Western Abenaki: azibiz (Asclepias syriaca) literally, lamb.
Sweet-fern – Comptonia peregrina – is a small, highly-aromatic, mounding shrub, 2-4 feet tall, that may occur in dense colonies in poor soils. It has multiple stems with loose, spreading branches bearing long, narrow, olive-green leaves, the edges of which have rolled back edges and rounded, fern-like division. Flowers are brown catkins that appear before the leaves unfold. They develop into small nuts in a bur-like husk. While sweet-fern’s common name derives from its appearance, it is not a fern at all; it is a member of the wax-myrtle or bayberry family (family Myricaceae). As with many other members of the family, the leaves are very aromatic: on a hot, sunny day you will know when you are walking past a stand of sweet fern.
Colonies are usually found in dry, sandy, infertile soils in full sun where other plants might have a hard time becoming established. Pine woods, cut-over forest, powerline right-of-ways, gravelly banks, abandoned and over-grazed pastures, and rocky outcrops are favorite places for sweet-fern. Preferring poor, acidic soils, sweet-fern fixes its own nitrogen through a symbiotic relationship with Frankia bacteria living in nodules on its roots. It grows throughout N’dakinna – Abenaki country – from Quebec and the Maritimes south as far as Georgia, following the mountains.
Sweet-fern, along with many other aromatic plants, happens to be a good repellent for ants. This is a good thing to know when one is living close to the soil, in a bark wigw8m or lodge, perhaps with food items in loosely covered containers. Scattering fronds around the walls of the shelter would help to keep these tiny visitors from wearing out their welcome. Knowledge of this ant-repellent aspect is what creates sweet-fern’s Native name, which translates to “ant bush.”
Working from the Penobscot and Passamaquoddy names for this plant relative (see next paragraph), which both translate literally to “ant tree” or “ant bush,” we can easily construct an equivalent in Aln8ba8dwaw8gan – the Western Abenaki language. Sozap Lolo – Joseph Laurent – in his “New Familiar Abenakis and English Dialogues” gives the word for ant as alikws; to this we can add the Abenaki suffix for “tree” or “bush” which can take the form -mizi or -mozi. With the letter “i” as a connector, the combination is: alikws + i + mozi = alikwsimozi. The pronunciation can be given as ah-leek-oo-SEE-moh-zee. The third syllable “oo” is nearly voiceless.
This photo and the one preceding are from the sweet-fern nation in Sokwakik, Sokoki Abenaki country – n’dal8gom8mek. #allmyrelations
The Penobscot cognate is enikwsimosi (listen to audio here). It is used for eye medicine, with the leaves steeped in hailstorm water. It translates literally as “ant bush”.
The Passamaquoddy cognate is eniqsimus (listen to audio here). It, too, translates literally as “ant tree (bush).”
Among the Wabanaki people, and close relations, the uses of alikwsimozi include:
- Ant repellent, also used for mosquitoes, as a skin rub or smudge
- Lining berry baskets and buckets to aid in keeping the fruit fresh
- Edible nutlets
- As a relief for poison ivy and other skin itches, infusion in water or rubbed on
- As a relaxing, dried ingredient in smoking mixtures
- As a tea for upset stomach and colic
- As a poultice for sprains or swelling
- Burned for smoke in ceremony
In closing, I end with a poem by Mi’kmaq writer Alice Azure, from the collection entitled “Dawnland Voices: An Anthology of Indigenous Writing from New England,” edited by Siobhan Senier, et al (Vol. 1, 2014):
Mi'kmaq Haiku Kejimkoojik cliffs, old sweet fern petroglyph still keeping us calm.
First in a series from the Brattleboro Words Project YouTube channel.
Kwai Nedobak! Nd’elewizi Vera Longtoe Sheehan du Elnu Wôbanaki – that translates into English as: Hello my friends! My name is Vera Longtoe Sheehan, and I’m a citizen of the Elnu Abenaki Tribe.
I’m here to honor the countless generations of Wôbanaki women who were fiber artists and to the women that will carry this art form to future generations of our people. Most of their names have been lost to history, but they’re remembered for the textiles they created – and when we’re lucky, through the surviving textiles themselves.
The late Jim Petersen, a professor and Anthropology Department Chair at UVM, documented an extensive legacy of textile fragments dating back thousands of years that have been found in Abenaki archaeological sites. And I’ve personally had the honor of studying some of these surviving 18th-century textile pieces.
The Maine Historical Society has an 18th-century plant fiber object in their collection that was made by an Abenaki woman known as Molly Ockett, a healing woman who took care of people in her community, and who was also a talented fiber artist. As an herbalist, Molly would have been a keeper of extensive knowledge about different types of plants and what they were used for. She would also have known how to harvest plants like the milkweed or dogbane that she used to weave bags such as the fiber object that has come to be known as Molly’s Purse.
My father, John Sheehan, is an eighty-four-year-old Abenaki culture bearer who fondly remembers carts full of milkweed being delivered to his grandmother “Lena” during his childhood. He recalls watching his grandmother and aunties talking and laughing as they made milkweed string – then the hours they spent weaving it into market bags that they sold for less than twenty-five cents apiece. Later “Lena” taught him how to weave and he passed this family knowledge on to me – his daughter.
I’m honored to carry Lena’s fiber arts knowledge and pass it on to my daughter Lina who will carry it on to the next seven generations.
It is important for us to continue teaching weaving and other old-style art forms to revitalize our culture that connects us to our ancestors, our traditions, and n’dakinna – our homeland – now known as Vermont, New Hampshire, Northern Massachusetts, Southern Maine, and Quebec.
From the Feb. 22, 2018 article in VTDigger.org.
Middlebury… will honor four other distinguished men and women with honorary degrees this year:
Jeanne A. Brink is an Abenaki artist and activist. She conducts workshops and programs on Western Abenaki storytelling, history, language, culture, basket making, oral tradition, dance, games, and current issues throughout Vermont and New England. Tracing her Abenaki heritage back to the early 1700s, she continues the tradition of Western Abenaki ash splint and sweetgrass fancy basketry as a master basket maker. Brink has served on the Vermont Commission for Native American Affairs, the Lake Champlain Basin Program Cultural Heritage and Recreation Advisory Committee, and many other local organizations. She is the author of several books about Abenaki art and language.
The Middlebury College Commencement ceremony will take place on the main quadrangle at 10 a.m. on Sunday, May 27. More than 5,000 family members and friends are expected to attend.
In the spring of 2010, I was asked by members of the Church of Christ at Dartmouth College to help with a Peace Pole they were erecting in the Memorial Garden next to the church. Knowing that I had worked with members of the Abenaki Nation, and that I teach about Abenaki culture in my programs and writing, I was asked, “How do you say, in Abenaki, ‘May peace prevail on Earth?’”
I discovered that the Abenaki word for peace, olakámigénoká, is a verb that reflects an entirely different concept of “peace” than we express in the English language. Olakámigénoká, “make peace,” is a linguistic window into the Abenaki world view, in which peace is more than a state of tranquility that exists in the absence of violence: Peace is an act that one makes toward other people and the rest of creation.
A few years earlier, in April 2006, the Quebec-Labrador Foundation asked me to facilitate an environmental education seminar at their 50th anniversary Alumni Congress in Budapest, Hungary. During this gathering of conservationists and educators from the United States, Canada, Latin America, Europe and the Middle East, everyone had 10 minutes to share what they were doing in the respective countries. After hearing about how I was using Native American stories to teach children about nature and stewardship in the “Keepers of the Earth” books, the director of environmental education for the Israel Nature and Parks Authority suggested that colleagues from the Middle East work together to gather folklore stories about nature from all around their region, and to use those stories to teach children about the natural world and environmental issues.
At that time (on that day, in fact), Israeli and Palestinian leaders in Gaza were actively engaged in a bombing campaign — a backdrop that generated considerable anger and tension during our meeting in Budapest. Despite this ongoing conflict, a surge of energy charged the room when everyone present from the Middle East agreed to collaborate on this environmental storytelling project, including colleagues from Egypt, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon and Palestine. These professionals had been working together for more than a decade as participants in QLF’s Middle East Exchange Program, which promotes peaceful collaborations among “conservationists without borders.” They had reached out to one another to build partnerships and friendships, despite the risk of criticism and ridicule from those who questioned the act of working across political barriers.
Thus was planted a seed whose gestation spanned more than a decade, including many trips to the Middle East to gather traditional tales from storytellers, Bedouins and other keepers of oral tradition. This, the Storytelling for Environmental Stewardship Program, eventually involved more than 50 individuals from 20 organizations in the Middle East and led to a book published in December 2017 — an illustrated anthology of children’s stories called “The Garden of Wisdom: Earth Tales from the Middle East.” In addition to teaching about environmental awareness and stewardship of the natural world, lessons about friendship, justice and faith are woven into the fabric of the stories. Back in 2006, no one could have foretold that this book would be on the verge of publication at a time when the forces of political and religious extremism would be driving government officials to make decisions that defy rational thought, promote conflict and undermine long-standing efforts to broker a lasting peace. The level of peaceful coexistence that exists in the Middle East today is rooted in the actions of the majority of people from this rich mélange of cultures and faiths who place a high value on living justly and in civility with one another. While hope fades for a government-brokered Middle East peace, it is the decency and humanity of individuals that holds the region together and prevents a descent into widespread violence. Their countless daily acts of kindness and compassion are the foundation for what the Abenakis would call “making peace.”