Kwenitekw – The Long Story

kwenitekw-prospect-wantastegok-may-2016

It is a traditional understanding that Creation is continual – the only constant is change. What we see now was once something else, and what may come afterward will only be known when it is here. All that we encounter is made of the same substances… combining, recombining, transitioning, growing, fading. It has all “always been here” and it is still here. We are each a part of everything else in this whole we call Creation, in a very pragmatic manner, and even now there is change underway: things will be different afterward but Creation continues.

To state that something is “exactly this or that” is to not see the situation as it truly manifests itself. This is the mind of separation and objectification – the illusion of control – which, after all, is the process of colonization, and the (literal) force that has been and is having a great effect upon our existence here on this Earth. When we step out of a recognition that we are in a continually evolving relationship with everything around us, we move away from balance and toward increasing disarray and dysfunction. We are no longer fulfilling our roles and responsibilities.

We see the world in part, for at least several reasons. Internally, our individual life lessons color our experience; in other words, we can only understand the world in terms of what we already know of it, and if we encounter something unfamiliar, we either learn from that moment, or not. Externally, our cultures frame our worldview; they provide the tools, including language, by which we make meaning and interpret our intersections with our surroundings. And, on a practical, material level, our degree of perspective is necessarily limited by both the physical location at which we are situated, and by how much attention we devote to the moment. We see what is before us, if we are present there and then, using our full senses – and those need not be limited to the basic five. There are many ways to be “sense-itive.”

west-river-december-brattleboro-2018

All of this suggests that there are multiple, equally valid experiences of existence – many ways of being – and all of these entities are experiencing each other at the same time. There are layers of relationship, always in motion and shifting, seen and unseen, moving between forms and effects, all present at once and energized by the Spirit within. There is no “one objective way of being,” since all is in constant flux and centered on the interactions of that moment. This is not license for carelessness and anarchy, but a call to recognition and responsibility.

This is an Indigenous view of the world. This is why Place is so important. These interactions and overlapping realities are shaped by the ways that the entities of a particular place are relating to each other, in the moment – they are present, together, in that Place. In any other location, there would be necessarily be a different set of actors, interacting in different ways. The dictionary definition of an Indigenous person is “ the original people of a place.” The critical characteristic here is the landscape within which the People (and every other entity there) are connected; the Place is the lens through which they define themselves. They, and the Place, are the same thing. It is no accident that the Abenaki word “tôni” means both “where” and “how.” The setting matters that much.

rock-dam-connecticut-river

Quite often, this is the way that Aln8ba8dwaw8gan (the Western Abenaki language) works… A word may evoke more than one meaning at the same time, since there is more than one possible reality, and the language allows for that. A term may have a direct, descriptive significance, and at the same time it may make a metaphorical reference. It can be a launching point for a deeper exploration of significance or suggestion, totemic for an entire story or understanding. That the language structure itself is polysynthetic – combining smaller, individual root words, known as morphemes, to add inflection – means that a single word can express a complex concept.

This is the case with Kwenitekw (KWEN- ee – took – uh, the last syllable almost voiceless), the Abenaki word for today’s Connecticut River. On a pragmatic level, it is usually taken to mean “Long River”. The two morphemes that impart inflection in this word are “kwen-” and “-tekw”, with the “i“ connector. “Kwen-“ is an adjectival modifier suggesting extended length and usually translated as “long” or “tall”, a spatial dimension. And “-tekw” is a bound suffix, used for water in the form of rivers, tides, and waves. At first examination, this results in the straightforward “Long River.” And it is a long river – the longest in the region – flowing southward over 400 miles, from the eponymous series of Connecticut Lakes at the US/Quebec border to the Atlantic Ocean at Long Island Sound. But it doesn’t stop there.

connecticut-river-confluence-dummerston-canoe-brook

It has been said that the Abenaki did not focus on the idea of the River as an object unto itself, a stand-alone geographical feature. Of course, in the grand web of inter-relatedness, it certainly is not. Rather, it is a unifying presence, a vast watery web of connections, drawing together the rainfall, snowpack, brooks, ponds, vernal pools, marshes and swamps, and tributaries of an 11,260-square-mile watershed. Where today we see a dividing boundary between Vermont and New Hampshire, the Kwenitekw is more inherently the central heart of a vast community of communities, the Abenaki homeland of Ndakinna.

The Abenaki (and the Wabanaki, by extension) see themselves as river-centric people, using the place-based paradigm of indigeneity, applied to their various dwelling places in the lush, well-watered mountains of the Northeast. Scholar Lisa Brooks makes mention of this in her relation of the Native leader Polis, who lived on the Presumpscot River in the early 18th century. When he travelled to Boston, protesting colonial abuse and usurpation of the Presumpscot, he referred to it as “n’sibo” – “the river to which I belong.” Each band of Abenaki people had their own river, or other body of water, each with its own associated name – which typically became their name for themselves as well. The tributaries of the Kwenitekw provide examples: Wantastekw, Ammonoosuc, Ashuelot, Mascoma, Ompompanoosuc, Nulhegan, Pocumtuk. These places (often at confluences) were centers unto themselves, a network of relations connected by the River, but also by kinship, trade, culture, diplomacy, seasonal gathering, and more, down through the generations.

connecticut-river-summer-sunset-brattleboro

By allowing these cultural understandings to illuminate underlying concepts of the two constituent morphemes, the name Kwenitekw can evoke something much more encompassing and suggestive than simply Long River. “Kweni-” can also suggest “duration”, as in a continuance – a length of space/time. An ongoing, sustained series of connected moments: a story line. A cognate, perhaps, to what the Aboriginal People of the Australian continent call a dreaming track or a songline. And the suffix “-tekw” more closely means 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 as the essence of life – moving and shifting, transitioning from one place to another – it is imbued with power.

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, it might be expressed as “a continuous, connecting flow of spirit-power in transition.” One might think of it as an Abenaki expansion of the expression attributed to the Greek philosopher Heraclitus “No man ever steps in the same river twice…” When this broadened perspective is absorbed, it begins to inform many other concerns, such as relationship, change, presence, responsibility and balance, to suggest a few. This is the way of it.

connecticut-river-sunset-february-ice

This essay appeared online in the Mt. Kearsarge Indian Museum blog on March 25, 2020. I encourage you to visit them, in Warner, NH, when you have an opportunity.

Abenakis Celebrate the Greetings Moon & the New Year: A Forgiveness Day Announcement

Join Abenaki Community members on December 26, as the Vermont Indigenous Heritage Center celebrates the beginning of the New Year.  The first New Moon after the Winter Solstice “sets” the traditional Abenaki agricultural calendar year.  However, this astronomical event is more than a simple calendrical observance, it is also a time to pause and reflect about our relationships with others.  Bring yourself, family friends and a small piece of scrap of untreated wood, cardboard or organic tree trimming, to the “Tavern” at the Ethan Allen Homestead Museum at 4:00 PM on December 26 to learn how it is done.

After a few words of welcome and greeting, we take and silently hold those small pieces of clutter and quietly think about the scraps of physical and emotional disorder that have accumulated in our lives through the dying year.  This gentle meditation is the Anhaldamôwadimek, the “forgiveness time.”  Through thinking sincerely, we may begin forgiving ourselves and others for hurts given and received.  In doing so, we transfer a year’s remembrance of pain and disorder to the scraps in our hands.  Then, as the sun sets, we bring those scraps to the Pileated Woodpecker Dance Ground, where the Sacred Fire has been lit and tended by the fire keeper.  At precisely 4:52 PM, the moment when the sun sets on the year, we throw the scraps into the fire — to represent giving ourselves and others the grace of forgiveness.  As the scraps are burning brightly at sunset, the Round Dance celebrates our collective hopes for a clean emotional and physical slate for the upcoming year.  After the symbolic clutter in our lives is consumed by cleansing fire, we retire back indoors for the New Years’ greetings ceremonials.  We pass around the Alnôbaiwi wampum belt of mourning; for people to share, if they wish, stories of loved ones who have passed.  This witnessing ritual carries memory safely into the infant year.  And, in a new wrinkle to the old Alamikkôwadin (“people greet each other time”) tradition, we go through our cell phone contact list, then text a greeting to old, but neglected friends and colleagues.  Drumming, singing and greeting old and new friends punctuate and complete the ceremony.  It is now up to us to live up to the ancient promises, covenants and relations among, sun, moon, and our feelings — and in so doing, set the stage for a wonderful New Year.

Where: Ethan Allen Homestead Museum

            1 Ethan Allen Drive

            Burlington, VT 05408

            (802) 865 4556

Time:   December 26, 2019

            4:00-7:00 (ish)

PROGRAM: Forgiveness Day Celebration Program

  1. Welcome by EAHM and Heritage Center

            Welcome Song, Greeting song

  1. Explanation of the Ceremony
  2. Thinking about Forgiveness
  3.  Procession to the Fire @4:45
  1. Four Directions and Countdown to Sunset
  2. Throwing in the scraps @ 4:52 PM
  3. Round Dance
  4. Procession Back to the Tavern
  1. Death Song
  2. Passing the Mourning Belt
  3. Song (TBD)
  4. Cellphone Ceremony
  5. Song (TBD)
  6. Goodbye

Pebonkas: Winter Maker Moon

 

pebonkas winter maker moon 2019

The full moon shines tonight – in the last month of the solar year – just after midnight, on December 12, 2019 (by the modern Gregorian calendar). It is the middle of the final lunar cycle that began with the new moon on November 26 and which will renew on December 26. The lunar moon again comes close to aligning with the calendrical month within this cycle, as we pass from Tagu8go, the Autumn season, into Pebon, the Winter.

The twelfth full moon of the Western Abenaki solar year is the Winter Maker, Pebonkas, following the preceding eleventh month of  Mzatanos, the Freezing Current Maker. Another name for this moon is Kchikizos, the Great Moon. Within this cycle, the shortest day and the longest night of the year approaches on the Winter Solstice, on December 21st. Bare trees are silhouetted against the crystal blackness as Nanibosad, the all-night walker, crosses the sky world in all her glory.

The name of the moon is a combination of simple roots: “pebon” which signifies “winter” combined with “k-a-s” as an abbreviated form for “maker” and “moon” together. It is pronounced PEH-buhn-kahs, the Winter Maker Moon. The alternate name, Kchikizos, is a combination of the two words “kchi” for “great” and “kizos” for the “full moon.” It is pronounced kih-TSEE-kee-zoose, the Great Moon.

As the Solstice marks the reversing of the sun’s path, the daylight very slowly begins to grow in length – the beginning of the new year. The winter weather, however, continues to grow colder, due to the delay caused by the earth’s thermal mass. It continues to lose the heat it soaked up in summer, until the sun’s rays become strong enough to counter the loss with life-affirming Spring. In the cold and dark, stories are told around the fire as a reminder of how everything changes, over and over. And as this cycle ends, another begins.

Mzatanos: Freezing Current One

west river first freeze approaches

This month the full moon falls on November 12, 2019, if one consults the modern Gregorian calendar. It is the middle of the lunar cycle that began with the new moon on October 27 and which will renew on November 26. Once again, the lunar moon comes close to aligning with the calendrical month within this cycle, as we progress through Tagu8go, the Autumn season.

The eleventh moon of the Western Abenaki solar year is the Freezing Current One/Maker, M(e)zatanos, following the preceding tenth month of Penibagos, the Leaf Falling Maker Moon. The days are growing much shorter, the vibrancy of summer has come to the end of its cycle. The trees are bare, the geese are gathering to move toward the south, and at the edges of the water ice crystals begin to form. As all things on the surface slow down to sleep, thoughts turn inward.

With the usual Algonquian compounding format, the name of the moon is a combination of smaller roots: “mza-” which signifies “freeze” or “frozen” combined with “ta” as an abbreviated form for “current”, and at the end we have “-os” for “the one who”. These individual morphemes combine to create the sequence “mza-ta-nos,” pronounced meh-ZAH-tah-nohs, the Freezing Current One.

As winter draws nigh, with the certain shortening of the sun’s daily journey across the sky, we ready ourselves for the final moon of the year: Pebonkas, the Winter Maker.

Penibagos: Leaf Falling Moon

The full moon of this month fell on October 13, 2019, using our contemporary Gregorian calendar. This is the middle of the lunar cycle that began with the new moon on September 28 and which will renew on October 27. The lunar moon comes close to aligning with the calendrical month on this cycle, as we progress through Tagu8go, the Autumn season.

The tenth moon of the Abenaki solar year is the Leaf Falling Moon, Penibagos, following the preceding ninth month of Skamonkas, the Corn Maker Moon. The harvests have been gathered in, the last of the berries, nuts, and herbs are being gathered and put away, and the frosts are bringing the tree’s summer cloaks down to wrap the Earth in a rustling blanket.

The name of the moon is a straightforward combination of two separate root words: the first is “pen-” which signifies “down” or “downward’ combined with “-bag[w]” which denotes a “leaf.” At the end we have “-os” as a shortened form of “kizos,” the moon itself. These  morphemes combined with the connector “-i-” creates the sequence “pen-i-bag-os,” pronounced pen-EE-bahg-oos, the Leaf Falling Moon

And so, we ready ourselves for the approaching dark and the cold of Pebon, the Winter, and the last two moons of the year, yet to come.

The Winter Season, Solstice, and the New Year

nokahigas wantastegok wajo 2017

As it usually does, this year (2018) the winter solstice in Pebonkik – the North Land – lands on December 21st, specifically at 5:23 pm in our region (EST). In our modern scientific understanding, as a detached observer with the perspective of an imaginary point in space, this the time when the North Pole of the earth, in its annual orbit of the sun, is facing farthest away from its light and warmth, due to the fixed tilt of our axis. The seasonal calendar lags behind a little, due to the earth’s great thermal mass, but on the solar cycle, this is actually Mid-Winter, and is known as such in many old cultures. As we continue our yearlong orbit, we find ourselves tipped relatively more toward the sun, lessening the ratio of night to day, until we reach the summer solstice position on or near June 21st, half an orbit and half a year away.

But now, back here in the northeast part of the continent, the approach of the winter solstice means the daylight grows scant and the nights extend their long darkness. The noonday peak of the sun’s circuit across the sky sags toward the horizon, dropping lower every day, until it slows to a virtual stop at its nadir. Here it seems to pause for a few days: in fact, the English word “solstice” derives from “sun stands still.” This is how it is experienced for a person standing in their own familiar landscape, watching the changing sky with the passing of days. Indigenous cultures have developed protocols based around these celestial and seasonal rhythms, manifesting as both practical and ceremonial, to ensure their continuity and prosperity. They are encoded in their respective spiritual belief systems, with the assurance that the diligent observance of these practices is necessary for the ongoing mutual success of both cycle and celebrant.

ash swamp brook confluence hinsdale nh february

To a community of Abenaki people, living in a close relationship with the landscape, marking the change of seasons and understanding the implications is a matter of necessity. Planting, harvesting, hunting, fishing, material and medicine gathering, and sheltering must be anticipated, planned, and achieved, with ample provision made until the cycle comes around again. With a close awareness of the changing signs, at the appropriate times these activities are signaled and marked with traditional practices such as feasts, dances, ceremonies, songs, and stories, reminders of the importance of what is at hand.

As winter sets in, the annual circle of seasons is seen as slowing to a quiet, still place: a time for resting, reflection, and renewal. The year is made of 13 moons, the approximate number of full lunar cycles in a solar year. Each lunar month begins with the new moon, with a 29 1/2 day cycle through the full moon until the next new moon.

The old year ends with the new moon before the winter solstice. This last moon (the current one) is known as Pebonkas – Winter Maker; it may also be called Kchikizos – Great Moon (kchi=great + kizos=full moon), due to the clarity of the shining disc in the cold, clear sky. The solstice lies within this moon and signals the time when the sun stands still, low in the sky, and then begins to climb higher. This is known as “Peboniwi t8ni kizos wazwasa” – “In winter when the sun returns to the same place.” Two other names, for reasons already given, are first: “kwagwanidebokak” – “the very long night” (kwagwani=very long + debokak=when it is night) and second “n8wiponasik” – “midwinter” (n8wi=middle + pon=winter + asik=the one that is).

wantastiquet wantastekw march twilight

On these long, cold nights stories are told around the fires in the wigw8m, more so than at other times, when the longer days and warmer weather are better utilized in other pursuits. The stories entertain, teach, remind, and reinforce, important for a culture that depends on oral transmission of tradition, wisdom, and history. This is how the next generations learn who they are, from whence they have come, and how they in turn may become good ancestors of those yet to appear. Circumspectly, many of these stories are only told at this time of the year, when the subjects of the discourse are asleep and dreaming beneath the ground or ice, or caves, or gone until warmer days return. Their rest will be undisturbed, not overhearing their names and their stories being shared in the firelight within the snug bark lodges.

The next month is called “Alamikos” or “Anhaldamawikizos” – Greetings Maker or Forgiveness Moon. It is the first moon of the Abenaki annual cycle and it begins on Jan. 5th this year with its own dark phase, and has its own traditions, which we will address in another post.

 

BFP History Space: Celebrating Abenaki Culture

abenaki dance circle lcmm

In 2011 and 2012, the state of Vermont officially recognized four Abenaki tribes: Elnu, Nulhegan, Koasek and Missisquoi.

“History books, museums, and schools in New England often present Native culture as if the Abenaki disappeared in the 18th century,” says Vera Longtoe Sheehan, director of the Vermont Abenaki Artists Association. “After we received Vermont state recognition the Abenaki people created the Vermont Abenaki Artists Association as a forum to showcase our artists and our vibrant culture. Now we are trying to bridge the gap between the Native and Non-Native communities through the “Wearing Our Heritage” project. Our goals are to reclaim our place in New England history, to make connections between our shared past and the present, and for our art to be accepted on the same terms as art from other cultures of the world.”

Although there is little mention of the Abenaki in 19th century history books, Abenaki people continued to live in their homelands, and maintain strong oral histories and traditions from earlier times. In the latter half of the twentieth century, Abenaki people undertook a systematic cultural revitalization that involves a return to traditional lifeways and skills. Ironically, for many years they were not recognized by federal or state government because they had never entered into a treaty that surrendered their territory to the United States.

Read this comprehensive article by Vera Longtoe Sheehan and Eloise Beil, for the Burlington Free Press.