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.”

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

VT Rep. Brian Cina’s Introduction of H.119, Indigenous Peoples’ Day

On Feb. 15, 2019, Sponsor Rep. Brian Cina introduced H.119, “An Act relating to Indigenous Peoples’ Day,” to the House Committee on General, Housing, and Military Affairs, where it had been assigned by the full House on Jan. 30th. His well-written statement is below and can be found at this link as well. Thank you Brian for your thoughtful and continual support!

H.119: An act relating to Indigenous Peoples’ Day
Representative Brian Cina
February 15, 2019

We are living on an ancient land that has been home to Indigenous Peoples for thousands of years. Our state and nation grew out of this sacred soil, these rocks, these rivers, these valleys and these mountains. The story of this continent is like a delicately woven basket, a complex history of interactions between various Indigenous peoples and people who came here from other places. This rich history is evident today by the names of natural landmarks and places, such as: Missisquoi- “where there is flint,” Winooski- “wild onion land,” Connecticut- “long tidal river,” Memphramagog- “where there is a big expanse of water.”

This history plays out in our foods, many which were cultivated by Indigenous people of the Americas, such as corn, tomatoes, potatoes, wild rice, pumpkins, cranberries, peanuts, and maple syrup. Indigenous people taught Europeans how to hunt and grow food, they shared knowledge about plant medicines, they served as guides, they fought for the Nation’s independence and have served in every war since then, they have contributed and continue to contribute to American society on every level. Many Americans have traces of indigenous blood running through their veins and Indigenous genes in every cell of their body, and many Americans celebrate and practice their Indigenous culture and values, which have survived through disease, war, genocide, eugenics, and many methods of cultural oppression. Indigenous contributions to our state and nation have not been given proper recognition, and instead have been erased or revised as part of colonization. As our society considers ways to work towards reconciliation, it is important to make space for the celebration of Indigenous
People.

There are many places that have created an Indigenous Peoples’ Day. At last count, there were sixty cities and schools that have officially replaced the day. South Dakota has a separate “Native American Day.” Alaska has an “Indigenous Peoples’ Day,” but never had Columbus Day. There are currently 5 states with active Indigenous Peoples’ Day bills: Maine, New Mexico, Montana, New Hampshire, Kansas. For the past 3 years, both Governor Scott and Governor Shumlin proclaimed Indigenous Peoples’ Day on Columbus Day. It is time for us to make a permanent change. No state legislature has made this change yet, let Vermont be a leader yet again.

 

‘One by One, I Kept Meeting People’: Hartford, VT Celebrates Indigenous Culture

The town held its eighth-annual Abenaki and Indigenous Peoples Honoring Day on Saturday at Lyman Point Park, where an Abenaki canoeing village stood into the 18th century.

The day began early for Nate Pero. By the announced 11 a.m. start time, he had already grilled and cut 16 pounds of bison and moved on to cooking dozens of ears of corn. In years past, Pero got his meat from Vermont game wardens, sometimes coming away with a moose or bear that had been killed by a car or put down. “They haven’t given us any turkey yet,” he said. “I’d cook turkey.”

Pero is chief of the Koasek, an Abenaki band of some 300 members, most of whom live in Windsor and Orange Counties.

Read the full article by Gabe Brizon-Trezise in the Valley News.

Abenaki-Inspired Poster to Emphasize Respect for Land

Chief Don Stevens with poster

Advocates for racial justice in Vermont hope that a recently created poster will soon be seen in schools, libraries, town offices and small businesses all over the state. The poster reads: “Please respect and protect N’Dakinna (our land) while you are here. This is the homeland of the Western Abenaki People.”

The wording and imagery on the poster was chosen with great care by Don Stevens, chief of the Nulhegan Band of the Coosuk Abenaki Nation, who worked with Quebec based Nulhegan Abenaki artist Jon Guilbault to make sure that the most important Abenaki cultural symbols would occupy a prominent place in the artwork.

“It is important to remember that we are but stewards of this land we occupy and are only one part of the web of life,” Chief Stevens said. “What we do to the earth, we do to ourselves. This poster is a reminder that the creator gave the Western Abenaki the responsibility to care for our land and in turn would provide for our needs. Once the land was taken from us, we could no longer fulfill this responsibility. We ask that you respect and protect the land so it will continue to provide for us all.“

See the full article in the Addison Independent.

 

Burlington Free Press: Abenaki Heritage Weekend Coming Up

abenaki heritage weekend drumming lcmm

Join the Abenaki community on June 23 and June 24 at Lake Champlain Maritime Museum near Vergennes for a weekend of family fun and cultural sharing that is deeply rooted in local Native American heritage.

Organized by the Vermont Abenaki Artists Association with members of the Elnu Abenaki Tribe, the Nulhegan Band of the Coosuk, Koasek Traditional Band of the Koas Abenaki Nation, Missisquoi Abenaki Tribe and guest artists, the event is designed to give visitors an Indigenous perspective on life in the Champlain Valley both past and present.

Activities will include drumming, storytelling, craft and cooking demonstrations, an Arts Marketplace, and presentations by guest artists including Black Hawk Singers Drum Group, and Jesse Bruchac telling stories in Abenaki and English, accompanied by flute and drum.

See the full story in the Burlington Free Press.

Brattleboro, Native People, and the Story of Here

bowles map new england 1771

From the article by Harmony Birch in the Brattleboro Reformer, May 9, 2018:

[Alex] White Plume visited Vermont Hempicurean on Saturday to share stories about his fight with the Drug Enforcement Agency to grow hemp, and to talk about Oglala Lakota-U.S. relations… The saga with the DEA, White Plume said, relates directly to the genocide of native American peoples.

“On the East Coast here there’s no more natural Indians. They were wiped out because they have 511 years [of colonization].” Local Native Americans have had their cultures wiped out, White Plume said. “We’ve only had 200 years of contact so we’re still real,” he said of the Lakota. “Our language is real, our ceremonies are real. We’re still alive; we still remember.”

This, coming from a Lakota man, shows the extent and depth of the darkness surrounding the stories about “here”; and then, further, in the article, another perspective from mainstream society:

Common Sense director Kurt Daims…wants to raise $1 million to distribute among local Native American groups. Brattleboro Common Sense has an anonymous council working out how the organization can move forward with the project. “There are four parts,” Daims said. “Money, a committee on determining certification, an education component requiring education about the American genocides in high school, and [possibly] considering a new form of currency to be used on reservations.”

None of the components are written in stone, Daims said. When approaching people to join the council, Daims said he wanted to include diverse voices. He wasn’t aware of committee members’ ancestry before asking them to join the council, but many of the people he approached happened to be of Abenaki descent, he said. “People say [of the Abenaki] ‘we’re here but you just don’t see them,'” he said. Still, Daims said he doesn’t think all Native Americans will be in favor of reparations. Daims said he spoke to one local Abenaki leader who said he didn’t think people were ready for reparations…

*****

My perspective on this (I believe I may be the person to whom Kurt Daims refers) aligns with that of Native author Tommy Orange, as quoted in this recent NY Times article about his new novel, “There There.” “…Tommy Orange’s polyphonic debut novel, takes its title from Gertrude Stein’s cutting line about Oakland, Calif: “There is no there there.” …For native people, Mr. Orange writes, cities and towns themselves represent the absence of a homeland — a lost world of “buried ancestral land, glass and concrete and wire and steel, un-returnable covered memory. There is no there there.”

And, then, at the end of the review, the explanatory words with which I concur:

“Mr. Orange struggled for several years with the structure, puzzling over how the characters’ lives fit together, and discarded hundreds of pages and entire chapters delving into different characters’ family histories. Eventually, he settled on an unconventional form: The novel opens with a series of brief and jarring vignettes revealing the violence and genocide that indigenous people have endured, and how it has been sanitized over the centuries.

Mr. Orange said he felt like he couldn’t move the story forward without first going back. “As native writers, there’s a certain feeling that you have to set the record straight before you even begin,” he said. “It’s been told wrong, and not told, so often.”

This is why we are not ready for suggestions for reparations. It’s not that simple, it’s not appropriate. The story is not yet told, much less heard. I spoke briefly with Alex White Plume while he was here, greeting him and assuring him he was welcome in these homelands, but his remarks to the Reformer reporter demonstrate that even our fellow indigenous people do not clearly understand the situation here. It will be hard, it will take awhile. The stories are only now beginning to be told. There is much to learn. The past is with us and creates the present. We cannot know where we are going until we understand the places we have been. We are the dreams of the ancestors, and we ourselves are dreaming the next generations into being. We must acknowledge first, accept, and allow. Only then will we know the way.