An Ongoing Exploration: Getting to Know Red Ochre

iron seep 3 rt 30 brattleboro 2019

A very significant cultural component: ritual adornment, mortuary practice, healing properties, ornamentation… the importance of red ochre to the Abenaki, and to many indigenous cultures, cannot be overemphasized. The word  in Aln8baiwi is olamanjagw, red ochre mud; when mixed with grease,  it is simply olaman. In Anishinaabemowin, the word is very similar: onaman. Ochre is derived from natural iron oxide compounds, in mineral deposits, clay, or iron seeps , where iron oxidizing bacteria augment the chemical conversion.

iron ochre names royal society of canada 1885

Publication of Royal Society of Canada, 1885.

Local people sought nearby sources of this valuable material; if they were not fortunate in this respect, they were obliged to trade for it. Here in Sokwakik there is an abundance of iron in the local geology. An iron seep just north of Wantastegok yields an abundant flow of ferrous oxide mud, carried with the groundwater through a mineral-rich ledge of Waits River schist and emerging on the east face. In the summer, the iron-oxidizing bacteria colonies form amazing cellular structures. In the winter, these lose their shape and form a hard, crumbly crust. The pigmented mud accumulates in the crevices of the rock and can be collected simply, with a little careful examination of the best pockets.

The seep in summer.

The seep in winter

By collecting this dark red-brown mud, heating (oxidizing) ’til it reached its maximum color (too much heat will result in a darker, browner hue), and then sifting it, I  was able to produce a nice amount of orange/dark red/brown pigment on an initial trial. This could be further pulverized with a mortar and pestle, before mixing with a grease or oil and used for painting the body, or another use.

More to come…

 

 

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K8g8gwibakw: the Wintergreen, Teaberry, or Checkerberry

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Many are familiar with this cheerful, diminutive forest creeper (Gaultheria procumbens); it’s often one of the few wild plants the average contemporary northeasterner can identify. I grew up knowing this tiny relative, taught by my grandparents about its wonderful aroma as we picked a leaf or a berry to chew on while we walked in the pine barrens and oak scrub of eastern Long Island (NY). That it was growing under pine and oak is a good reminder of its preference for acidic soils. It is a readily encountered neighbor here in Sokwakik as well, in the hills above the Kwenitekw under similar conditions.wintergreen-hinsdale-2018

The name wintergreen is easily understood: the shiny, leathery leaves are evergreen year-round and it also holds its berries through the snow. Though a little dry, the berries have the same eponymous “oil of wintergreen” flavor as the leaves. The scent of this essential oil is primarily due to methyl salicylate, which metabolizes to salicylic acid, a common non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID). This is the same compound derived from aspirin, which is acetylsalicylic acid.  As a medicinal tea, it is best known for pain relief – an analgesic  for rheumatic symptoms, headache, fever, sore throat, and various aches and pains, along with treating kidney ailments and as a blood tonic. Otherwise, leaves are used traditionally for tea as a beverage and for flavoring in cooking. The berries are, of course, an edible nibble food much of the year.

Other common names are: teaberry, for the above reasons, and also the source of the name of Clarke’s Teaberry chewing gum – another fond childhood memory associated with my grandparents; checkerberry, for the red fruit’s fancied resemblance to that of the Old World chequer tree (Sorbus torminalis), but the resemblance ends there; partridgeberry, a common name I prefer to use for Mitchella repens, which is often found in damp sites under conifers – often hemlock; and boxberry, which seems to be provoked by another awkward fancied resemblance to the European Box tree (Buxus sempervirens), which has evergreen leaves in a somewhat similar shape, but again, the resemblance ends there.

wintergreen-chesterfield-2018

The urn-shaped, downturned flowers of waxy white (sometimes pinkish) appear pendant below the leaves in June or July and mature into bright red berries (10 mm) in late summer or autumn. Often it is the berries that catch one’s eyes first. While an extensive spread of wintergreen may appear to be a collective of happily cohabiting individuals, the colony may actually be a clonal extension of a single plant, spreading by shallow rhizomes beneath the forest duff. Also, these short (5-20 cm) clumping plants are classified as a sub-shrub similar to many other members of the heath family, and not as a tender herb, due to the woody nature of the lower stems. Not all wintergreen is found under the forest canopy; they may also be found out in the open if the soil is acidic enough, and may turn a deep wine red (pigments known as anthocyanins) as a protective measure against strong sunlight.

wintergreen-wantastiquet-early-spring-2018

The Abenaki name for wintergreen is k8g8gwibakw or k8g8gowibakw. There are a couple of ways to understand the meanings, and thus the inspiration for the naming. Gordon Day gives the translation variously (keep in mind that “k” is often interchanged with “g”, especially with Day’s orthography) in his dictionary as:

  • g8g8gowibagw – a sawtoothed leaf (the wintergreen plant)
  • g8g8gowizak – little sawtoothed ones (a variant for wintergreen)
  • g8g8gw8bagwiz- little sawtooth leaf (alternate name for wintergreen)
  • g8gowibagw – a dentate leaf (a wintergreen plant)

Here, “g8g8g-” means sawtoothed or dentate, describing the leaf margin; “-owi-” creates an adverbial form, in the sawtooth way; and “-bagw” describes a leaf, and a plant by extension. And indeed the leaf is sawtoothed, although very subtly (see photos above); each marginal tooth actually has a very small hair or spine, which may suggest the root “g8wi-” also, which signifies a thorn, or pricker, or quill (as with a porcupine).

Interestingly, the Penobscot name for wintergreen is kαkάkəwipakʷ which is raven[berry]plant, from kάkαko – the word for raven. The inspiration here is that the berries serve as food for the ravens, who are also frequenting the pine-covered mountainsides. Thus, the words for wintergreen in the two closely related languages (Western and Eastern Abenaki/Penobscot) are near-homophones, but with 2 different points of origin. It is thought the raven’s name is onomatopoetic, simulating its call. It is interesting that the raven also has a sawtoothed ruff of feathers at its throat. Other languages assign ravenberry to a different plant, red bearberry being one. There are many different trails to arrive at a destination.

 

 

Susquehanna Petroglyphs at Safe Harbor

safe harbor susquehanna petroglyphs

Although written from a tourism perspective, this article by Ad Crable in Lancaster Online does convey some sense of the sacred significance of place and symbology. We have much to remember.

#landisceremony #waterislife

There are four carvings that correspond exactly to the position of the sun for the spring and fall equinoxes and the summer and winter solstices. There are representations of the Seven Sisters constellation.

And the carvings include lots of serpentlike creatures, concentric circles, human footprints and faces, as well as elk, martens and other animals that once populated the area.

“These symbols meant a lot to these people,” says Nevin, who has been searching for, documenting and protecting the Safe Harbor petroglyphs for 35 years.

“They were meant to either transmit knowledge, stories, to give information about where the people lived or who they were. Maybe places where medicine men would come to receive visions to help their community.”

To Keep Native Medicinal Knowledge Alive, Leaders Organize Plant Walks

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A positive piece on VPR yesterday, talking and walking with Tom Beck of Nulhegan Abenaki, getting to know #allourrelations. Audio from the podcast is included.

“To prevent their collective cultural knowledge about medicinal plants from disappearing, some Vermont tribal nations are sharing their expertise with those outside the native communities.

On a recent sunny morning, a small group of 10 or so people gathered in the parking lot at the entrance to Vermont state land for a educational plant walk through the forest.

Before making it out of the parking lot, Tom Beck, one of the instructors, pointed out the first medicinal plant to the group. “Right here, this is a piece of sweet grass, it’s actually pretty long, and it’s quite nice,” says Beck. He’s a spiritual leader of the Nulhegan Band of the Coosuk Abenaki Nation, a state-recognized tribe in Vermont.

Beck has picked up a wide blade of green grass about two feet long, and he’s holding it delicately between his weathered fingers.  “When you take this and you braid it together, it’s your mind, your body and your spirit working together,” says Beck. “It’s a self-diagnostic tool.”

Beck says the sweet grass braids are burned in a ceremony, and how evenly the three strands burn is an indicator of how your mind, body and spirit are working together. It can be a reminder to attend to that balance. “If it burns straight across, you know your mind, your body and your spirit is working together equally,” Beck says.

See the full article with Kathleen Masterson on VPR News here.

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.