An Ongoing Exploration: Getting to Know Red Ochre

iron seep 3 rt 30 brattleboro 2019

A very significant cultural component: ritual adornment, mortuary practice, healing properties, ornamentation… the importance of red ochre to the Abenaki, and to many indigenous cultures, cannot be overemphasized. The word  in Aln8baiwi is olamanjagw, red ochre mud; when mixed with grease,  it is simply olaman. In Anishinaabemowin, the word is very similar: onaman. Ochre is derived from natural iron oxide compounds, in mineral deposits, clay, or iron seeps , where iron oxidizing bacteria augment the chemical conversion.

iron ochre names royal society of canada 1885

Publication of Royal Society of Canada, 1885.

Local people sought nearby sources of this valuable material; if they were not fortunate in this respect, they were obliged to trade for it. Here in Sokwakik there is an abundance of iron in the local geology. An iron seep just north of Wantastegok yields an abundant flow of ferrous oxide mud, carried with the groundwater through a mineral-rich ledge of Waits River schist and emerging on the east face. In the summer, the iron-oxidizing bacteria colonies form amazing cellular structures. In the winter, these lose their shape and form a hard, crumbly crust. The pigmented mud accumulates in the crevices of the rock and can be collected simply, with a little careful examination of the best pockets.

The seep in summer.

The seep in winter

By collecting this dark red-brown mud, heating (oxidizing) ’til it reached its maximum color (too much heat will result in a darker, browner hue), and then sifting it, I  was able to produce a nice amount of orange/dark red/brown pigment on an initial trial. This could be further pulverized with a mortar and pestle, before mixing with a grease or oil and used for painting the body, or another use.

More to come…

 

 

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The Winter Season, Solstice, and the New Year

nokahigas wantastegok wajo 2017

As it usually does, this year (2018) the winter solstice in Pebonkik – the North Land – lands on December 21st, specifically at 5:23 pm in our region (EST). In our modern scientific understanding, as a detached observer with the perspective of an imaginary point in space, this the time when the North Pole of the earth, in its annual orbit of the sun, is facing farthest away from its light and warmth, due to the fixed tilt of our axis. The seasonal calendar lags behind a little, due to the earth’s great thermal mass, but on the solar cycle, this is actually Mid-Winter, and is known as such in many old cultures. As we continue our yearlong orbit, we find ourselves tipped relatively more toward the sun, lessening the ratio of night to day, until we reach the summer solstice position on or near June 21st, half an orbit and half a year away.

But now, back here in the northeast part of the continent, the approach of the winter solstice means the daylight grows scant and the nights extend their long darkness. The noonday peak of the sun’s circuit across the sky sags toward the horizon, dropping lower every day, until it slows to a virtual stop at its nadir. Here it seems to pause for a few days: in fact, the English word “solstice” derives from “sun stands still.” This is how it is experienced for a person standing in their own familiar landscape, watching the changing sky with the passing of days. Indigenous cultures have developed protocols based around these celestial and seasonal rhythms, manifesting as both practical and ceremonial, to ensure their continuity and prosperity. They are encoded in their respective spiritual belief systems, with the assurance that the diligent observance of these practices is necessary for the ongoing mutual success of both cycle and celebrant.

ash swamp brook confluence hinsdale nh february

To a community of Abenaki people, living in a close relationship with the landscape, marking the change of seasons and understanding the implications is a matter of necessity. Planting, harvesting, hunting, fishing, material and medicine gathering, and sheltering must be anticipated, planned, and achieved, with ample provision made until the cycle comes around again. With a close awareness of the changing signs, at the appropriate times these activities are signaled and marked with traditional practices such as feasts, dances, ceremonies, songs, and stories, reminders of the importance of what is at hand.

As winter sets in, the annual circle of seasons is seen as slowing to a quiet, still place: a time for resting, reflection, and renewal. The year is made of 13 moons, the approximate number of full lunar cycles in a solar year. Each lunar month begins with the new moon, with a 29 1/2 day cycle through the full moon until the next new moon.

The old year ends with the new moon before the winter solstice. This last moon (the current one) is known as Pebonkas – Winter Maker; it may also be called Kchikizos – Great Moon (kchi=great + kizos=full moon), due to the clarity of the shining disc in the cold, clear sky. The solstice lies within this moon and signals the time when the sun stands still, low in the sky, and then begins to climb higher. This is known as “Peboniwi t8ni kizos wazwasa” – “In winter when the sun returns to the same place.” Two other names, for reasons already given, are first: “kwagwanidebokak” – “the very long night” (kwagwani=very long + debokak=when it is night) and second “n8wiponasik” – “midwinter” (n8wi=middle + pon=winter + asik=the one that is).

wantastiquet wantastekw march twilight

On these long, cold nights stories are told around the fires in the wigw8m, more so than at other times, when the longer days and warmer weather are better utilized in other pursuits. The stories entertain, teach, remind, and reinforce, important for a culture that depends on oral transmission of tradition, wisdom, and history. This is how the next generations learn who they are, from whence they have come, and how they in turn may become good ancestors of those yet to appear. Circumspectly, many of these stories are only told at this time of the year, when the subjects of the discourse are asleep and dreaming beneath the ground or ice, or caves, or gone until warmer days return. Their rest will be undisturbed, not overhearing their names and their stories being shared in the firelight within the snug bark lodges.

The next month is called “Alamikos” or “Anhaldamawikizos” – Greetings Maker or Forgiveness Moon. It is the first moon of the Abenaki annual cycle and it begins on Jan. 5th this year with its own dark phase, and has its own traditions, which we will address in another post.

 

The Vernon Dam Part 2 from BHS and BAMS: Flooding Wantastegok

This is Part 2 of a two-part story, within the podcast series from Brattleboro Historical Society, produced by Joe Rivers and his BAMS history students. You can check out Part 1 here. It gives additional background to the subsuming of critical areas in Sokwakik, and particularly the flooding of  the Retreat Meadows, by the completion of the Vernon, Vermont hydroelectric dam in 1909. Prior to this date, the now-flooded meadows – known as mskodak in Aln8baiwi – were prime farmland for the Sokwakiak who dwelt here, and subsequently the European settlers that arrived in the mid-1700’s. There are multiple newspaper reports of native burials being exhumed within this alluvial bowl, just west of the mouth of the Wantastekw (I will be documenting them here over time). Sokoki Abenaki heritage and interests were ignored and ravaged, a situation which remains ongoing and challenging.

T8ni Kizos Wazwasa – Winter Solstice

Terraced lines shine silver,
Layers upon the cross-hatched riverbanks
Threads of smoke rise still and silent from domed shelters
No dog barks at the half moon.

Long night gone in the morning chill,
Slow light gleams at eastward door
Sun comes returning, scarce recognized
But met with quiet welcome.

A long time we will go
A long time ’til we know
A long time still to grow
Along time, ever so.

***

Among the Abenaki people, the winter solstice is the beginning of the new year. As elder Elie Joubert has told us, this time is known as Peboniwi, t8ni kizos wazwasa – In winter, when the sun returns to the same place.

The custom is to begin the new year by offering these words:
Anhaldamawi kasi palilawalian – Forgive any wrong I may have done to you.

N’wikodo io mina, liwlaldamana – I ask this as well, please.