ‘an end’ or ‘a meeting’ and -tekw is ‘river’, as in ‘flowing, moving water.’ The reason for applying this name to this particular place requires a little exploration, informed by some familiarity with the lay of the land. Broad Brook is a medium-sized tributary of the Connecticut, with a watershed of 23.8 square miles. Since it is obviously not at the end of the Connecticut, the reference is likely to the end of Broad Brook itself – in other words, the point of its confluence with the larger river, the place where they meet. This, in turn, indicates that Wanaskatekw is not the name of the brook after all, but indicates the specific location at its mouth, as a landmark. This fits with its use in the 1687 Northfield deed to denote the northernmost bound of the land running up the west side of the Connecticut. For some reason,  later historians (not Native speakers) presumptively chose to spell the word as ‘Wanasquatok’, adding the ‘qua’ or kwa’ sound, but this is not the original form.

It follows that this location was familiar to the Sokwakiak inhabitants, and, by extension, the earliest Euro-colonizers (more on this elsewhere); amateur collectors, known to include Jason Bushnell, and probably Walter Needham and John Gale, were active in this immediate vicinity in the last century. The topography has all the hallmarks of a good site: fresh water, a confluence, good visibility, well-drained, sheltering hills to the west, and readily defensible. There are substantial wolhanak (rich alluvial planting lands) immediately adjacent, much of which are now submerged since the 1909 construction of the Vernon hydroelectric dam four miles downstream.

Bushnell Old Red Mill Vernon VT

A postcard for Jason Bushnell’s museum at the Old Red Mill in Vernon, VT, where he displayed his life’s collection of “Indian relics” and oddities. It burned down in 1962.

There was a convergence of trails here also. The primary north-south path on the west side of the Kwenitekw – the Great River Road – ran parallel to the Connecticut, hugging the bottom of the closely encroaching hills. And there was a path running west from here up the narrow ravine of Broad Brook itself, which rises in a steep gradient of about 200 feet in a mile and a half, to a lush valley nestled in the uplands. It is recorded that the earliest British settlers of what is now Guilford Town took this trail to stake their claims, first among them being Micah Rice at Weatherhead Hollow in 1761; it is the only ready access point to the uplands from the Long River and became the first road.

It should be kept in mind that place-name references in Algonquian language usages are nearly always directly descriptive, referring to observable natural attributes. Any place that matches a set of general descriptives may carry a similar toponym, in its own context. The name Wanascatok, or a variant, appears in several other places in New England. It fits here, once one is familiar with the circumstances.

Quinneh Tuk Camp

quinneh tuk camp northfield kwenitekw

An advertisement in Arthur Percy Fitt’s “All About Northfield” (Northfield, MA, Northfield Press, 1910), found on page 108.

The Quinneh Tuk Camp for Boys, Northfield, MA:

A remarkable (rare) near-perfect phonetic transcription of Kwenitekw (kweni- + -tekw = “the long river”), the original name of the Connecticut River in Aln8ba8dwaw8gan, the Western Abenaki language.

The colonial name for Northfield, of course, was Squakheag (various spellings) which is itself a fairly faithful phonetic iteration of Sokwakik, the Abenaki name for the mid-Kwenitekw valley, viz. sokwa- + -ki + -k = “at the separated land.” We use this word today in the form “Sokoki.”