Words and Abenaki Heritage in Wantastegok

abenaki words project roundtable poster

Read: Press Release_ The Roundtable Discussion Series, Words & Abenaki History

See the Facebook Event page here.


Sokwakik Today: Volunteers Prepare Accessible Trail in Northfield

greenfield recorder shelby ashline mt grace trail northfield

“Since the project began, Rasku said Mount Grace has coordinated with the Abenaki, Nipmuc, Narragansett and Wampanoag tribes due to the land’s cultural significance.

“It’s had a lot of features tribal nations would appreciate,” he said, explaining the tribes could gather medicinal plants, harvest the nearby farm fields and take advantage of the water source, making the area around the pond active.

As such, Rasku said that in making the accessible trail, Mount Grace has avoided changing the terrain or excavating out of respect for the land’s Native American history.”

Read the full article by Shelby Ashline in the Greenfield Recorder here.


Interpretive signage on the Ames Trail will include information about Abenaki cultural lifeways and language translations for our many indigenous relations. Aln8baodwaw8gan!

The River In Us

I was asked by someone recently what is it that makes the Kwenitekw, n’sibo, our river, sacred. Is it the traditional fishing places? Is it the burials of the ancestors? What follows is my reply:

Thank you for asking; these are understandings that are foundational and go below the surface of things. I hope we have a chance to speak together again some day, for it is simpler to express these things in person. But I will share a few things:
  • It is important to remember that words have power and they derive from our worldview, which is expressed in the cultural tool we call language. There are many languages, and many ways of seeing the world. They differ dramatically, and the use of a word, or concept, can mean very different things to different people. Thus, “sacred.” When speaking of Abenaki cultural concepts, one cannot look at it through a Western religious lens. The dictionary definitions that fit “sacred” best are (from Merriam-Webster): 1) entitled to reverence and respect and 2) highly valued and important, as in “a sacred responsibility.” It is not a religious designation, but rather a spiritual recognition.
  • So, with regard to your questions of the river’s significance regarding fishing locations or burial grounds, the answer is yes, all of that, and much more. The reason being that we are all related, all equally significant, and part of the same great circle of Creation. Time does not exist in a linear sense, but is a continuum, constantly changing but all part of the same. Thus, we as human beings (in common with, say, plant beings, fish beings, stone beings, wind beings) have a ongoing responsibility to honor these relationships. We cannot act to harm the River, as it is as deserving of respect as anyone else, and in fact, we derive our very life from it – it would be very shortsighted to do otherwise..
  • As indigenous people (defined as the original people of a distinct place), we so identify with our homelands that we see ourselves as part of it, inseparable and continuous. For example, when an Abenaki person identifies him- or herself, they would not say “My name is so-and-so and I live in Brattleboro.” They would state “… I am Brattleboro.” Consequently, one’s attitudes and actions toward the River, are as unto one’s very self and one’s family, because it is exactly that. We (most of us!) consider human life to be sacred. So is the river.
  • You have heard the expression, especially this past year with the action at Standing Rock, that “Water Is Life.” This plays out clearly in the Abenaki language, which by nature embodies its cultural worldview. Let me explain that, in a Native sense, the well-known term “medicine” means anything that promotes or sustains health and vitality – this makes complete sense, but in our Western way of thinking it has been separated and limited into a drug that addresses (often only symptomatically) sickness. It has got the relationship backwards and misses most of the bigger picture of the interconnectedness of life. The word for water in Abenaki is “nebi”; the word for medicine in Abenaki is “nebizon.” So, you can see, that water is at the heart of life. The River is our great provider, for which we can only be grateful.
  • To learn that burials are often at the edge of the River is no coincidence. I don’t think I even need to explain that one! It is a place where strong connections have always been made, and where they can be accessed over and over. We go there to pay our respects to our ancestors, to say thank you to the water, and to pray for the same blessings for the generations to come. It is our “church.” There are certainly other places that are important as well, but the River is at the heart of them all. It unifies and connects – think in terms of a watershed – a flowing cradle, a web, an endless cycle enveloping the people.

In the Center of Everything

Tiokasin Ghosthorse was setting the scene for a story at a gathering which I joined this past winter. He recounted a little nondescript location far away, a place which is usually characterized as being “in the middle of nowhere.” But he turned that dismissal in upon itself, and stated that it was “in the center of everything.” It was an illuminating moment, demonstrating the power of words. It has taken root and stayed with me. Language, worldview, perspective, experience – these things matter, everything matters.

Rather than making a zero-sum equation, a calculation of worth, and finding it of little or no value – objectifying, a characteristic of an English-speaking worldview, noun-based and categorical – this place was seen as a core participant in the narration of what was occurring. It was in relationship. It is a very different way of experiencing a moment as part of a whole. It is “being in” rather than “looking at.” The difference between a point on a line / a separation of otherness, and an infinite web of connection in an expanding universe.

Dartmouth Senior Fellowship Project: Saving the Potawatomi Language

corinne kaspar dartmouth potawatomi eli burakian

Corinne Kasper ’17, who belongs to the Pokagon Band of the Potawatomi tribe in southwestern Michigan, has been studying her native language since she was 13 years old. But fluent speakers and teachers of Potawatomi have been dwindling as English has become dominant. Kasper, a linguistics major, is developing teaching tools to help people learn or re-learn an endangered language that she sees as a cornerstone of her culture.

“This is what I want to do for the rest of my life,” says Kasper, who holds a Mellon Mays Fellowship. She’s one of five senior fellows who, recognized for academic excellence, are freed from classes in their final year to concentrate on a single project. The projects conducted by the senior fellows are funded by the Kaminsky Family Fund. Gerry Kaminsky ’61, who established the fund, was himself a senior fellow at Dartmouth.

For her thesis, Kasper is studying three similar languages: Potawatomi, Ojibwe, and Odawa. She’s doing something she says has not been done before: making a study guide about the formation and function of verbs. Potawatomi’s verb system is difficult for language learners to master, and she wants to make it easier.

Read this encouraging story by Charlotte Albright in the Dartmouth News. Photo by Eli Burakian.

Tim Brookes and Endangered Alphabets at Champlain College


For his exhibition, Tim Brookes carved phrases into indigenous wood using disappearing or endangered alphabets from across the globe. Pictured, in Abenaki, the phrase, ‘Language of the grandfathers who went before’ is carved into a plank of walnut. Photo from VPR.

Six years ago, writer and Champlain College professor Tim Brookes carved letters into wooden planks to give to family as holiday gifts. The presents were well received and Brookes enjoyed his new hobby. He added new and different alphabet letters and languages to his hand-carved signs. Then, by chance, Brookes learned just how many of the globe’s writing systems were disappearing and a project was born: The Endangered Alphabets Project.

Brookes talked with VPR about the Endangered Alphabets Project exhibition, up now at Champlain College through March 10. The thirteen carvings each bear the phrase, “Mother Tongue,” written in Abenaki, Balinese, Mandean, Inuktitut and several other cultures whose written word is disappearing.

Full article and podcast at VPR.

Remove the Dust

‎From John Kane on his FaceBook Page “Let’s Talk Native… with John Kane”

Back in 2008 I started a blog http://www.letstalknativepride.blogspot.com. This was my first post. I look back from time to time on what the last decade has brought to us. Check it out:

Time To Learn
Or time to relearn. We have lost our way, not our ways. We have let others define us with their telling of history, their view of spirituality, their laws and their economy. Our belief systems are not lost. They are covered with ignorance, fear and shame; just dust. It is time to Remove The Dust. This is the expression our ancestors used when it was time to remind ourselves who we are. By removing the dust from our old wampums we could revisit their meanings and most of all, talk about it. We are referred to as an oral society as if that is some how primitive. Our voices are the most powerful tools we have. The ability to speak and listen is the power to teach and learn. For all the writing and reading we will ever do, it would teach us nothing if we couldn’t discuss it. Technology now allows us to have voices in this new medium. So let’s talk. Let’s teach. Let’s learn.

A very similar thought is expressed in Keith Basso’s “Wisdom Sits In Places: Landscape and Language Among the Western Apache.” What a wonderful exploration of these traditional ways of knowing!