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 would result 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 in 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 were not honored, and respectful acknowledgement made in the form of ceremonial practice (song, dance, gifts, prayer, proscribed or prescribed activities), it would have to be seen as a breach of conduct. It truly was 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 ineptitude of the mindset that replaced it.

Hydroland: an Interview About the Vernon Dam’s Cultural Impacts

A well-crafted video project put together by two Brattleboro Union High School  (BUHS) students – Forest Zabriskie and Mason Redfield – for a recent class assignment.

To gather varied perspectives on the utilization of the Connecticut River – specifically the circa 1909 Vernon dam at the Great Bend in Sokwakik – they interviewed Matthew Cole, Community Relations for Great River Hydro (dam owner and operator); Kathy Urffer, River Steward for the Connecticut River Conservancy; and yours truly, for an Abenaki cultural viewpoint.

There are many ways to be in the world…

The Wonders of Creation: the Great Fall at Walpole, 1807

Found on page 140:the great fall 1807 the wonders of creation

And again, on page 146:

bellows falls 1807 the wonders of creation

From “The Wonders of Creation; Natural and Artificial: Being an Account of the Most Remarkable Mountains, Rivers, Lakes, Cataracts, Mineral Springs, Miscellaneous Curiosities, and Antiquities in the World”
Compiled from Geographers, Historians, and Travellers of the Greatest Celebrity, in Two Volumes, by D. R. Preston, author of The Juvenile Instructor, &c. Pub. by John M. Dunham, Boston, 1807.

A historical plaque at Bellows Falls claims “Here first canal in United States was built in 1802”; more accurately, it may hold the title of “the oldest canal in the US still used industrially.” A British-owned company, the Bellows Falls Canal Company, was chartered to make the Connecticut River navigable in 1791. It spent 10 years building nine locks and a dam to bypass the 52 foot high Great Falls; the canal was completed in 1802. The first bridge across the Connecticut River anywhere on its course was constructed by Col. Enoch Hale in 1785, crossing exactly at this narrow, deep chasm, from Bellows Falls, VT to Walpole, NH.

The book quoted above was published in 1807, as a compilation by D. R. Preston of scenic descriptions by a number of well-traveled contributors. It is quite possible the above entries describing the Great Falls were written previous to the opening of the canal in 1802, which would have drastically impacted the water volume and dramatic impact of the cascade in the gorge.

With Andy Fisk for CRC Valley Gives at the Rock Dam

One of a series of Facebook Live on-site interviews on May 1, 2018, for the CT River Conservancy’s “Valley Gives” fundraising campaign. We are at the Rock Dam site, on the Kwenitew below the Great Falls at Peskeompscut/Mskwamakok, now Turners Falls in Montague, MA, with very high spring run-off.

Return to the River Part 1: Franklin, NH’s First Inhabitants

paul pouliot franklin nh elodie reed
Cowasuck Band of the Pennacook Abenaki People Chief Paul Pouliot stands for a portrait on a fishing and observation deck along the Winnipesaukee River in Franklin. He is in front the bend in the river by Odell Park, a place he said would have provided indigenous people abundant fishing as well as good grounds for agriculture for thousands of years.

Beneath cool, overcast skies, Paul Pouliot took in the land, the river, the trees – all the geophysical features – of Franklin’s Odell Park.

The chief of the Cowasuck Band of the Pennacook Abenaki People looked past the empty baseball field, the dilapidated mill buildings and the developed river banks. Eyeing the U-shaped bend where the river slowed, Pouliot knew – that’s where his Native American ancestors would have fished.

He pointed to the spot just in front of the historic Riverbend Mill, under renovation for an affordable housing project. It was downstream from the river’s rapids, where local community partners are suggesting a whitewater play park can be installed to attract eco-adventure tourists and help revitalize New Hampshire’s second poorest city.

The natural resource Franklin is turning to for its new lifeblood, Pouliot pointed out, is why people came to the area in the first place.

Read the full article by Elodie Reed in the Concord Monitor, the first in a multi-part story.

Gill Riverside Historic District Awaits State Decision

gill riverside historic district

After about two years of work by local residents and the Gill Historical Commission, the fate of a possible National Historic District in the Riverside area of town is in the hands of the state. The commission, with support from town government and area residents, recently submitted its nomination to the state Historical Commission. If the state panel approves, the nomination advances to the National Park Service in Washington, D.C., for final approval.

Town officials held a public hearing about a historic district in conjunction with the state Historical Society on Tuesday night at the Riverside Municipal Building.

The district encompass much of the Riverside neighborhood, with Riverview Drive, Oak Street, Walnut Street, Myrtle Street, Pine Street and Grove Street included within the boundaries as well as some properties on the other side of French King Highway.

See the full article by Miranda Davis in the Greenfield Recorder.

*****

This area at the southern edge of Sokwakik is highly significant for Native heritage and among other things is a subject of the ongoing Falls Fight Battlefield Study Grant. This incredibly productive fishing location drew indigenous people from many different communities for thousands of years. Here and nearby, they would harvest and process the anadromous fish that paused to surmount the falls of Peskeompskut, traded and celebrated, met and married, and shared the Kwanitekw’s gifts in peace. This place still has great power and strong spirit, despite the ravages of industrial exploitation and the ongoing genocidal mindset of settler colonialism. Any action to recognize and support this reality is a welcome beginning.