Elnu Abenaki S8gm8 Roger Longtoe Sheehan on Sacred Sites in Vermont

From the YouTube channel of the “Year of Indigenous Peoples of the AmericasCultural Initiative, a program of SUNY Empire State College. For this new virtual residency curriculum, a series of videos has been created with indigenous culture keepers sharing various aspects of their people’s understandings.

In this production, S8gm8 Roger Longtoe Sheehan speaks about the Abenaki relationship with the land and rivers of Ndakinna, and how these interactions take place within their worldview. The interview took place in June, 2018 at the Abenaki Heritage Weekend annual event at Lake Champlain Maritime Museum. By request of Vera Longtoe Sheehan, a co-producer of the film, I contributed some still photography from Kchi Pontekw/Bellows Falls, VT for the video.

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.

Mark Bushnell at VTDigger: Uncovering Vermont’s Stone Carvings

Bellows Falls Petroglyphs 1866

Note: Mark Bushnell is a Vermont journalist and historian. He is the author of “Hidden History of Vermont” and “It Happened in Vermont.” Mark called me for comments as he was putting this VTDigger column together.

When Rev. David McClure of Dartmouth College ventured down the Connecticut River to Bellows Falls in 1789, he was on a scientific mission. As a natural philosopher – what we might today call a scientist – McClure was interested in stone carvings he had heard about from a local man. The carvings, cut into an outcropping on the Vermont side of the river, depicted a series of faces.

“The figures have the appearance of great antiquity,” McClure wrote, noting that the British colonists who first settled the area a half-century earlier had observed them. The faces were life-sized images consisting of a simple oval with markings for eyes, nose, mouth and perhaps ears, McClure wrote. Some had lines sticking out of their heads that various observers have taken to be feathers, horns or rays.

McClure’s was apparently the first written account of the carved rocks, which have been described as the oldest pieces of art in Vermont. How old? Though experts agree the carvings were made by Native Americans, they are unwilling to ascribe a specific date, or even era, to the petroglyphs, which literally means “stone carvings.” They could be anywhere from 300 to 3,000 years old.

The written observations of McClure and subsequent visitors during the 19th and early 20th centuries are invaluable because they offer a snapshot of these artifacts, which have been changing over time. If descriptions of the petroglyphs have varied since McClure’s visit, so too have the interpretations of their meaning.

Read the full article in VTDigger here.

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.

Strange Events at Vilas Bridge: A Cultural Misunderstanding?

fact cast vilas bridge

Combining local myth with a spooky storyline, the producers of Strange Events At Vilas Bridge have created a new television series they’re calling a “supernatural thriller.”

But in their efforts to tell a scary tale, are they misrepresenting local history and culture?

Read the full article by Wendy M. Levy in The Commons (02.21.2018).

Unrecorded Petroglyphs in the Valley?

gary sanderson greenfield recorder

Petroglyphs and pictographs here in the Pioneer Valley? Well, there is no question they were here. Now we’re left to ponder how many are still decipherable and where do you suppose they reside? The answer is that one never knows.

According to Edward F. Lenik, author of “Picture Rocks: American Indian Rock Art in the Northeast Woodlands (2002),” the most likely sites are around water. These shamanistic images show up throughout the Northeast, around lakes and ponds and especially near important riverside gathering places at waterfalls and mouths of rivers, where you’re apt to find carvings of fish, eels, serpents, thunderbirds, effigies, maybe deer or elk or moose, scratched into large stones and ledges, including midstream outcroppings splitting a river, and others jutting far out from the shoreline to provide natural entry and exit points for ancient canoe travelers. Remember, rivers like the Hudson, Connecticut, Merrimack, Penobscot, Saco and many others were our native peoples’ interstate highways when Europeans arrived on the scene.

Read Gary’s column musing on this topic in the Greenfield Recorder.

Strange Events at the Vilas Bridge

Alex Stradling and Mike Smith had an idea to raise community involvement in Bellows Falls.

The two run the local television station, Falls Area Community TV, Stradling as the stations executive director and Smith as the board’s president. FACT TV teaches young and old alike how to work in the broadcast industry. The station also films local town events like Select Board meetings. Lately, however, the station has been branching out into entertainment-based shows. From religion talk shows to news, to shows examining horror, FACT TV is expanding its brand.

In November, the station debuted a fictional series. “Strange Events at the Vilas Bridge,” is a roughly 49-minute show that feels like a small movie. Only the first episode has been produced and aired, but Stradling hopes to film the next episode in spring.

Stradling said the station worked together to pair experienced actors and crews with beginners.

The first episode stars four teenagers who work together to uncover the Vilas Bridge’s supernatural past. The episode has teenagers and adults working all aspects of the production.

Read the article by Harmony Birch in the Brattleboro Reformer.

*****

Thoughts: This is rather disquieting… a new pilot production at Bellows Falls’ FACT TV brings Abenaki mystical mish-mash into the plot of its local supernatural suspense drama. I have doubts about the helpfulness of this approach… At 35 minutes in, the dialogue is pretty bizarre.