Joseph and Jesse Bruchac at Mariposa Museum’s Annual Dawnlands Storyfest

joseph-bruchac

Author of more than 120 books for children and adults, Joseph Bruchac has been creating poetry, short stories, novels, anthologies and music that reflect his Native American heritage and traditions for over 30 years. Recipient of numerous awards, Bruchac is perhaps best known for his bestselling “Keepers of the Earth: Native American Stories and Environmental Activities for Children” and other titles in the “Keepers” series, which integrate science and folklore in highly entertaining and interactive formats that make them ideal for classrooms and family libraries alike.

This Saturday, Feb. 4, Joseph Bruchac will be the featured storyteller at the annual Dawnlands Storyfest at the Mariposa Museum and World Culture Center in Peterborough. He will be joined by his son Jesse Bruchac, a leading figure in indigenous efforts to preserve the Abenaki language and culture.

The Mariposa Museum is located at 26 Main Street in Peterborough, NH. It is wheelchair accessible. Admission is free to the Dawnlands Storyfest, which is hosted by the Mariposa and co-presented by the NH Storytelling Alliance and Peterborough’s business community. The event runs from noon to 8 p.m.

The Bruchacs will be joined at Saturday’s event by other local tellers of indigenous tales, including Medicine Story (Manitonquat), Sebastian Lockwood, Kim Hart, and HearsCrow. Simon Brooks and Chris Ekblom will emcee. In storytelling tradition, visitors will also have the chance to share their own tales at three open mics.

Read the full account at The Monadnock Ledger-Transcript.

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Nahmetawanzik, Ames Hill, Brattleboro

nahmetawanzik ames hill

Nahmetawanzik, Ames Hill,  Brattleboro, VT – a summer house on the south side of Ames Hill Road around the turn of the past century.

A photograph by Porter C. Thayer, circa 1905.

A sociocultural trend began in the late 19th century – continuing well into the mid-1900s – of dubbing summer camps and cabins with Native-inspired names, many of dubious origin and/or translation. This movement sprang from the influence of the work of educators, scientists, authors, and social activists following the stifling Victorian era, individuals such as G. Stanley Hall, Ernest Thompson Seton, and Daniel Carter Beard, meshing with the progressive social reforms of the time. Mixing recapitulation theories of adolescent development, the romantic idealist’s adoption of the noble savage, nationalism, a newfound mobility, and the financial ability to indulge in outdoor recreation, America took to its reclaimed, appropriated, whitewashed roots with enthusiasm. The proliferation of Camps Hiawatha – Keewaydin – Weehawkin – Runamuck – Thunderhawk – Kootenay was a wonder to behold. On a smaller but more prolific scale, private vacation cabins and cottages followed suit. Some of these names were deliberate fabrications, evoking a fancied Indian motif or alliteration. Others had a more authentic origin, or attempted to emulate such.

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The house on Ames Hill seems to fit into the latter category. At this point, we don’t know the identity of the property owner or their intentions, but it is possible to make some educated guesses, based on both word structure and its practical application. The word Nahmetawanzik demonstrates several basic Algonquian language characteristics: first personal possession or action with the initial “n”, small compounding morphemes, and a locative ending with a “k”. Although we can by no means assume that the word was derived from the indigenous language of this land Aln8ba8dwaw8gan/Western Abenaki, it actually corresponds quite closely. I put the question out to members of a Western Abenaki language forum. This is what came back:

Jesse Bruchac: Sounds like “one sees something” from “namit8zik” a bit to me on a first pass . Is there a good view there?

Rich Holschuh: Without going out there to see if it’s still standing, I can’t say exactly. But Ames Hill Rd. does have grand views east in general. And this seems to be one of a number of summer houses that were/are up there. Awesome first pass, Jesse !

Marge Bruchac: Or it might be a pseudo-Indian invented name, which was the fashion among white folks building summer homes in the era (and in the northeast in general). Other camps in the same area (also photographed by Porter C. Thayer) include Quiturkare (quit your care) and Welikeit (we like it).

Joseph Joubert: I totally agree with with Marge Bruchac. This is a fictitious name. However, I also agree with Jesse Bruchac. I am seeing another word there – “wan” – lost, hidden away. This is my take on it. Remember this is not a word in the Abenaki Language of Odanak. “Something inanimate seen hidden away”. I am also getting “wild turkey” out of it – ha ha! That is why I say it is a fictitious name conjured up without the knowledge of the Algonquin grammer. “zik” is what tells me it is something inanimate. Jesse, I think “pazombwôgan” would mean “view”.

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There were (and still are) several summer places on Ames Hill Road, rising from Brattleboro to Marlboro as it heads west and climbs into the foothills of the Green Mountains. It’s a beautiful landscape, open to the east and south, rolling forested hills with meadows and orchards, and little brooks and springs tumbling down the slopes. Wantastekw Wajo/Mount Wantastiquet stands tall and abrupt in the mid-distance, about 5-8 miles away to the east, along the Kwanitekw/Connecticut River. So, it’s not much of a conjecture to suppose that the homeowner, or an acquaintance with some knowledge of the area’s Abenaki heritage, came up with a fitting descriptor to the effect of n’namit8wanzik – “I see the lost place” – (the Wantastekw/Lost River/West River mountain). Or simply, as Jesse suggested, namit8zik, “one sees something” – the pronunciation of the Abenaki vowel “8” can suggest a “w”sound between syllables.  This phrase might also poetically signify a romantic view back to the “vanished and noble” Native heritage. I will keep looking for more clues to this pictorial mystery… the structure’s site, the original owner, their disposition and motivations.

A New Year

Notably amongst the northeastern Algonquian tribal territorialities, the W8banakiak have been described as a riverine people. The various band’s homelands are centered on watersheds – a river and its dependent streams, lakes, marshes, and floodplains.  Whereas many other tribes would reckon their lands in terms of primarily terrestrial landmarks such as mountains, rivers, lakes, and perhaps a certain forest or clump of trees, denoting borders within which they circulated, the Abenaki centered themselves within the waters, ranging out through a branching, interconnected bowl [sources: Speck, Snow]. As an example, in this place I dwell, known today as Brattleboro – near where the states of Vermont, New Hampshire and Massachusetts converge – the annual cycles of life revolve around the gathering of the Kwanitekw, Wantastekw, and Azewalad Sibo (Connecticut, West, and Ashuelot Rivers), with their respective tributary brooks, lakes, and ponds pitching down from the valleys and ranges .

A family’s hunting territories, above the plantings flourishing upon the floodplains and river terraces (the wolhanak), were bounded by these watery, connecting sinews, and stretched up into the hills and mountains to the next ridge top division. A person would describe their homeland as n’sibo, my river, allying with that flowing, veined world as a part of their own identity, a unity, all the same. Intimately familiar with the land, and its fellow dwellers – whether animate or inanimate – a person saw themselves as a continuous part of the spirits there, with roles to play and responsibilities to honor, inconceivably separable.

This merging may perhaps be seen in the phrase n’dai, which can mean “I am” – describing oneself – as well as “I live” – in a certain place. An understanding of this can help to inform the depth of the relationship between the homeland and its people, one so profound they merged into a single entity. The people are the land, and the land is the people. To separate them, as recent history has so graphically inscribed, is to assault the meaning of life itself, leaving it broken and futile. Healing can be found only in a restoration of relationship, a re-balancing through reciprocity among the community of beings. Note the prefix “re-” occurring in all of these words, meaning “again” and speaking of cycles, and the Great Hoop of Life.

This healing comes through an awareness of what is lacking, or what is interfering, with the flowing continuity of the river of life, and then addressing that lack, or obstruction. At the beginning of the New Year –  Alamikos – with the winter solstice and the return of the sun, the Abenaki have a custom of asking for forgiveness, and a fresh start in the new season. As elder Joseph Elie Joubert tells us: “The new year’s forgiveness time is called Anhaldamawadin = The act of forgiving. We would go to the house of the people we offended during the past year and say the following: “Anhaldamawi kassi plilawawlan”. It is basically saying “Forgive me for the many wrongs I did you.”

wantastegok n'dakinna my river

N’sibo, my river, is Wantastekw, where it meets Kwanitekw. N’dai Wantastegok, Sokwakik, known today as Brattleboro. And so I say, to all my relatives here:

N’didam n’dal8gom8mek Wantastegok: Anhaldamawi kasi palilawalian.

Please forgive any wrong I may have done to you in the past.

It is a new year. Alosada, mina ta mina. Let us walk together, again and again.

Western Abenaki in Saints and Strangers

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Another article profiles the use of the language in the movie premiering this weekend, this time from National Geographic itself. Video clips and anecdotes recount the actor’s responses to their Native dialogue and Jesse Bowman Bruchac talks about his role as language coach and the significance of indigenous languages as integral to culture.

Walking the Talk

Saints-Strangers-tantanka-means-jesse-bowman-bruchac

National Geographic Channel’s upcoming release Saints and Strangers, to be shown this Thanksgiving 2015  season, is eagerly anticipated by many with a focus on Native culture in the Northeast. Western Abenaki language instructor Jesse Bruchac was enlisted to help make this “the most authentic retelling of the Thanksgiving story ever committed to film.”  The Native American cast members, among them Tatanka Means, Kalani Queypo, and Raoul Trujillo, accepted the challenge and wholeheartedly committed themselves to the task as an honor.

Channel Guide Magazine online has the story here.

One Man’s Quest To Preserve Abenaki Language

Vermont Public Radio recently aired a segment on Vermont Edition, speaking with Jesse Bowman Bruchac about his life work teaching and preserving the Western Abenaki language, Aln8ba8dwaw8gan.  “Every language holds within it an entire understanding of the world,” says Bruchac. “When we lose a language, we’ve lost some of the diversity of human thought.” This is the audio for the full interview with Jesse, speaking on Skype from South Africa, where he was instructing the Native cast members in language for National Geographic’s filming of “Saints and Strangers.”

Wantastiquet

This story strikes close. I live in Brattleboro, Vermont, in the Sokwaki homeland. It’s the largest population center in the southeast corner of the present state of Vermont. It is known for having a distinctive “personality” – a diverse, tolerant, liberal town in a liberal state. But even Brattleboro seems to have turned its back and forgotten the people that belong to this land, and, for the most part, abandoned that close relationship with this wondrous landscape.

connecticut river north at wantastiquet

Looking upriver on the Kwanitekw, the Connecticut River, with the northern end of Mount Wantastiquet to the east, and the confluence with the West River, Wantastekw, just around the bend.

If you live here, you cannot escape the fact that this border town, nestled on both sides of the “Y” formed by the meeting of the West River and the Connecticut, is dominated and defined by the steep mass of Mount Wantastiquet to the east (elevation 1351′). Rising abruptly on the far bank of the river, on the New Hampshire side, its forested flanks form a steady yet subtly shifting backdrop to the comings and goings of the brick-faced Main Street. A good deal of the 4-mile-long ridge is protected public land, which thankfully keeps it in red, white, chestnut, and scrub oak; mountain laurel; white, red, and pitch pine; and rough ledge outcroppings frequented by hawks and hikers. Its name often trips up the visitor, but it is pronounced exactly as it is spelled. For the record, the mountain has had several different monikers since European settlement: Chesterfield Mountain (after the NH town within whose borders most of its bulk lies), Rattlesnake Mountain (after the population of timber rattlers that frequented its talus slopes), West River Mountain (more on that momentarily), and the current identifier, Wantastiquet. It is gratifying that the latter name has persisted, as it is very close to the Sokoki placename for this landmark.

west river spring banks

A side channel of the West River, Wantastekw, in late spring.

The challenging spelling, of course, derives from its Abenaki origin but here the story takes a turn, as often happens with transliteration of native names. The mountain is, in fact, named after the tributary river which meets the main stem at its base, so by learning the source of the name we come to understand both features. Now called the West River (and thus the West River Mountain extrapolation), the Western Abenaki know it as Wantastekw; consequently, the long mountain which faces its confluence with the Kwanitekw is Wantastegok Wajo. We’ll work our way through the meanings… Conventional wisdom has it that “West River” is a simplification of the assumed meaning of “Wantastiquet,” usually given as “river that leads to the west.” Unfortunately, that translation is substantially off-base. Working with the original form Wantastekw, let us note the Abenaki word for “west” is ali-nkihl8t and no form of that noun appears here. More to the point, Western Abenaki linguist Jesse Bruchac has lent some clarity to the meaning of wantas- :  wan- (the root inside wantas-) can mean “forget or lost.” In this case: wantas = “a lost or misplaced thing” and tekw = flow (the ending -tekw is a commonly encountered Western Abenaki bound morpheme for “flow,” as in the moving water of a river). As an illustrative aside, it is interesting to note that wantastasid = “one who gives bad traveling directions.” Gordon Day recorded its meaning rather concisely: “literally: lost river, i.e. river on which it is easy to get lost or easy to lose the right trail.”  As for Wantastegok Wajo (the mountain itself), the -ok ending is a common bound locative suffix meaning “at the place of” and wajo is a free morpheme for “mountain.” Put it all together and we have “the mountain at the place of the lost river.” It’s not the river which is lost, but rather the unfamiliar traveler.

Also, it is fair to mention that there are a number of other citations of  the river’s original name Wantastekw being translated as “waters of the lonely way,” which hearkens much closer to the true meaning than today’s West River. And in a broader sense, a further extension of the usage of the name Wantastekw is the understanding that it was used by the Sokoki (and probably the earliest Europeans) to refer to the immediate locality we now know as Brattleboro. In this case, the proper Abenaki form would be Wantastegok, which would mean simply: “at the place of the lost river.”

west river wantastekw duskA broad reach of the lower Wantastekw at dusk. 

So then, this begs the question: why was it so easy to lose one’s way? The river served as one of the main cross trails over the mountains to Otter Creek and Bitawbakw (Lake Champlain). Following its course to the headwaters, one travels northwestward 54 miles through Windham County, passing through Wantastiquet Pond in Weston, then a corner of Windsor County, before ending in Mount Holly in Rutland County. Over the ridge to Mill Creek a couple miles and Otter Creek is a clear route north and west to the expanse of Lake Champlain. The watercourses dwindle and fork many times, and the crossover at the drainage divide of the watershed would be anyone’s guess, although the trail was probably blazed by its earliest users. Was it a more difficult route to trace than the other watery Green Mountain cross trails (among them the Black, White, and Wells Rivers)?  Maybe I’ll  try to recreate it one day… a journey made by many generations.