Kwenitekw: The River as Constant Change

ask the river cyanotype lovett billings wasserman

A cyanotype from “Ask the River”, a community art and creative place-making project, part of an ongoing collaboration with artists Elizabeth Billings, Evie Lovett, and Andrea Wasserman. The Brattleboro Museum & Art Center will host an associated exhibit and opening event, with details here.

I am quite smitten by these cyanotype images… I must admit they convey so much more than I had previously realized was possible, not having been very familiar with the medium. The artist team of Evie, Elizabeth, and Andrea have opened my eyes with these works (thank you!); they will play a large part, on a grand scale, with the “Ask the River” project this year. The blue is a perfect agent.

I appreciate the interaction of light and dark (they co-create each other), the suggested uncertainty of “which is which?”, and the realization that it all works together to present a recorded but dynamic moment of fluid relationship. The “capture” is open-ended, fading in and out, but it is a single depiction of circumstance. Linear time is unclear, and yet it is documented – this juxtaposition did happen, in this way. The images allow metaphor, layers of possible interpretation.

Constant: 1. not changing or varying; uniform; regular; invariable 2. continuing without pause or letup; unceasing 3. regularly recurrent; continual; persistent.

Change: 1. to make the form, nature, content, future course, etc., of (something) different from what it is or from what it would be if left alone 2. to transform or convert.

This is an Abenaki view of the world, and it is the way the language – Aln8ba8dwaw8gan – works as well. A word can have more than one meaning at the same time, as with the name of the Connecticut River, Kwenitekw. On the surface, it is usually translated “Long River”, with “kweni-” being an adjectival modifier suggesting extended length, and “-tekw” being a bound suffix used for rivers, tides, and waves.

But by bringing the underlying concepts of these two morphemes – these basic root words – forward, the name Kwenitekw can evoke something much more encompassing and suggestive. “Kweni-” can also mean a “duration”, as in a continuance – a length of space/time. An ongoing, sustained moment (like the cyanotype). And “-tekw” literally means “flow” as in “water in dynamic motion” – thus, it is used for rivers, tides, and waves – but not lakes, ponds, and bays. Rather, it is water, which is the essence of life, that is moving and shifting, transitioning from one place to another – it is imbued with power.

And so, while Kwenitekw can be seen to express the “Long River” as a rather straightforward toponym, it can also describe an expansive concept, in sentence form: “a continuous, connecting flow of spirit-power in transition.” This is an Abenaki expansive understanding behind the expression attributed to the Greek philosopher Heraclitus “No man ever steps in the same river twice…” Once this broadened perspective is absorbed, it begins to inform many other cultural situations, such as kinship, relationship, change, presence, and balance, to suggest a few. This is the way of it.

On Being In Place, and Motion

rock dam kwenitekw erosion

Imagine yourself at a certain point, a point around which everything converges. Not because you are the most important presence there, but because you are completely surrounded by presences, in every direction, in every dimension. This is everyday life. Wherever you are, you are surrounded by everything else.

You are not in the middle of nowhere, you are in the center of everything. No matter where you are, you are in the center.

This is a good description of the state we call the “present.” You – are – here – now.

Then what happens? What is ahead of you? Change is ahead of you. Change is with you. Change is constant.

Keep in mind that all along you are still in the center, at that convergence point. You are still completely surrounded by everything else, but since change is constant, everything around you is in motion. Creation is continual. And you are surrounded by it – you are a part of it – thus you yourself are literally in “motion.”

In that moment of the continuum, you are necessarily in the present, in the center, but the totality – including you – is shifting and moving. This is the illusion of time. It is motion, it is change. From one thing to another and back again.

What does this even mean? – like, in real life?

As things move around you, and you move around as well, your view of what is before you – your perspective – shifts. As a crow flies past your field of sight, you are able to see different parts of it, moving east to west, now the head and now the tail. As you circle the stoutness of a hemlock tree, the enveloping pattern of the furrowed bark morphs subtly, wrapping the trunk in texture. As the sun arcs overhead in the mountainside grove, the shadows lengthen and pivot. Everything changes.

You, the crow, the tree, and the sun are all there, in that place, together, but in shifting circumstances. Everything has transformed a little bit (or a lot). You are relating to each other in a different manner than you were before. You are in a set of constantly evolving relationships.

This is the way of it.


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 necessarily results 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 as 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 are not honored, and respectful acknowledgement made in the form of ceremonial practice (song, dance, gifts, prayer, proscribed or prescribed activities) it is seen as a breach of conduct. It truly is 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 thoughtlessness of the mindset that replaced it.