The Other Side of Plymouth Rock

david brule joe graveline nolumbeka river stories

“…Native Americans in the Valley and elsewhere in New England are looking at the [Plymouth] 400th anniversary through a different lens. For them, Plymouth Colony was the opening chapter of a far grimmer story, one in which regional tribes would be stricken by European diseases such as smallpox, forced from their land, and finally decimated by the violence of King Philip’s War in 1675-1676. It’s a fraught memorial, much like 2019, which marked 400 years since the introduction of African slaves to North America.”

Read the full story in The Recorder.

Podcast: David Brule on River Stories 2020

david brule river stories podcast valley advocate

David Brule, president of the Nolumbeka Project, based in Greenfield, speaks about a series focusing on Native Americans in the Valley. The series, which will consist of about a dozen events, is in part a response to this year’s Plymouth 400 observance, which is more focused on white settlers and the 1620 Plymouth Rock landing by the Pilgrims.

Check out the podcast at the article link.

Kwenitekw: The River as Constant Change

ask the river cyanotype lovett billings wasserman

A cyanotype from “Ask the River”, a community art and creative place-making project, part of an ongoing collaboration with artists Elizabeth Billings, Evie Lovett, and Andrea Wasserman. The Brattleboro Museum & Art Center will host an associated exhibit and opening event, with details here.

I am quite smitten by these cyanotype images… I must admit they convey so much more than I had previously realized was possible, not having been very familiar with the medium. The artist team of Evie, Elizabeth, and Andrea have opened my eyes with these works (thank you!); they will play a large part, on a grand scale, with the “Ask the River” project this year. The blue is a perfect agent.

I appreciate the interaction of light and dark (they co-create each other), the suggested uncertainty of “which is which?”, and the realization that it all works together to present a recorded but dynamic moment of fluid relationship. The “capture” is open-ended, fading in and out, but it is a single depiction of circumstance. Linear time is unclear, and yet it is documented – this juxtaposition did happen, in this way. The images allow metaphor, layers of possible interpretation.

Constant: 1. not changing or varying; uniform; regular; invariable 2. continuing without pause or letup; unceasing 3. regularly recurrent; continual; persistent.

Change: 1. to make the form, nature, content, future course, etc., of (something) different from what it is or from what it would be if left alone 2. to transform or convert.

This is an Abenaki view of the world, and it is the way the language – Aln8ba8dwaw8gan – works as well. A word can have more than one meaning at the same time, as with the name of the Connecticut River, Kwenitekw. On the surface, it is usually translated “Long River”, with “kweni-” being an adjectival modifier suggesting extended length, and “-tekw” being a bound suffix used for rivers, tides, and waves.

But by bringing the underlying concepts of these two morphemes – these basic root words – forward, the name Kwenitekw can evoke something much more encompassing and suggestive. “Kweni-” can also mean a “duration”, as in a continuance – a length of space/time. An ongoing, sustained moment (like the cyanotype). And “-tekw” literally 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, which is the essence of life, that is moving and shifting, transitioning from one place to another – it is imbued with power.

And 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: “a continuous, connecting flow of spirit-power in transition.” This is an Abenaki expansive understanding behind the expression attributed to the Greek philosopher Heraclitus “No man ever steps in the same river twice…” Once this broadened perspective is absorbed, it begins to inform many other cultural situations, such as kinship, relationship, change, presence, and balance, to suggest a few. This is the way of it.

Shad Above Kchi Pontekw

w8bimagw shad 1939 illustration

It is conventional historical knowledge that, when the American Shad (Alosa sapidissima) made its prodigious late-spring spawning runs up the Kwenitekw, the silver flood of fish was stopped at Kchi Pontekw (the Great Falls), between today’s Bellows Falls,VT and North Walpole, NH. This was said to be the northernmost point on the Connecticut River for the annual migration. The  49-foot drop of the River there (over a short stretch of rapids and falls) was said to be an effective block to the passage of the shad, but not to the accompanying Atlantic Salmon who were also seeking their natal tributaries. This claim can be found in 99.9% of the sources, over a long period of time. Here’s just one recent example, from the NH Fish & Game Department:

Fish passage has been provided at the first three dams on the Merrimack River, although shad have difficulty navigating the fish passage facility at the Pawtucket Dam in Lowell, MA. On the Connecticut River, fish passage for shad is available at the three mainstream dams up to the historic limit of upstream shad migration at Bellows Falls.

There is much that can be related about this particular and significant ancient place, with respect to the seasonal gifts of sustenance and the intersections of spirit there, but those many stories will be explored elsewhere. In this post, I would like to simply document differing statements about the extent of the anadromous shad run, drawing from a local history 40 miles upstream at Lebanon, NH. In the 1908 “History of Lebanon, N.H., 1761-1887 by Charles Algernon Downs“, we find the following statement on page 189:

history of lebanon downs pg 189 shad reference

We can make a few observations in reflection upon this contradiction to the accepted notions about the travels of w8bimakok, the shad…

  • First of all, Charles Algernon Downs may have been mistaken. But given his long and early presence in Lebanon, and his character, this seems unlikely. Indeed, the Rev. Mr. Downs may well have personally known people who had fished for shad in the Mascoma, as he stipulated. This knowledge would have been well-engrained in the local lore at the time. There may very well be other such obscure references in other historical literature north of the Great Falls.
  • It would seem that, if his assertion is true, although the great rocky impediment to passage at Kchi Pontekw did indeed block the great majority of shad from traveling further upstream, a small amount found success. The many stories of the sheer number of shad that would congregate at the Great Eddy below the tumult are testimony to its effectiveness as a blockage – and its fame as a favored indigenous fishing place for millennia. Yet if vast numbers of salmon were quite successful in climbing the cataract, perhaps a percentage of shad accompanied them. The number who passed successfully may have paled in comparison to the total and thus been of lesser note to historians.
  • The complex process of shad migration is informed extrinsically and intrinsically by many factors. Some are environmental and fluctuating, such as flow velocity, temperature, salinity, light levels, and competition, among others. Others are innate: the strong homing instinct of the individual fish to the original river of its birth. The fish migrate to their respective spawning streams using genetic memory informed by chemical and magnetic guidance. Recent studies have demonstrated the incredible accuracy of this instinct. Why would there be so many shad below the falls? The migration is not a race to set an indeterminate record. It might follow that shad seeking to pass Kchi Pontekw would be following the pull of their birthplaces upstream.
  • It is no accident that Downs documented the appointment of fish inspectors Buck and Bailey in the years 1795-1797. Lebanon, NH (chartered July 4th, 1761) had only begun to be an organized colonial town a few years beforehand. It took awhile to get town business thoroughly refined, but immediately after these appointees were chosen, the dam across the Connecticut River downstream at Turners Falls, MA (now-called) was completed in 1798. It is a universally-acknowledged fact that all anadromous fish migrations dropped off drastically in that year, their journey effectively cut short at that point.
  • As a curious side note, the name of the Mascoma River, singled out by Rev. Downs as the objective of the spawning shad in his locale, is derived from the Abenaki name for the salmon. No doubt the river was, in actual use, a shared goal by both species. That word in Aln8ba8dwaw8gan is “mskwamakw’ – pronounced muh-SKWAH-mahk-uh, nearly the same as its English variant – and means, literally, “red fish.”
  • And, in an odd coincidence, the American Shad’s Latin generic name “Alosa” is identical to the Abenaki word for “to go”, which is exactly what the fish prefer to do. The Latin root, however, derives from “alausa” – a fish.

 

 

First Putney Road Bridge at Wantastegok

Three Bridges West River 1911

The famous Three Bridges at the mouth of Wantastekw/West River, looking southeast from the north bank of the River. The confluence with Kwenitekw/Connecticut River can be seen under the bridge to the left, which carries the Vermont & Massachusets Railroad, later the Boston & Maine. The covered bridge in the center carries Putney Road; the steel truss structure farthest to the right carries the West River Railroad. Note the high water, following the construction of the Vernon Dam ten miles downstream in 1909.

Two stories, like two rivers, converge at the south approach of the original trestle bridge built to carry Brattleboro, Vermont’s Putney Road over the mouth of Wantastekw/West River, just above its confluence with Kwenitekw/Connecticut River. This was not the town’s first ever bridge to span the River; the initial structure  was up the West less than  a mile away, and was constructed sometime in the 1770s. That is another story for another post. A succession of covered bridges followed that early trestle bridge at the mouth, until the last one was replaced by a steel truss slightly upstream in the twentieth century.

 

Three Bridges West River

A direct view at the north entrance of the  covered bridge that succeeded the original trestle bridge of 1796 – “Walk Your Horses.”

Thomas St. John mentions in his Brattleboro History compendium  – under the entertaining “Pike Fishing 1848” entry – the fact that:

“During the Civil War and later, a popular summer evening stroll was taken out the Asylum Street, then down the path leading through the meadows of Holland Pettis to a view of Indian Rock, then along by the old covered bridge, and the return to the Common by the Putney road. William Cabot had purchased a cigar store Indian, and for years it could be seen, propped up before the south entrance to the covered bridge.”

I have not yet been able to locate the original source for this Cabot-Cigar Store Indian anecdote; the full explanation of why William Brooks Cabot may have chosen to place such a carved wooden likeness in that location is, again, another account unto itself. But suffice it to say that Mr. Cabot, scion of one of Brattleboro’s prominent banking families, had a lifelong fascination and familiarity with northeastern Indigenous Peoples. Coupled with local historical knowledge, it is not surprising that he took this particular action at this specific place. And that leads to another, earlier account centered on the building of the trestle bridge itself in 1796, at the behest of John Blake, Esq.

“An examination of the files of the “Rising Sun,” one of the earliest newspapers published in Keene, N. H., between 1795 and 1798, shows definite information of the dates of opening [of] the bridge over the West River in Brattleboro…”

Dateline: Keene, N. H., Nov. 15, 1796.

“Last week, as the workmen at West River Bridge, Brattleboro were leveling the land adjoining the southward abutment, they dug up the bones of an Indian with some Indian implements. From the figures cut on the adjacent rocks, it appears that the place has been no mean rendezvous of the savages.”

Not only did the paper’s editors make note of the juxtaposition, but it would seem that – in recalling the incident many decades later – William Cabot was aware on a certain level that the presence of burials in the vicinity was closely linked to the nearby petroglyphs, only a few hundred feet to the west. Although it is the first such exhumation on record (that I have located thus far), this would not be the last time the ancestors of the Sokoki Abenakiak  were taken from their resting places in the name of progress.

Centered on this place of great power, Wantastegok, these Old Ones are witness to the understanding that in death, as in life, the People and the Land are one and the same. N’mikwaldam – we remember.

Becoming Present

rock dam worn potholes 2019

“For oral-history peoples, the air is ‘a thicket of meaning,’ full of stories and spirits.”

–  David Abrams

This understanding becomes more and more clear when we allow the space around us to enter, becoming continuous, rather than gazing out from a separate place.

Wanascatok: Wanaskatekw

wanasquatok wanaskwatekw

A deep, green pool at Broad Brook, toward the top of the main gradient, near the site of one of the first mills in Guilford, Vermont. 

Wanascatok (sometimes, later, as Wanasquatok) is the name historically attached to Broad Brook, which flows from the heart of today’s Town of Guilford, Vermont into the Kwenitekw just below the Brattleboro/Vernon line. It is recorded thus in the 1687 colonial land deed, the last of several that together constituted the Town of Northfield, Massachusetts. The deed covered an area of about 65,000 acres identified as Nawelet’s land, and was signed by that person, identified as a chief of the Squakheags, along with Gongequa, Aspiabemet, Haddarawansett, and Meganichcha (as recorded). The legality of these deeds will be discussed elsewhere; suffice it to say this document is a good primary source on several counts.

1687 nawelet wanascatok northfield deed

A transcription of the 1687 Northfield land deed by Nawelet with four others, from Temple and Sheldon’s “A History of the Town of Northfield, Massachusetts: for 150 Years, with an Account of the Prior Occupation of the Territory by the Squakheags.”

A contemporary Abenaki spelling would be Wanaskatekw, which roughly translates as “end of the river” or even “the rivers meet.” Wanask- signifies ‘an end’ or ‘a meeting’ and -tekw is ‘river’, as in ‘flowing, moving water.’ The reason for applying this name to this particular place requires a little exploration, informed by some familiarity with the lay of the land. Broad Brook is a medium-sized tributary of the Connecticut, with a watershed of 23.8 square miles. Since it is obviously not at the end of the Connecticut, the reference is likely to the end of Broad Brook itself – in other words, the point of its confluence with the larger river, the place where they meet. This, in turn, indicates that Wanaskatekw is not the name of the brook after all, but indicates the specific location at its mouth, as a landmark. This fits with its use in the 1687 Northfield deed to denote the northernmost bound of the land running up the west side of the Connecticut. For some reason,  later historians (not Native speakers) presumptively chose to spell the word as ‘Wanasquatok’, adding the ‘qua’ or kwa’ sound, but this is not the original form.

It follows that this location was familiar to the Sokwakiak inhabitants, and, by extension, the earliest Euro-colonizers (more on this elsewhere); amateur collectors, known to include Jason Bushnell, and probably Walter Needham and John Gale, were active in this immediate vicinity in the last century. The topography has all the hallmarks of a good site: fresh water, a confluence, good visibility, well-drained, sheltering hills to the west, and readily defensible. There are substantial wolhanak (rich alluvial planting lands) immediately adjacent, much of which are now submerged since the 1909 construction of the Vernon hydroelectric dam four miles downstream.

Bushnell Old Red Mill Vernon VT

A postcard for Jason Bushnell’s museum at the Old Red Mill in Vernon, VT, where he displayed his life’s collection of “Indian relics” and oddities. It burned down in 1962.

There was a convergence of trails here also. The primary north-south path on the west side of the Kwenitekw – the Great River Road – ran parallel to the Connecticut, hugging the bottom of the closely encroaching hills. And there was a path running west from here up the narrow ravine of Broad Brook itself, which rises in a steep gradient of about 200 feet in a mile and a half, to a lush valley nestled in the uplands. It is recorded that the earliest British settlers of what is now Guilford Town took this trail to stake their claims, first among them being Micah Rice at Weatherhead Hollow in 1761; it is the only ready access point to the uplands from the Long River and became the first road.

It should be kept in mind that place-name references in Algonquian language usages are nearly always directly descriptive, referring to observable natural attributes. Any place that matches a set of general descriptives may carry a similar toponym, in its own context. The name Wanascatok, or a variant, appears in several other places in New England. It fits here, once one is familiar with the circumstances.