The Burning Evidence

Again from Sokoki Abenaki country, a line of observations drawing from the statement in the previous post, quoting Hon. Charles K. Field (who married Julia Ann Kellogg, a descended cousin of Capt. Joseph Kellogg, second commander at Fort Dummer) in The Vermont Phoenix of July 7, 1876:

The intervales and meadows at Fort Dummer, upon West River, and at the Asylum farm, were found entirely bare of forest trees. Such was the fact with all the meadows on the Connecticut River at the time of the first settlement of New England. The Indians burned them over every year, and used them for planting grounds.

Much has been stated about this practice, in general, and I need not belabor it. One quote via William Cronon’s “Changes in the Land” (1983) is probably enough to stage the subject, and is appropriate here: “Selective Indian burning thus promoted the mosaic quality of New England ecosystems, creating forests in many different stages of ecological succession. In particular, regular fires promoted what ecologists call the ‘edge effect.’ By encouraging the growth of extensive regions which resembled the boundary areas between forests and grasslands, Indians created ideal habitats for a host of wildlife species.”

More specific and with a connection to Wantastegok is another quote, from the letters of Timothy Dwight IV (1822), eighth President of Yale, and grandson of his namesake, the first commander at Fort Dummer (1724) established in what would later become Brattleboro:

timothy dwight letters 1822 burning

A good overview of the Eastern Algonquian practice in general can be found here, in a USDA publication entitled “Wildland Burning by American Indians in Virginia” by Hutch Brown (2000).

Grounding this locally, we can now take a look at Walter Needham’s “A Book of Country Things” (1965). Walter was a lifelong Guilford, VT resident, who wrote (with co-author Barrows Mussey) a rather popular little book recounting the things he learned from his grandfather Leroy L. Bond, born in 1833. Among them was a familiarity with locating the signs of indigenous presence in the local landscape, a skill that Walter modestly claimed was the only thing at which he had become more adept than “Gramp”. In fact, he is known as one of the more active “relic hunters” in the immediate area (present-day Dummerston south to Vernon, Vermont); regrettably, his collections, for the most part, seem to have disappeared leaving only loose, vague accounts. The memories that remain, however, bear out a story of widespread, active settlement and extensive usage of the Kwenitekw and its landscape, counter to the prevailing Euro-American narrative that held (and often still holds) otherwise.

Speaking of the land management practices of the area’s original inhabitants, Needham relates: “Instead of plowing the cornfields like we do, the Indians burned them over every year. In most of the flat places where I find Indian relics, there’s a black line at one level of the soil, and under a [magnifying] glass you see it’s tiny pieces of charcoal.” Needham refers several times to this thin black line in the riverside stratigraphy.

Finally, we can pull another quote from a legacy account in the immediate area, the voluminous “A History of the Town of Northfield, MassachusettsFor 150 Years, with an Account of the Prior Occupation of the Territory by the Squakheags” by Josiah Howard Temple and George Sheldon (1875). This compilation (which must be read critically, as is the case with many period accounts) is the single best historical source for an admittedly colonized perspective on the Sokwakiak, the indigenous people who preceded the European incursion. Temple and Sheldon implicitly acknowledge the provenance of the land the settlers eagerly apportioned to themselves:

temple sheldon northfield history burning

And yet, “There Are No Evidences of Indian Settlements in This Town.”





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.

Mount Wantastiquet as a Prayer Seat

wantastegok wajo nibenkik

“The Indian’s Great Chair”

Pulling together some local references, with some further afield, and some discussion as to the significance of mountains and mountaintops to indigenous ways of being in relationship to place, especially certain mountains associated with certain landscapes. Keeping in mind the essence of indigeneity as an understanding of the people and the land as one entity, these places close to the sky have sacred significance and are often reserved for ceremony and ritual. Specific knowledge of these places may understandably not be a part of the historic record, but some hint or allusion may be found in careful readings, and connections made, and remade, by implication from comparable instances elsewhere.

The mountain we now refer to as Mount Wantastiquet  (Wantastegok Wajo, 1350′) stands on the east bank of the Kwenitekw/Connecticut River opposite the mouths of the Wantastekw/West River and Kitad8gansibo/Whetstone Brook and lies in today’s towns of Hinsdale and Chesterfield, New Hampshire. Its steep forested flanks, rising abruptly on the morning side of the long river valley (over 1100′), anchor the immediate landscape and provide a ready reference point from wherever a vantage can be gained above the trees, across the many dips in the rolling terrain of the Piedmont. Likewise, it looms ahead for many miles as a landmark – upstream or down – for any paddler on the mainstem, signaling the confluence of the two rivers that inform Wantastegok. Brief mention was made of its prominence in a recent post, noting that it was characterized in some old accounts as “the Indian’s Great Chair.” The nearly identical reference is made in two local history books: The Gazetteer of Cheshire County, NH: 1736-1885 by Hamilton Child (1885) and the History of Chesterfield, Cheshire County, NH from the Incorporation of “Township Number One” by Massachusetts, in 1736, to the year 1881… by Oren Randall (1882). The former gives credit to the latter as his source. Child’s description is worth sharing.

hamilton child gazeteer great chair

Let’s look a little further northwest in N’dakinna, Western Abenaki country, to one of the best known of Vermont’s Green Mountains, and its third highest, the peak known as Camel’s Hump (4081′). It is probably the most easily recognized of the state’s summits for its distinctive two-humped profile  (featured on the official VT Coat of Arms, the 2001 state quarter, and the conservation license plate), which is a classic demonstration of  its glacial past.

“The summit is an extreme example of a roche moutonnée, literally “sheep rock,” so named by geomorphologists because of a perceived similarity to sleeping sheep. As a glacier advances, it glides over ridgetops, smoothing them over. On the lee side, a steep slope forms as ice freezes into the hillside and plucks rocks away. Thus, on Camel’s Hump, the northern flank of the mountain—the lower hump—is smoothed over, but the southern flank—the taller rock hump—forms a steep rock face.”

Camels Hump VT Wiki

The singular profile of  Tawapodiwajo/Camel’s Hump from the east.

The peak has had its share of names from Champlain forward, but its original Aln8baodwaw8gan/Western Abenaki name has been variously reported as – according to John C. Huden’s Indian Place Names of New England (1962) – “ta wak be dee esso wadso,” or “tahwahbodeay wadso” (wadso meaning mountain),” fancifully translated as “prudently, we make a campfire in a circle near water (and rest) at this mountain.” But a more sober, simple, and accurate explanation is attributed by Huden to Rowland Robinson as “resting place, or sit-down place, mountain.” This is found more than once in Robinson’s own prolific writings, in one case within “Hunting Without a Gun, and Other Papers” (1905),  in the footnotes on page 33. As a source, Dr. Gordon M. Day attests to the veracity and familiarity of Robinson with the Abenaki language, which he had heard for himself in the late 19th century from Native speakers,  in his brief essay “Ethnology in the Works of Rowland E. Robinson.” Walter Hill Crockett cites Robinson’s place names as well, in his “Vermont, the Green Mountain State” (1921).

Day’s Western Abenaki Dictionary Volume II (1994) gives “dawabodi” (or “tawapodi”) as “something one sits down into; a hollow seat, can be used for a saddle.” And further, “dawaopodiiwajo” means “place to sit in mountain; saddle mountain; mountain seat; Camel’s Hump, VT.” Here, now, we see another reference to a mountain as a seat. (By the way, another Abenaki cognative for the peak, akin and antecedent to the Camel’s Hump moniker, is “moziozagan” for “moose’s shoulder or moose’s hump.”)  The video below gives a good idea of the circumferential prospect from the mountain.

Going just a little further afield, at the edge of Abenaki homelands but still well within the Algonquian-speaking region of New England, we can find a couple other examples of the seat or chair usage in reference to rocky heights. Just below the Great Falls on the Kwenitekw on the southern edge of Sokwakik/Sokoki country, and at the southern terminus of the Pocumtuck Range at Wequamps/Mount Sugarloaf (read Marge Bruchac’s insightful explanation of the landscape here), there is a striking prospect of the river valley and surrounding hills from a sheer red sandstone bluff in South Deerfield. The bare ledges and strong profile form yet another landmark to orient an approaching canoe paddler on the River, or a traveler on one of the many footpaths converging at the Falls a couple miles upstream. Just under the brow, there is a lookout point known as King Philip’s Seat, referring to Pokanoket-Wampanoag sachem Metacom/King Philip. There are several legendary King Philip’s Seats in New England, and while this lookout’s toponymic genesis may not have a solid basis in fact, Metacom was indeed very much present in the area, during the intense war that bears his name, and the site meets anyone’s need for an elevated, comprehensive perspective. A mindful consideration of the mountain’s lofty vantage and its possible indigenous uses, written by area columnist Gary Sanderson, was featured in The (Greenfield) Recorder this past summer. His provocative thoughts lead us closer to the reconnections we are considering to the north at Mount Wantastiquet.

king philip's seat mount sugarloafsugarloaf king philip's chair

A souvenir postcard from the early 20th century and an extract from the Automobile Journal, Volume 35 (1913) promote the site’s legendary past.

One more area example can be found a little to the west in the Berkshires, in Mahican country, near the Massachusetts/New York border. Yokun Seat (2133′) is a peak in the Yokun Ridge, west of Lenox, MA and overlooking the valley of the winding Ausatenuk/Housatonic (“place beyond the mountain”) River – in Abenaki, Awasadenik, with the same meaning. The mountain’s name is explained in the Wikipedia entry for Yokun Ridge: “The name Yokun derives from Jehoiakim Yokun, a Native American of the Mahican tribe. As early as the 19th Century, Yokun’s name was applied to “Yokun Seat,” a summit of Lenox Mountain. This term was accepted by the Board of Geographic Names in 1894.” This Jehoiakim, Mahican-ized to “Yokun,” seems to have been a namesake for the community-accepted  Dutch settler Jehoiakim Van Valkenburg, who moved to the area from Kinderhook, NY about 1728.  It seems that Yokun’s name may have been affixed to the Berkshires peak partly as a reflection of his significant land speculation, but again, we find the word “seat” applied to the top of a mountain.

jehoiakim yokun land speculator

Now for a final example, much farther away and set in a distinctly different cultural and language family, but demonstrating an overlap in cultural practices: Indian Seats in the Sawnee Mountain (1963′) Preserve. Forty miles north of Atlanta, this is Northern Creek/Muscogean country; the Cherokee were very late arrivals in the late eighteenth century. Notwithstanding that, the mountain is said to be named for a Cherokee man (Saunee or Sawnee) who resided in the immediate area until he was forced to relocate far to the west, with his people, under Andrew Jackson’s Indian Removal Act. The Indian Seats themselves are described thus: “…carved in the lofty, sheer face of the mountaintop [there] are several natural depressions in the rock, legendarily used by local tribes as seats for lookouts and meditation for many centuries.” Some sources state that there is evidence of the site being used for ceremonial purposes at least as early as 2500 BCE by various Woodland cultures.

indian seats sawnee mountain preserve GA

Indian Seats outlook at Sawnee Mountain Preserve, Forsyth County, Georgia

Two chapters which give some background, from an anthropological and archaeological viewpoint, about the spiritual significance of “mountaintop seats” can be found here and here: BernbaumSacredMountains. These are outside observers, but their remarks are pertinent.

Here I leave this trail up Mount Wantastiquet, and will let the mountain speak for itself, under the dome of the sky and encircled by the horizon.

Those who come afterward to these places,  unaware, or arriving after the stories have been hidden, altered, suppressed, or rewritten, may not see what is present. Perhaps their perception is simply lacking, or more likely, has been co-opted by another way of being in the world, the way of separation and objectification. This lack of  individual or systemic awareness does not mean these other, original ways are displaced or irrelevant. Those possibilities persist, seeking only acknowledgement and reciprocity from those who seek to be present.





WNPR and Lisa Brook’s Forthcoming Book: Our Beloved Kin

our beloved kin lisa brooks book
Coming out on January 9, 2018 from Yale University Press – this looks amazing… A compelling and original recovery of Native American resistance and adaptation to colonial America.

With rigorous original scholarship and creative narration, Lisa Brooks recovers a complex picture of war, captivity, and Native resistance during the “First Indian War” (later named King Philip’s War) by relaying the stories of Weetamoo, a female Wampanoag leader, and James Printer, a Nipmuc scholar, whose stories converge in the captivity of Mary Rowlandson. Through both a narrow focus on Weetamoo, Printer, and their network of relations, and a far broader scope that includes vast Indigenous geographies, Brooks leads us to a new understanding of the history of colonial New England and of American origins. Brooks’s pathbreaking scholarship is grounded not just in extensive archival research but also in the land and communities of Native New England, reading the actions of actors during the seventeenth century alongside an analysis of the landscape and interpretations informed by tribal history.

Listen to a NEXT interview by John Dankosky on WNPR with author Professor Lisa Brooks about her compelling new work “Our Beloved Kin” (scroll halfway down).

Pre-order a copy here.

Lisa Brooks is associate professor of English and American studies at Amherst College. She is author of The Common Pot: The Recovery of Native Space in the Northeast.

The Indian’s Great Chair

wantastegok wajo south kwenitekw fort dummer

The view downstream (SSW) from a southerly ridge of Wantastegok Wajo – one can clearly see the site of Fort Dummer, now submerged. Old accounts state that the mountain was the “Indian’s Great Chair, ” from which the comings and goings could be closely watched at a great distance.

google map distance from fort dummer to south ridge prospect