-Lisa Brooks, author, “Our Beloved Kin”
-Cheryl Savageau, author, “Mother/Land”
-Jillian Hensley, author, “In This Strange Soil”
In “Native Americans and the Land,” three authors contemplate the first inhabitants of North America and their conceptions of living with the land. As we struggle to envision a healthier relationship with our natural world, looking through the lens of other cultural imaginations has never been more relevant. Recently, conflict over building the Dakota Access oil pipeline and the rise of the #NoDAPL movement have brought Native American perspectives to the forefront of environmental discourse. In nonfiction, poetry and fiction, these writers look through native eyes.
== Where the Real and the Surreal Meet ==
The Modern Real and Surreal: Writers and Artists on Our Age, is the Forbes Library’s author reading series. Now in its third season, the series explores contemporary themes on the premise that libraries offer vibrant spaces to engage with and explore our era’s most pressing questions – questions that in their surprises and contradictions can be understood through either a realistic lens or through fantasy, science fiction and the surreal. The series invites the community to join us in examining how story and art can provide empathy and insight in our accelerating world.
The series features writers in genres ranging from fiction to nonfiction to poetry. The role of the image in conveying literary themes will be explored, too, in events on comics & graphic novels, film and screenwriting, and nature word-and-image pairings. Current issues from our political and social milieu will also form an important backbone as these authors share from their fine work.
When Butch Jacobs steps into the woods in search of basket making materials, he does not have a specific type of forest or black ash tree in mind, but he knows it when he sees it. “It’s a unique skill set that cannot necessarily be taught. Some people just have it,” Jacobs said.
Jacobs, a member of the Passamaquoddy Tribe, is one of few remaining basket-tree harvesters in Maine—a longstanding tradition that stretches back to before Europeans arrived on North American shores. Now, the custom faces a threat that may devastate the trees that harvesters like Jacobs seek.
Emerald ash borer, an insect native to Asia, has barreled through ash stands in at least 31 states and three Canadian provinces since it was first documented in Michigan and Ontario in 2002. Black ash, the species basket-tree harvesters target, is especially susceptible to the invasive insect that has already decimated millions of North American ash trees, and will soon arrive in Maine.
That spells trouble for Jacobs and many others, for whom ash trees are of critical cultural and economic significance. The black ash is a central element in several Native American and First Nation traditions, including some tribes’ creation stories.
For Rich Holschuh, the Vermont Yankee property is rife with contradictions. On one hand, it’s an idled, contaminated nuclear plant in need of the biggest environmental cleanup project Vermont has ever seen.
On the other, it’s part of the ancestral homeland of the Elnu Abenaki, the Native American tribe Holschuh is representing in the state’s regulatory review of Vermont Yankee’s proposed sale to a New York cleanup company.
Now, those two versions of the site may be edging a little closer together. The plant’s potential buyer, NorthStar Group Services, has agreed to talks with the Abenaki in an effort to address the tribe’s worries about excavation, cleanup and site restoration.
“We want to meet with them,” NorthStar Chief Executive Officer Scott State said. “We want to understand their concerns, and we want to come to an understanding as to how we can meet their concerns.”
It’s not clear what the outcome of those talks will be, but Holschuh said the fact they’re occurring is a victory of sorts. “We’re trying to establish our voice – just be acknowledged for being here and caring,” Holschuh said. “We want to be involved, and we actually see this as a responsibility.”
Read the full story by Mike Faher in VTDigger.org. Photo by Mike Faher also.
This story also ran in the Brattleboro Reformer this past weekend, 9/8/17.
And in The Commons 9/13/17.
A group has hopes of purchasing land near petroglyphs under the Connecticut River (correction: Wantastekw/West River) with the goal of preventing future development on land it sees as culturally meaningful.
“This is all part of the Abenaki people trying to re-establish themselves… to raise awareness and reinforce the idea that these are not relics of the past,” said Rich Holschuh, a member of the Vermont Commission on Native American Affairs from Brattleboro.
“These are significant to people who are still here… people who still observe their significance and incorporate that into their lives because they are the descendants of these people.”
Abenaki people and other members of the public hope to preserve the land, keeping it open for hiking and other recreational activities. The project is also about protecting the Hogle Wildlife Sanctuary.
When Donna Morris looks at the Mi’kmaq petroglyphs at Kejimkujik National Park, she sees history. “There’s a picture of a caribou. There’s a picture of a little missionary man that goes back to the French era which would be the 1700s,” Morris, 65, explains. “So when I look at that, I think mostly of history. When I look at the caribou, I think about (a time) before the caribou and moose had disappeared.”
Morris, originally from the Indian Brook First Nation, has been working as an interpreter/coordinator at Kejimkujik since 2000. Part of her duties include offering tours of the Mi’kmaq petroglyphs, one of the park’s main attractions, to visitors and campers several times a week during the spring and summer months.
“Right now, the images are starting to fade a bit,” Morris explains. “We only have one particular area where we show the public and the other petroglyph sites are a little inaccessible due to the water and the distance of where they are.”
There are more than 500 Mi’kmaq petroglyphs at Kejimkujik. Some of them are estimated to be 800-1000 years old. All but one of the sites are blocked off from the general public. Park guides patrol the paths around the petroglyphs to make sure visitors obey the signage warning visitors not to enter and disturb the protected areas.
I was asked by someone recently what is it that makes the Kwenitekw, n’sibo, our river, sacred. Is it the traditional fishing places? Is it the burials of the ancestors? What follows is my reply:
- It is important to remember that words have power and they derive from our worldview, which is expressed in the cultural tool we call language. There are many languages, and many ways of seeing the world. They differ dramatically, and the use of a word, or concept, can mean very different things to different people. Thus, “sacred.” When speaking of Abenaki cultural concepts, one cannot look at it through a Western religious lens. The dictionary definitions that fit “sacred” best are (from Merriam-Webster): 1) entitled to reverence and respect and 2) highly valued and important, as in “a sacred responsibility.” It is not a religious designation, but rather a spiritual recognition.
- So, with regard to your questions of the river’s significance regarding fishing locations or burial grounds, the answer is yes, all of that, and much more. The reason being that we are all related, all equally significant, and part of the same great circle of Creation. Time does not exist in a linear sense, but is a continuum, constantly changing but all part of the same. Thus, we as human beings (in common with, say, plant beings, fish beings, stone beings, wind beings) have a ongoing responsibility to honor these relationships. We cannot act to harm the River, as it is as deserving of respect as anyone else, and in fact, we derive our very life from it – it would be very shortsighted to do otherwise..
- As indigenous people (defined as the original people of a distinct place), we so identify with our homelands that we see ourselves as part of it, inseparable and continuous. For example, when an Abenaki person identifies him- or herself, they would not say “My name is so-and-so and I live in Brattleboro.” They would state “… I am Brattleboro.” Consequently, one’s attitudes and actions toward the River, are as unto one’s very self and one’s family, because it is exactly that. We (most of us!) consider human life to be sacred. So is the river.
- You have heard the expression, especially this past year with the action at Standing Rock, that “Water Is Life.” This plays out clearly in the Abenaki language, which by nature embodies its cultural worldview. Let me explain that, in a Native sense, the well-known term “medicine” means anything that promotes or sustains health and vitality – this makes complete sense, but in our Western way of thinking it has been separated and limited into a drug that addresses (often only symptomatically) sickness. It has got the relationship backwards and misses most of the bigger picture of the interconnectedness of life. The word for water in Abenaki is “nebi”; the word for medicine in Abenaki is “nebizon.” So, you can see, that water is at the heart of life. The River is our great provider, for which we can only be grateful.
- To learn that burials are often at the edge of the River is no coincidence. I don’t think I even need to explain that one! It is a place where strong connections have always been made, and where they can be accessed over and over. We go there to pay our respects to our ancestors, to say thank you to the water, and to pray for the same blessings for the generations to come. It is our “church.” There are certainly other places that are important as well, but the River is at the heart of them all. It unifies and connects – think in terms of a watershed – a flowing cradle, a web, an endless cycle enveloping the people.