Kikas: Field Maker Moon

The fifth month of the Abenaki annual cycle – Kikas – is well underway now. The new moon following Sogalikas (fourth month) occurred on May 4, 2019 here in Sokwakik. In Western Abenaki, Kikas means “field maker moon.” It is pronounced kee-KAHS. The word is formed polysynthetically with the combination of  the morphemes ki(k) (earth or field or planting) + as (maker), and moon by inference. The full moon (who bestows her name upon the month) showed her face two days ago, on May 18, 2019.

Around 1645, trader William Pynchon at his Agawam trading post (near what is now Springfield, Massachusetts), a little further down the Kwenitekw from Sokwakik, recorded this month as Squannikesos. From Day, this appears as the Abenaki phrase for Spring Moon, as Sigwanikizos: sigwan (spring) + i (connector) + kizos (full moon). This is another way to note the time when planting is done.

It is important to keep in mind that several terms were used by various related peoples at sundry times, often overlapping or substituting. These are not hard and fast boundaries; the lunar cycle shifts each year, as do cultural activities with the seasons and the immediate weather patterns. For instance, the month at or preceding the current one (roughly May) according to Pynchon’s list is Namasakizos – “the fish moon” – from namasak (fish, plural) + kizos (full moon). This was, of course, in direct reference to the abundant migration of anadromous schools coming up the River to spawn: shad, salmon, sturgeon, lamprey, and herring. This was a time for gratitude and celebration, both on the land and in the waters.

Sigwan, the bursting forth…

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Abenaki Fishing Places: Some Extrapolations

native net fishing

Fishing played an important role in the lives of the Abenaki/Aln8bak within their home riverscapes,  in a multitude of interconnected ways. The anadromous and catadromous migrations of salmon, shad, alewives, herring, and eels were especially significant. The seasonal cycles, the flush of spring and the awakening of earth’s gifts, the dependable and welcome return of the fish nations, the birth of new life… all of these give witness to a recognition that engenders a careful honoring of pervasive relationships.  Most of these relationships were severed or severely compromised with the arrival of the European colonizers, bringing a culture of separation and exploitation with the building of dams, roads, and bridges, and the choking and fouling of the rivers with logging, mining, industry, and large-scale agriculture. With this calamitous interruption, the People themselves were deeply affected as well.

Though most of the fish are gone in present-day 2019, the places where these harvests of the spring’s vast arrival of swimmers (and with eels, in the autumn) occurred are still honored and celebrated. Yet while these places remain, many of them are a shadow of their former vibrant, powerful selves, overtopped with mills, dams, bridges and blasted and channelized into ill straits in the service of commerce and convenience.

Every group of Abenaki has their home river (n’sibo – my river) and every river has these places, the Sokwakiak among them. In Sokoki country along the Kwenitekw, some of the fishing places are at the Rock Dam/Rawson’s Island/Montague, Mskwamakok/Peskeompskut/Turners Falls, the Azewalad Sibo/Ashuelot River, Vernon Falls/ Great Bend/Cooper’s Point, the confluence with Wantastegok/West River at Brattleboro, and Kchi Pontekw/Bellows Falls. At these places are found a set of conditions that act to focus the fish at constricting, usually rockbound features such as falls, rapids, narrows, and channels. Accompanying these settings is the tumultuous energy of rushing, swirling, shimmering, splashing  water in full voice.

8manosek peskeompskut kwenitekw rock dam

The convergence of spirit, the elements, and resurgent prolific life – epitomized by  over-arching sky, shaped and shelving bedrock, sunlight and reflection, deep and strong currents – create a place of exchange. Spirit is able to move between worlds more readily here; the edges between the underworld of earth and water, existence on the surficial plane, and the above world of sky, blur and cross over. Things are in a state of flux, moving and mixing, intersecting. The constant change of creation is present here, closer and better accessible. This is one reason that messages of acknowledgement in the form of petroglyphs are often found at these places. These ancient representations, placed by medawlinnoak, medicine people, as they worked to seek balance with and through the presence of spirit concentrated there, continue to speak their opportune truths into the present. We see and hear them even now, carrying through the dysphoria and disturbance of the modern milieu.

The Aln8ba8dwaw8gan (Western Abenaki) word for the action of fishing is 8maw8gan, with the root being 8m- signifying “to lift.” On a pragmatic level this can be seen as a simple reference to the fish harvesting techniques of using a net, or a spear, or a hook and line. On another level it speaks of active, upward transition from one place to another.

The great waves of sustaining life that swam up the rivers and streams in Sigwan – the Spring, the “emptying or pouring out” – in the form of salmon, shad, and their kin – were and are an embodiment of this free exchange of spirit, in the very real form of cyclic return of abundant sustenance. Converging on these significant places, met there by the Aln8bak (the Abenaki people) and joined by other relations – the feeding eagles, osprey, gulls, bear, and otter –  the swimmers were lifted up – 8mawa – from the under[water]world into the surface world of the Aln8ba, at that juncture transitioning into another form for the good of the people.

The recognition of this great transformative gift would result in an outpouring of gratitude and celebration, with reciprocal honoring (giving back) to the fish people and the life-giving river waters themselves. All of this in a ritual acknowledgement of “the way it is” – the connected circles of creation, the constancy of change, and the intention to find balance in the midst of it. If these agreements were not honored, and respectful acknowledgement made in the form of ceremonial practice (song, dance, gifts, prayer, proscribed or prescribed activities), it would have to be seen as a breach of conduct. It truly was unconscionable to not do so; that this approach of reciprocal relationship worked well and sustainably for thousands of years is ample testament to its efficacy. That these same processes are breaking down around us now is a corroborating witness to the ineptitude of the mindset that replaced it.

Here We Are: with Wendy O’Connell on BCTV

Here We Are” is a weekly half-hour talk show (interview/conversation) on Brattleboro Community Television,  conceived and hosted by Wendy O’Connell. Wendy interviewed me in early December and the show is now post-production and was released for airing and on Youtube on Dec. 31, 2018. Wliwni Wendy!

Askwa nd’aoldibna iodali – we are still here.

BCTV link here.

Youtube link here.

Vermont’s Indigenous Peoples’ Day on VPR

Transcript from the morning news brief on Vermont Public Radio on Monday, Sept. 17, 2018, with Mitch Wirtlieb (thanks to Meg Malone for providing this):

Governor Phil Scott has named October 8th Indigenous People’s Day to celebrate native people’s place in history.
 
The governor’s proclamation acknowledges Vermont was founded on land first inhabited by Abenaki people and their ancestors. 
 
Rich Holschuh is a member of the Vermont Commission on Native American Affairs. 
 
The second Monday in October is often celebrated as the federal holiday, Columbus Day. Holschuh says renaming the day is not meant to diminish Columbus’ importance in American history.
 
“It’s completing the story; it’s not replacing a story. I’m not in favor of taking Columbus out of the history books. He needs to be in there because his actions and the actions of others have had tremendous effect, and we need to recognize what that effect is.”
 
This is the third year that Vermont governors have recognized Native Americans through an executive order. 
 
Holschuh says he hopes the Legislature will take up the issue and make the change permanent. 

Institute for American Indian Studies Exhibit Features Abenaki Creative Process

vera longtoe sheehan aln8bak wearing our heritage

On February 24 at 2 p.m. the Institute for American Indian Studies, 38 Curtis Road, Washington, CT welcomes Vera Longtoe Sheehan, Abenaki, one of the creative minds behind the exhibit, “Alnobak Wearing Our Heritage.”

Vera Longtoe Sheehan, notes “this exhibit is unique because it is the first traveling exhibit about Abenaki people that are still here living on the land and creating wonderful things.” During this fascinating talk, Sheehan will explain how items in the current exhibition are made and used to express Native Identity.

This beautifully curated exhibit is composed of artifact clothing as well as contemporary pieces made by Vermont’s Abenaki artists, community members, and tribal leaders. The show offers a chronological look at Abenaki fashion and adornment. There is everything from a beautiful 17th-century style buckskin dress by Melody Walker Brook to a hip looking denim jean jacket with a Tolba or turtle design created by Vera Longtoe Sheehan.

 “The message of this exhibit is that we are still here and that we know our history and still respect and practice our culture,” said Longtoe Sheehan. Many of us practice both traditional designs and clothes such as the twined woven dress and handbag I made as well as contemporary designs using a jean jacket, in different ways, both connects my family tradition to thousands of years of our history.”

Wantastegok: Tracing the Stories

kendall weathersfield vt carved tree

Edward Augustus Kendall, “Travels Through the Northern Part of the United States, in the Years 1807 and 1808,” Vol. 3, 1809, p. 207.

It’s time to begin a concerted effort to post markers from the many story trails I am tracing, some faint, some bold, as a part of the project I call “Reclaiming Wantastegok.” Some are drawn from the (often scant) written European record, others are extrapolated from the land itself.  This an exercise in, as Lisa Brooks has phrased it, “reclaiming Native space.” Stories are told, changed, omitted, discarded, forgotten, fabricated. But they are all still here,  responsive to those who will listen – this is the land where they originate – they are of this landscape. Indeed, indigeneity is expressed as that which is original to a place – in fact, inseparable from it – and they are the aspects, be they human or other-than-human, that define it, with its complex relationships, as distinct.

Some of these traces may lead in several directions. Others may circle back and overlap. Still others may open up into a network of connections as yet unseen. Together, they can help to re-imagine, restore, reclaim, and revitalize what it means to “be this place.” The Sokwakiak Abenaki are the original people of this place. These understandings are for/with/of/from them – the Aln8bak, their ancestors, their allies, and all of their relations.  Kchi wliwni – with great thanks. K’wlibaamkani – good travels for you.

 

Bringing Together Two Sides of Vermont

don stevens drum flynn center vaaa

A preview of the Vermont Abenaki Artists Association, performing traditional and contemporary Abenaki music, storytelling, and drumming in FlynnSpace on November 14 at 7:30 pm. By KieraHufford, contributor to @flynncenter Tumblr.

The Abenaki people, like many Native Americans, have been living in America since before European settlers arrived. However, the tribes only received state recognition five years ago, in 2012. The Flynn welcomes the Vermont Abenaki Artists Association (VAAA), giving them a space to share parts of their culture with the public—a performance that would have felt entirely different had it taken place in 2010.

When Chief Roger Longtoe Sheehan of the Elnu Abenaki spoke with Vermont Public Radio (VPR) back in 2016, he talked about the importance of state recognition. “Before we had state recognition, whenever we made something—a pipe, a wampum bracelet, whatever—and we sold it, we had to say that we were of ‘Abenaki descent.’ We couldn’t say that we were Abenaki from such-and-such a tribe. That’s a federal law. You could get hit with a $250,000 fine per item.”

It made it difficult for Abenaki people to share their heritage. They couldn’t label their creations as being made by members of the Abenaki tribes, even though that’s who they are. And even now, they have to carry a native card proving that they’re members of the tribes; however, who they are, their culture, and where they come from is in their blood. It’s their identity, and a card shouldn’t be needed to prove that.

One of the biggest problems, according to the Abenaki, is that the Vermont Agency of Education doesn’t have a mandated curriculum surround the Abenaki people and their culture, so many students go through school and never really learn about their history or existence. The Abenaki are hoping to change that in the coming years.

“If we were going to sum up the state of where things are with the Abenaki right now, I would say change,” Eugene Rich, co-chair of the Missisquoi Abenaki Tribal Council, told VPR. “I think we’re trying to change our public persona.”

According to their website, the VAAA “embodies the history, culture, and art of the Abenaki people. While most of our artists and performers preserve and pass on the traditional art of our ancestors, others create contemporary artistic expressions that are informed by tradition.” Their mission is to promote Vermont’s Indigenous arts/artists while providing a place to share ideas and develop professionally as entrepreneurs.

The VAAA wants the Vermont public to be able to find and engage artists like Chief Don Stevens, of the Nulhegan band of the Coosuk Abenaki; Nulhegan Abenaki Drum, who combine traditional Northeastern music with the sound of the big powwow drumming; and Bryan Blanchette, who began singing at powwows 20 years ago and is currently writing/performing new Abenaki language songs, who will be performing at the Flynn.

The Abenaki have a place of belonging in Vermont, a place that should be recognized and unquestioned by the state’s residents. Not every Native American appears the same, but that doesn’t mean they have to prove their culture. The best way to combat this thinking is by learning, by understanding the Abenaki culture and how it, too, has adapted as the years have gone by.