This essay was published in Our Basin of Relations: The Art and Science of Living with Water, edited and illustrated by M. E. Sipe and Trevien Stanger. I was honored to be asked by Trevien to contribute a couple years ago, and this gorgeous and thoughtful book was happily published at last in August, 2020.
Confluence signifies “a flowing together.” In a literal sense, it is about rivers. But it’s often used to talk about the coming together of ideas or cultures as well. Swirls, eddies, currents, cycles, transitions–– meeting, mixing, melting, morphing. The definition of liquidity. Everything changes, yet nothing changes. Heraclitus said that one can never step in the same river twice. Perhaps the message is not that we are unable to encounter consistently an entity in flux, but something far more subtle and profound: it is that some things maintain their identity only by changing.
A river is a river because it is flowing and shifting. Here constancy and change are not mutually exclusive but rather intimately connected in a dance. Rather than thinking in terms of opposites, we can embrace their balance. Once we find ourselves suspended in that place of harmony and equivalence, not focusing on differences, time slows and stops. Or perhaps time expands – into deep time, so deep that it is complete. Past, present, and future all coalesce and we are in the midst.
On seeing differently: The boundaries and labels we encounter on our modern-day maps are relatively recent political and historical constructs springing from the Western worldview. It can be difficult to view the land clearly with this tangled overlay of demarcations, polities, and hierarchies. If one can see beyond the arbitrary notions that this is Vermont, that is New York, and beyond is Quebec, for example, and begin to think in terms of watersheds, and in terms of thousands of years, then the true face of the country begins to appear.
This is the Dawnland: ndakinna, the home of the Abenaki, the W8banakiak–the land from before, a land that begins anew each day, a land that persists. The same water that flows here now has coursed down the river valleys for thousands of years, to the lakes and oceans and back again, in towering clouds with crashing thunder and twisting, silvery rivulets wending down the mountainsides to return to the welcoming valley below.
Among the northeastern Algonquian indigenous territorialities, the W8banakiak have been described as a riverine people. The various bands’ homelands are centered on watersheds – a river and its dependent streams, lakes, marshes, and floodplains. Whereas other tribes might bound their lands in terms of primarily terrestrial landmarks such as mountains, deserts, or plateaus, denoting borders within which they circulated, the Abenaki centered themselves within the gathering waters, ranging out through a branching, interwoven net of connections. A family’s traditional hunting territories, above the agricultural plantings flourishing upon the floodplains and river terraces (the wolhanak), are bounded by these tributary sinews, stretching up into the hills and mountains to the next ridge top. Reflecting this, a member of a given Abenaki family band will describe their respective homeland as n’sibo, my river – whether the Winooski, Missisquoi, or Connecticut – allying with that flowing, veined world as a part of their own identity, in union, all the same. Intimately familiar with the landscape and its fellow dwellers – both animate and inanimate – an indigenous person is a continuous part of the spirits there, with roles to play and responsibilities to honor, and, in a word, inseparable.
An example emerges from Aln8ba8dwaw8gan, the Western Abenaki language, since language is one of the tools a culture uses to tell its story. It embodies a shared understanding of the world, and its nuances demonstrate a way of being in it. An Abenaki speaker, when queried as to their home, will answer (for example) with the phrase, “N’dai Winoskik,” meaning not merely that they live in Winooski, but rather, that they are that place, one and the same. It can be said that the Abenaki, in common with many other Native people, speak primarily in verbs; everything is seen in dynamic relation to everything else… who, how, where, with, and when.
Indigeneity does not simply denote a group of people. It is always in reference to the people of a place. The two are entwined. They define each other. they belong, in every sense of the word. It signifies a relationship so profound that it cannot be separated: the people are the land and the land is the people, a single entity. From this understanding, one can begin to sense the depth of the damage that is done to an indigenous people when they are separated from their homelands. This loss is irreparable, and the trauma becomes systemic, passed down through generations. To enforce this separation, as our nation’s history has so graphically inscribed, is to assault the meaning of life itself, leaving it broken and futile. Healing can be found only in a restoration of relationship, a re-balancing through reciprocity among the community of beings. The prefix “re-” occurs in all of these words, meaning “again,” and it speaks of cycles and constancy.
We are all familiar with the phrase “good medicine.” Medicine, in a Native sense, refers not simply to a decoction or compound intended to counter an ailment. Medicine is anything which promotes vitality, indeed, life itself: healthy food, drink, honorable conduct, respect, productive activity, ceremony, and rest – they all affirm the maintenance of a properly functioning relationship, both within and without. The Abenaki word for medicine is nebizon; at the root of it is the word nebi, which means water. Water is life. May we honor that, and each other, in this place.