VTDigger: Abenaki Tribal Statement on Indigenous Peoples’ Day

Editor’s note: This commentary is by Melody Walker Brook and Mike Plante on behalf of the Elnu, Nulhegan and Koasek Bands of the Abenaki.

In many people’s minds, the blessings of a bountiful life in a place like the United States of America were made possible by the exploration and colonization ushered in by Christopher Columbus. However, this view is only one story of many. This continent was filled with hundreds of unique civilizations — sovereign nations comprised of millions of indigenous peoples, the original inhabitants of these lands. Those millions were forced to accept devastation as the price for someone else’s dream.

The European conquerors brought with them virulent diseases, ideological warfare and the seeds of manifest destiny. As Robin Wall Kimmerer so eloquently stated in “Braiding Sweetgrass,” “And then they met – the offspring of Skywoman and the children of Eve – and the land around us bears the scars of that meeting, the echoes of our stories.” To understand how a land was won, equity mandates that one also recognize that for someone else, it was lost. When the values that necessitated struggle rather than cooperation met with might, suffering was left in its wake and for this reason Columbus Day has always been a day of mourning for indigenous people. As human beings, we all have frailties and fears, but we also have the ability to recognize them and aspire to a higher standard.

The original inhabitants are the ultimate conscience of this continent and the modern nation state has yet to look at those faces and come to terms with its past. Christopher Columbus not only launched European dominance in the Americas but also held values that today can be considered abhorrent — from the claiming of slaves and women’s bodies to the very idea that he could not recognize them as fellow human beings. While we can understand that these practices were common “in their time,” we can also recognize that they were, and certainly still are, wrong. How can a country heal and move past the injustices of history when a person with these values is honored in today’s society and the deleterious effects are still being felt? It is a willful abrogation of awareness and acknowledgement. The Elnu, Koasek and Nulhegan Bands of Abenaki people would like to formally state that these are not our values and we wish to encourage a more complete understanding. The proclamation of Vermont Gov. Phil Scott recognizing Indigenous Peoples’ Day in 2017, reaffirming the previous year’s action by Gov. Peter Shumlin, is a strong affirmation of movement in a better direction.

During the centuries of colonization that followed Columbus’ arrival, indigenous people have experienced the scourges of virgin-soil epidemics, chattel slavery, missionization and cultural genocide, outright extermination, “righteous” warfare, reservations, the boarding schools, eugenics programs, termination policies, the imposition of blood quantum rules, and continuous attacks on sovereignty, religious freedom, and the pursuit of happiness. This onslaught continues. Environmental destruction that others have refused to accept continues to be imposed on their lands, such as the Dakota Access Pipeline, with other compromising energy infrastructure projects planned even here in the Northeast. The image of dogs attacking indigenous people at Standing Rock, juxtaposed with the use of dogs during the era of Columbus as described by Bartolome de Las Casas, begs the question: When does it end? Sacred places are still destroyed to turn a profit. When religion is not found in a book but in a place and those places are destroyed or sites are rendered inaccessible, is there religious freedom for all? Indigenous people continue to exist in their Eden, yet experience an ongoing onslaught from those thrown out of their own. The effects are long-lasting and continue to surface across indigenous country in the form of alcoholism, substance abuse, poverty, missing and murdered indigenous women, extremely high suicide rates, and a host of other issues. Racialized mascots continue to exist – stereotyped caricatures that are not reflective of real human beings – a projected idea of a people rather than who they are in actuality. Where can spirit exist in all of this? Is it possible to move forward from the degradation of the past into a place that restores and reinforces our spirits?

The “gift” of civilization, as posited by the European arrivals and forced upon indigenous people throughout the era of colonization, we would like to formally decline. Rather, we invite you this year and going forward to put on your Abenaki glasses and see the world from a different perspective. Removal of a day to honor Columbus is a major step toward recognizing indigenous humanity and the validity of our cultures. Perhaps if mainstream Americans can begin to see the beauty of original peoples, our cultures and our unique ways of looking at the world, we can we move into a place of healing and community building — together. The replacement of Columbus Day is not rewriting history – what has happened has happened – it is an acknowledgement of the cost this “progress” has had on the indigenous populations. This is a day to affirm indigenous peoples and a day to mourn those people, human and non-human, that suffered.

Therefore, the Nulhegan Band, Koasek Band and Elnu Band see Indigenous Peoples’ Day as a time to reflect upon what has been lost but also as a formal exclamation to the world that we are still here. We have value and resilience. Much can be learned from the more than 500 nations that continue to exist on this continent. One of Columbus’ first acts as he landed in someone else’s homeland was to lay claim through right of discovery and to rename as a form of ownership. Indigenous Peoples’ Day is an acknowledgement that he failed. We still remember the names of these places and our relations and we have not forgotten our own name. For those outside of our memory, the mission remains to bring them home. This is still our homeland and the bones of our ancestors speak to us.

In conclusion, one of the legacies of Columbus is what NOT to do. When meeting new people, friendship is possible when you recognize their humanity; imagine a place where all can express their identity in a way that celebrates different ways of knowing! The governor’s proclamation for Indigenous Peoples’ Day has given us more of a voice and we as Abenakis invite people to seek out tribally sponsored events and have a conversation with us. This is a new world for everyone and moving forward let us all recognize that it can be created with understanding, cooperation, and reciprocity. There is a more beautiful world that is possible, let us shape it together.

*****

Nialach! May it be so.

Published at vtdigger.org here.

pdf here: abenaki tribal statement indigenous peoples day

Advertisements

Presenting Abenaki Culture in the Classroom Workshop

vermont abenaki artists association cultural education

Members of the Vermont Abenaki Artists Association serve as faculty for this one-day professional development seminar at Lake Champlain Maritime Museum (LCMM), designed to provide teachers and homeschool educators with new resources and techniques to help elementary students learn about the Abenaki tribe. This program is supported by a grant from the Vermont Humanities Council.

Abenaki culture and history that spans 11,000 years in the Champlain Valley will be introduced by culture bearers with a deep understanding of how this vibrant regional culture continues into the 21st century. Some of the topics include: history and stereotypes; new resources being developed for use in classrooms; age-appropriate activities; and learning how you can better support Abenaki and other Native students while presenting American history. The program includes a gallery talk and tour of the traveling exhibition Alnobak: Wearing Our Heritage that explores Abenaki identity and continuity through the lens of the clothing we make and wear to express our identity.

When: Wednesday, August 2, 2017 from 9:30 am – 4 pm
Where: Lake Champlain Maritime Museum, 4472 Basin Harbor Rd., Vergennes, VT
Cost: $15 registration fee includes lunch and program materials.

Instructors:

Melody Walker Brook is an Adjunct Professor at Champlain College and has taught The Abenakis and Their Neighbors and Abenaki Spirituality at Johnson State College. She serves on the Vermont Commission of Native American Affairs and is a traditional beadworker and finger weaver.

Liz Charlebois, Abenaki culture bearer, is a powwow dancer, traditional bead worker, ash basket maker, and bitten birch bark artist. She cultivates a traditional garden and has organized a seed bank of heirloom seeds grown by the Indigenous people of the Northeast. Liz has served on the New Hampshire Commission of Native American Affairs and as Education Specialist at the Mt. Kearsarge Indian Museum in Warner, NH.

Lina Longtoe is certified Project WILD instructor for the Growing Up WILD, Aquatic WILD and Project WILD K – 12 programs, which are sponsored by the EPA, US Fish and Wildlife, and the National Wildlife Federation. Her area of study is environmental science with a concentration in sustainability. She is Tribal Documentarian for the Elnu Abenaki Tribe and maintains a YouTube channel to help preserve Abenaki culture.

Vera Longtoe Sheehan, Director of the Vermont Abenaki Artists Association, has a background in Museum Studies and Native American Studies. She has been designing and implementing educational programs with museums, schools and historic sites for over twenty-five years. Her art is focused on traditional clothing and twined woven plant fiber bags.

For more information, please contact:
Vera Longtoe Sheehan, Vermont Abenaki Artists Association vera.sheehan@abenakiart.org

Annual Abenaki Heritage Weekend at Lake Champlain Maritime Museum

Next weekend, June 24 &25, 2017, at Lake Champlain Maritime Museum in Vergennes, Vermont. This is a wonderful, friendly, and positive gathering. A schedule of the planned activities is below:

abenaki heritage weekend schedule

Abenaki Women Share Heritage With Champlain College Community

abenaki-women-drumming-champlain-college

Lucy Cannon-Neel travels all over the Green Mountain State to teach Abenaki history and culture to elementary school students. But on Wednesday, she found herself co-leading an Abenaki drumming workshop to a much older audience at Champlain College.

The workshop was the last in a series of events organized by Melody Brook, operations manager of residential life and adjunct professor with the Division of Education and Human Studies at Champlain College, to commemorate Native and Indigenous Heritage Month. Cannon-Neel, a registered nurse, is the chair of the Vermont Commission on Native American Affairs. Brook is the commission’s vice-chair.

Read the full story at Seven Days.

Abenaki Citizen Visits Heartworks Preschool

melody-brook-heartworks-school-stowe

Melody Walker Brook, a citizen of the Elnu Abenaki Tribe, visited the children in the four- and five-year old classrooms at the Heartworks Preschool in Stowe on Oct. 28. She shared stories, music and traditional items like clothing, games, baskets, beads, and musical instruments. Brook’s presentation was part of the school-wide theme of Native Americans that students in Heartworks will explore during November. Brook, an activist and artist, is an adjunct professor at Champlain College (story correction) where she teaches Native American Worldview and Spirituality, Native American History and Culture, and Abenakis and Their Neighbors. She is a member of the Vermont Abenaki Artist Association, which works to promote Vermont’s indigenous arts and artists.

See the original story in the Stowe Reporter at StoweToday.com.

Recorder Op-Ed: Melody Walker Brook

melody-walker-brook

“The Indians mascot debases 500 Nations by treating us as all the same”

The Greenfield Recorder has just featured a column in their My Turn section, with Melody Walker Brook’s (Elnu Abenaki) perspective on the Turners Falls mascot/logo debate. A slightly different version of her thoughts appeared in the Montague Reporter recently and can be found in this post. I have reprinted the column in its entirety below; the Recorder’s original can be found here.

Quote:

As I tried to formulate my response to a sports team that continues to hold on to a caricature of an indigenous person as their mascot, I stepped back in order to understand the whole picture.

I looked up statistics surrounding missing and murdered indigenous women.

I looked up suicide rates.

I looked up statistics of heart disease and diabetes.

I looked up incarceration rates.

My Facebook feed this morning was full of images of the Dakota Pipeline Water Protectors and protests in Mi’kmaq territory surrounding natural gas storage sites, both of which are absent on mainstream media sources.

There was even a photo of football players in their Redskins uniforms raising their fists in support of Black Lives Matter and wearing a jersey that proves how others, even other marginalized groups, see indigenous people.

What does this have to do with a mascot in Turners Falls?

Everything.

These seemingly unrelated issues are connected to a theme of invisibility and a lack of empathy for indigenous people, one of the most marginalized populations on Turtle Island. The issues that plague Indian country are symptoms of a much broader problem that perpetuate them.

A mascot that debases more than 500 Nations into a single (and incorrect) stereotype represents more than 400 years of colonialism and is the symbol for a world that has never cared about their suffering.

The people advocating for the mascot do not see the faces of the indigenous children shipped to boarding schools.

They do not see the societies confined to reservations, outside of the public eye, struggling with substance abuse and health issues.

They do not see the constant attack to indigenous values or the bodies of all of those killed creating a country that people are proud to call home.

They see a caricature of an Indian with a headdress, the stereotypical Plains warrior of legend, doomed to fall. The warriors of the past long gone.

They may even think it is honoring them, but, to at least some indigenous people, this is a further affront to countless individuals and groups, shredding every last ounce of their souls to reclaim their past and secure a better future, one filled with pride and the possibility that every other American thinks they have — the pursuit of happiness. Most importantly, people are struggling just to be seen as human beings.

The Turners Falls mascot is a generic “Indian” with the Plains style headdress — in the Northeast. What does that message convey? It has nothing to do with the history of the area.

As a citizen of a local tribe, this mascot does not represent me. It certainly does not honor me. I am hard-pressed to come up with an example in the Northeast of a headdress style similar to the Plains region. It does not fit.

The generic “Indian” mascot, in essence, wipes out the identity of more than 500 Nations, because placing that image in a locale that has nothing to do with the Plains smacks of the message that it does not matter whether they depict local groups or Plains groups: They are all the same.

The regional piece is lost, and all Indians once again are painted in the typical vein of ambiguity and the fake image of the noble savage or the mystical warrior.

When we as a society marginalize and shape human beings into caricatures, we are complicit in the violence against them, metaphorically and literally.

What happens when people are reduced from personhood, and they are no longer seen as human beings? What happens when real human beings are left out of the media or ignored by most people in dominant society? Society can continue to treat them as they always have, while symptoms of what was broken remain in their communities.

Mascots could be a visible reminder of people often forgotten, and yet you do not see their real faces. The mask of what you want Indians to be shields you from the realities of indigenous life.

Misrepresentation is a dishonor. It is more than that. It is a travesty and it is no wonder that in this world, indigenous women are stolen and attacked at higher rates than other populations.

It is no wonder that indigenous people have little to no media coverage of efforts just to be able to have clean drinking water or to safeguard their sacred sites from those looking to turn a profit. Apathy begins when people are young and is perpetuated by those who do not place value on all walks of life.

All “Indians” are just generic warriors or a dying race of people without identity. To mainstream society, they are not people.

We can do better. Change the mascot and teach students how to be responsible citizens in a world desperately in need of them.

*****

Melody Walker Brook is a citizen of the Elnu Abenaki Tribe and is an educator, activist and artisan. She has served on several state level committees, including two terms as the vice chair of the Vermont Commission on Native American Affairs and as a member of the Waolwozi N.H. Minority Board of Health Steering Committee. She earned a master’s degree from the University of Vermont in history and currently teaches and works at Champlain College.