In Response to Seven Days: Exploring Mt. Philo With Historian Judy Chaves

mategwas mategwas abenaki rabbit rabbit tweetOn Twitter, Nov. 1, 2018

A response to an article by Tom Slayton in the online Vermont magazine Seven Days today, November 1, 2018:

This article includes a classic example of the minimization of a 10,000 year-long (or longer) indigenous presence in the landscape, exemplified by characterizing cultural usage patterns as ephemeral and insubstantial. This biased historical trope is deployed typically in comparison to later European land settlement practices such as fence- and wall-bounded properties, permanent structures, commoditized agriculture, and extractive industry.

mt philo view

The narrative device is used so often it has become de rigueur and may not even raise an eyebrow in notice. In this case, the statement is made: “There’s no evidence that Native Americans lived on the mountain, but they may have used it as a strategic lookout.” This, in spite of the fact that the subsequent post-Contact history (to draw a fuzzy gray line) was and is exactly that as well.

Given that the Champlain Sea is estimated to have been about 450 feet above current Lake levels, Mt. Philo and a few other nearby elevations would have been islands at the time, projecting only a fraction of their mass above the surrounding brackish water. They would have been heavily utilized by the region’s first inhabitants for occupation, food processing, resource gathering, and reconnaissance. With a broad prospect over the water- and landscape, the eminence would play a significant and lasting role for the Native descendants of these first peoples. It is not hard to find evidence for this supposition. The Abenaki have their own name for the landmark: Mategwasaden – Rabbit Mountain. Immediately west, Thompson’s Point remained a significant Abenaki community well into recent times. The Point and the surrounding Lake are well-documented for archaeological significance.

With a twist of irony, the State of Vermont’s management plan for Mount Philo State Park states: “In the late 1800s, William Higbee, a Charlotte resident and journalist, wrote that Mt. Philo was named for an “Indian fighter and famous hunter” named Philo who camped on the mountain. One of the first written references to the “Devil’s Chair” [a slopeside feature] was in an 1896 article that describes a natural rock outcrop by that name.” People who are able to “read between the lines” will recognize here another common displacement trope masquerading as quaint local history: the Devil epithet is often attached to Native sacred landscape features, and a description of “chair” or “seat” will often refer to an elevated ceremonial site, used in recognition of its prominent exposure to the sweep of landscape and sky.

We are not served well by such dismissiveness.

Advertisements

Wantastiquet

This story strikes close. I live in Brattleboro, Vermont, in the Sokwaki homeland. It’s the largest population center in the southeast corner of the present state of Vermont. It is known for having a distinctive “personality” – a diverse, tolerant, liberal town in a liberal state. But even Brattleboro seems to have turned its back and forgotten the people that belong to this land, and, for the most part, abandoned that close relationship with this wondrous landscape.

connecticut river north at wantastiquet

Looking upriver on the Kwanitekw, the Connecticut River, with the northern end of Mount Wantastiquet to the east, and the confluence with the West River, Wantastekw, just around the bend.

If you live here, you cannot escape the fact that this border town, nestled on both sides of the “Y” formed by the meeting of the West River and the Connecticut, is dominated and defined by the steep mass of Mount Wantastiquet to the east (elevation 1351′). Rising abruptly on the far bank of the river, on the New Hampshire side, its forested flanks form a steady yet subtly shifting backdrop to the comings and goings of the brick-faced Main Street. A good deal of the 4-mile-long ridge is protected public land, which thankfully keeps it in red, white, chestnut, and scrub oak; mountain laurel; white, red, and pitch pine; and rough ledge outcroppings frequented by hawks and hikers. Its name often trips up the visitor, but it is pronounced exactly as it is spelled. For the record, the mountain has had several different monikers since European settlement: Chesterfield Mountain (after the NH town within whose borders most of its bulk lies), Rattlesnake Mountain (after the population of timber rattlers that frequented its talus slopes), West River Mountain (more on that momentarily), and the current identifier, Wantastiquet. It is gratifying that the latter name has persisted, as it is very close to the Sokoki placename for this landmark.

west river spring banks

A side channel of the West River, Wantastekw, in late spring.

The challenging spelling, of course, derives from its Abenaki origin but here the story takes a turn, as often happens with transliteration of native names. The mountain is, in fact, named after the tributary river which meets the main stem at its base, so by learning the source of the name we come to understand both features. Now called the West River (and thus the West River Mountain extrapolation), the Western Abenaki know it as Wantastekw; consequently, the long mountain which faces its confluence with the Kwanitekw is Wantastegok Wajo. We’ll work our way through the meanings… Conventional wisdom has it that “West River” is a simplification of the assumed meaning of “Wantastiquet,” usually given as “river that leads to the west.” Unfortunately, that translation is substantially off-base. Working with the original form Wantastekw, let us note the Abenaki word for “west” is ali-nkihl8t and no form of that noun appears here. More to the point, Western Abenaki linguist Jesse Bruchac has lent some clarity to the meaning of wantas- :  wan- (the root inside wantas-) can mean “forget or lost.” In this case: wantas = “a lost or misplaced thing” and tekw = flow (the ending -tekw is a commonly encountered Western Abenaki bound morpheme for “flow,” as in the moving water of a river). As an illustrative aside, it is interesting to note that wantastasid = “one who gives bad traveling directions.” Gordon Day recorded its meaning rather concisely: “literally: lost river, i.e. river on which it is easy to get lost or easy to lose the right trail.”  As for Wantastegok Wajo (the mountain itself), the -ok ending is a common bound locative suffix meaning “at the place of” and wajo is a free morpheme for “mountain.” Put it all together and we have “the mountain at the place of the lost river.” It’s not the river which is lost, but rather the unfamiliar traveler.

Also, it is fair to mention that there are a number of other citations of  the river’s original name Wantastekw being translated as “waters of the lonely way,” which hearkens much closer to the true meaning than today’s West River. And in a broader sense, a further extension of the usage of the name Wantastekw is the understanding that it was used by the Sokoki (and probably the earliest Europeans) to refer to the immediate locality we now know as Brattleboro. In this case, the proper Abenaki form would be Wantastegok, which would mean simply: “at the place of the lost river.”

west river wantastekw duskA broad reach of the lower Wantastekw at dusk. 

So then, this begs the question: why was it so easy to lose one’s way? The river served as one of the main cross trails over the mountains to Otter Creek and Bitawbakw (Lake Champlain). Following its course to the headwaters, one travels northwestward 54 miles through Windham County, passing through Wantastiquet Pond in Weston, then a corner of Windsor County, before ending in Mount Holly in Rutland County. Over the ridge to Mill Creek a couple miles and Otter Creek is a clear route north and west to the expanse of Lake Champlain. The watercourses dwindle and fork many times, and the crossover at the drainage divide of the watershed would be anyone’s guess, although the trail was probably blazed by its earliest users. Was it a more difficult route to trace than the other watery Green Mountain cross trails (among them the Black, White, and Wells Rivers)?  Maybe I’ll  try to recreate it one day… a journey made by many generations.