Correcting the Corrections

Editor of the Reformer,

This note is in reference to a letter to the editor of the Reformer published Friday, June 28, 2020, headlined “Historically inaccurate attack on Ethan Allen.” The missive purported to address perceived inaccuracies in a previous letter of June 18, “The Allen brothers are symbols of wrong done to Abenaki.” Without belaboring the politics, I must cry foul on a few of the respondent’s assertions, made to bolster the tarnished reputation of a justifiably-deflated folk hero. The response is rife with its own inaccuracies. It is indeed good to “learn abut history” and then work toward positive change.

1. Allen’s sending of Capt. Daniel Nimham, Stockbridge Mohican, to the Seven Nations in May 1775, wasn’t as much to recruit the Abenaki to the American side as it was to assure their neutrality. Further, the emissaries never made it to Caughnawaga; they were captured, convicted as spies, and nearly hung. Ethan Allen never was a true friend of the Abenaki; when members of the Missisquoi band returned to Swanton after the war, Allen ran them off, claiming it belonged to him.

2. The writer continues to work the Stockbridge Mohican angle – for some reason – claiming their territory ran up Lake Champlain to Missisquoi and east to Middlebury Center. Rather, it is widely understood – including by the Native nations themselves – that Mohican homelands meet those of the Abenaki near the juncture of lakes George and Champlain – nearly 100 miles further south.

3. The Stockbridge Mohican brigade never fought at the Battle of Bennington. They set off for the engagement late, and upon receiving word, turned back to their homes to (sadly) fight another day elsewhere.

4. Vermont’s granting in 1781 of what became Marshfield, Vermont to the Stockbridge for war services rendered was no solace or gain; they immediately were forced to trade it for debt payment to Capt. Isaac Marsh, tavern-keeper back in Stockbridge. For their troubles, most of the tribe eventually found themselves displaced 750 miles to the west.

5. Ethan Allen went before the Continental Congress in person more than once. Examples are easily documented: On June 23, 1775, Allen with Seth Warner appeared in Philadelphia to ask that the Green Mountain Boys be recognized as a regiment.

6. The Green Mountain Boys, in their several iterations, cannot be conflated with Roger’s Rangers, but there certainly was significant overlap. Members of Allen’s original Boys as well as former Rangers served together in Warner’s Extra-Continental Regiment in the Revolution.

Rich Holschuh,

Wantastegok/Brattleboro, June 29, 2020

>>This letter ran in the Brattleboro Reformer on July 7, 2020.

Community and Mental Health Providers Tackle Rising Suicide Among Abenaki

From the St. Albans Messenger – December 7, 2019 – Full article

By Michael Frett, Messenger Staff Writer

SWANTON – For several months now, a coalition of community leaders and health care providers have come together in Northwest Vermont as a disturbing trend became more apparent: Vermont’s growing suicide rates might be disproportionately affecting the Abenaki.

Suicide rates in Vermont have swelled above the national average for at least a decade now, reaching a high of 18 people per 100,000 residents in the Green Mountain State in 2018. The state currently has one of the fastest growing suicide rates in the U.S., second only to North Dakota.

A previous Messenger report examining gun-related fatalities in Northwest Vermont centered heavily on recorded suicides, the predominant source of gun violence in both Northwest Vermont and statewide.

Death certificates examined by the Messenger and Vermont Public Radio’s Gunshots project found the majority of victims to be white, middle-aged men, many of whom had a record of military service.

However, according to Brenda Gagne, an Abenaki tribal member and coordinator the Circle of Courage Afterschool Program; Jeff Benay, the Director of Indian Education for Franklin County Public Schools; and Northwestern Counseling & Support Services (NCSS)’s Director of Behavioral Health Services Steve Broer, many of those who passed were Abenaki.

“We would go through the death certificates,” Gagne said, “and we know who our people are.”

“We started meeting ten years ago and tracking the data on Abenaki suicides, and it was what we feared,” Benay said. “I think it was a lot higher than what we feared.”

Out of respect for the Abenaki community, members of the grant-funded coalition calling itself Community Partners for Suicide Prevention (CPSP) declined to share how many members of the community had died by suicide.

While state death certificates do allow for Native American identification, very few are explicitly identified among the death certificates previously analyzed by the Messenger alongside VPR’s Gunshots project.

In an email with the Messenger, a representative from the Vermont Dept. of Health said demographic information for death certificates is collected from the family, funeral directors or others responsible for the disposition of the deceased’s remains. While there is an option to list an individual as “American Indian or Alaskan Native” with a tribal affiliation, there are no assurances the reporters either include or would be aware of those affiliations.

Anecdotally, though, Benay and Gagne said the impact has been deep enough that members of the Abenaki community have joined with area health care providers and the statewide Vermont Suicide Prevention Center (VTSPC) to address regional trends in suicide that appeared to be disproportionately affecting the Abenaki.

Organized through a University of Vermont (UVM) Medical Center grant by the Title VI Indian Education Program of Franklin County’s Parent Advisory Committee (PAC), NCSS, area community health centers and VTSPC, CPSP expects to have a selection of answers developed from the bottom-up with the explicit support of the Abenaki community – new for a Native American community historically relegated to part-time subjects by health researchers.

“In the Abenaki community, there’s long been a sense that people come in and research the community, but they come at it as researchers and look at the community as objects,” Benay said. “We’re trying to remove the objectification… by doing it together.”

“It’s coming from us,” Gagne said. “We’re doing something for us and not to us.”

According to an abstract from CPSP’s application to the UVM Medical Center, while results gleaned from CPSP’s long term study will focus on “culturally sensitive care for Abenaki populations,” infrastructure and programming recommended through CPSP could be expanded for the general population.

The group will spend the next few months interviewing members of both the Abenaki community and the health care community in order to identify barriers to mental health services that might keep members of the Abenaki community from seeking mental health services.

Though CPSP’s grant application does not cite specific barriers to service, it notes that its particular region of focus – Grand Isle County – struggles with many of the risk factors typically blamed for the steady climb in suicide rates in both Vermont and the U.S. at large.

The predominately rural area remains largely isolated from service providers, and a lower population density means public health agencies struggles to reach people with information, the application says.

The Champlain Islands targeted by CPSP’s study especially struggle with their distance from service providers, many anchored in nearby Franklin County, and transportation costs can prevent those in need from seeking help.

According to Broer, regional data on deaths by suicide is tracking with national estimates that found 70 percent of those who died by suicide were not actively seeking help in the mental health care system, though many had apparently met with a primary health care provider at least a month before their passing.

Suicide rates in Vermont have ebbed and flowed over the past decade, but, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), over at least the last five years Vermont’s suicide rate has tracked above federal suicide rates, as both continue an upward climb overall.

In Vermont, suicide is the eighth leading cause of death, and with 112 Vermonters dying by suicide in 2018, suicide continues to claim more lives in Vermont every year than traffic accidents.

According to Broer, while professionals have attributed suicide trends to everything from rural isolation and the ongoing opioid epidemic to the prevalence of social media, there is no singular, clear cause for what health care providers and commentators have called a national suicide epidemic

“There are so many different pathways to suicide,” Broer said. “We’re concerned about youth. We’re concerned about older Vermonters. We’re concerned about individuals from the Abenaki community. We’re concerned about veterans.”

More generally, Broer said stigmas continue to influence discussions around suicide as well, adding, “there’s a lot of shame attached to it, too,” and many still see mental health treatments in terms of hospitalization, something that may keep some from seeking help.

“There is also the fear of being psychiatrically hospitalized when the reality is most individuals who experience suicidal thoughts, feelings and behaviors can be effectively treated in our community,” Broer said in a follow-up email to the Messenger.

NCSS, Broer said, is currently using a more personalized, evidence-based treatment called Collaborative Assessment and Management of Suicide (CAMS) in response, allowing the mental health care provider to approach patients with more flexibility when it comes to addressing suicide.

The U.S. Dept. of Health cites CAMS as a “program with evidence of effectiveness,” meaning the program has shown at least some positive impacts on treating suicide by health department metrics.

Reports of the Abenaki being disproportionately affected by trends in suicide, would track with national trends. According to the CDC, suicide impacts Native American communities more than any other demographic group in the U.S.

The Abenaki, like many First Nation peoples, saw their longtime home gradually whittled away as European – and later American – settlers spread into what is now known as New England.

According to historians William Haviland’s and Marjory Power’s The Original Vermonters, the Abenaki had lived in Vermont for centuries before the eventual arrival of Europeans. Even after initial contact with Europeans through the fur trade and French missions, the Abenaki remained the dominant culture in Vermont for some time.

By the end of the 18th century, however, decades of conflict with European settlers and increasingly large territorial claims by European and American businessmen carved the Abenaki’s longtime home into white landholdings.

As white settlements started supplanting the Abenaki across Vermont, many of the Abenaki opted to remain in their ancestral homeland. According to Haviland and Power, many took to European culture as a means to survive, eventually becoming “all but invisible” to the white neighbors who displaced them.

According to Benay and Gagne, the traumatic loss of that homeland and the ensuing marginalization of the Abenaki that followed Vermont’s statehood might have left emotional scars on the community informing at least some of its current struggles with mental health.

Researchers studying the psychological effects of historical events like genocide and mass starvation have found evidence suggesting behaviors and emotions tied to traumatic events, like anxiety or insistence on food hoarding, can also be observed several generations after the event.

The Abenaki were infamously signaled out for forced sterilizations under Vermont’s eugenics program in the first half of the 1900s, and, according to Gagne, discrimination in schools and targeting by state organizations deepened that trauma and inspired further distrust of the state and institutions among members of the Abenaki community.

“We’ve been told not to air our dirty laundry,” Gagne said. “That’s been born into us.”

That distrust, according to members of the CPSP, has trickled into the medical world as well, potentially leaving community members skeptical of mental health care providers like NCSS where, according to Gagne, identification as Abenaki might inspire certain prejudices and stigmas by default.

“We’ve already been labeled,” Gagne said. “So, if you seek out mental health care and you’re Abenaki, that’s a mark against you.”

According to NCSS’s Broer, curtailing those stigmas was one of the places where organizations like NCSS could start when it came to addressing suicides among the Abenaki. While the organization has implemented cultural competency training related to the Abenaki in the past, Broer admitted there was still a need for more systematic training for staff.

Those trainings, in turn, could be shared with other health care providers, he suggested.

Another novel pilot suggested by the group would connect veterans within the Abenaki community to one another, helping bridge some of the feelings of isolation that can come from rural life and life after military service.

According to Benay and Gagne, strides had also been made in the schools, where Gagne said she remembered growing up facing discrimination and where, through work steered by groups like the PAC and through programming like the Circles of Courage, current Abenaki students had found room to express themselves and learn about their culture that, until recently, was stigmatized in places like Swanton.

Already this year, flags were raised over the schools of the Missisquoi Valley School District and an Abenaki totem was installed at the Swanton Schools, reminding people that, according to Gagne, “we’re here and we’re going to continue to be here.”

The CPSP’s work is ongoing and members of the group warned there would likely be no single answer to the disproportionately high suicide rates facing the Abenaki.

As interviews within the Abenaki community occur, though, and as members of the community come together to discuss ways to curtail those trends, those involved appear optimistic. “It’s coming from the community,” Benay said. “It’s messy and it’s time consuming… but this is what we have to do.”

VTSPC, one of the CPSP’s leading partners, is a subset of the Center for Health and Learning, a Brattleboro-based nonprofit dedicated to suicide and substance abuse prevention.

 

This Land Is Whose Land? Indian Country and the Shortcomings of Settler Protest

abenaki-land-protest-sign

Mali Obomsawin has hit this one out of the park. She brings these truths home to Ndakinna and holds them up clear, bright, and strong. All I can ask is “Read this through carefully, take it to heart, and share widely.” It is ALWAYS about the Land and the People, inseparable.

Why do so few Americans know about Indian Country? Because the government continues to fight Native nations for land. Because American patriotism would be compromised by a full picture of American history. Because there is no one to hold patriotic historians accountable for writing Native people out of history books. The legal and moral foundation of this country is fragile, and by erasing Native people from the public consciousness, the slippery topic of “whose land is whose land,” (and why and how?), can be sidestepped altogether.

Ignorance is an accessible popular tool: it doesn’t require citizens to take up arms, acknowledge or interact with the intended target, leave their comfort zones, or jeopardize their status. As a weapon, ignorance is cheap, deniable, and nearly impossible to trace. Finally, ignorance is passively consumed and passively reproduced, cinching Native invisibility.

Link to the complete article in Smithsonian Folklife.

Full article as pdf: This Land Is Whose Land

Gray Lock: Abenaki Resistance to Colonial Expansion

The form Grey Lock took in people’s dreams was mostly a creation of their imaginations – few settlers had seen him. We only know from the name settlers called him that he had a streak of prematurely gray hair.

His Abenaki name, Wawanolewat, tells us more about his tactics. It means “he who fools the others.” Grey Lock may have seemed an avenging demon to settlers, but he had reasons for his actions.

By the early 1700s, the people of the British colonies were outgrowing the land they had settled along the coast of New England. Now they were pushing inland. The movement of settlers into western Massachusetts and Maine inevitably caused conflicts with the Native Americans already living there. By the early 1720s, the Abenaki had had enough. They issued an ultimatum to the governor of Massachusetts, demanding that he block more British settlers from moving west and occupying new territory. As a compromise, they said that existing settlers could remain. The colonial government responded by declaring war on the Abenaki.

It was during this period of struggle that Grey Lock became a name colonists feared. They had known of him since 1712, when he had led a raid on British settlers in Northampton, Massachusetts, during what was known as Queen Anne’s War. That war was part of the struggle between Britain and France for control of North America. This new war, however, would not be between European powers, but between British colonists and Native Americans.

Read the full column by Mark Bushnell in VTDigger.org.

The First Inhabitants: Before Barre Was Barre

Missisquoi Abenaki Flag

With the Barre Heritage Festival around the corner, it’s a good time to look back and celebrate Barre’s history. For many people, that means looking back over 200 years to when the town was officially founded. How about looking back over 10,000 years?

The people native to the area, the Abenaki, are a community that has lived in the central Vermont area ever since their ancestors first migrated here several thousands of years ago.

Thirty people, give or take, are “American Indian and Alaska Native alone” in Barre (City and Town) taken together according to the Vermont Census. More Abenaki people might identify as being of “two or more races,” and they aren’t included in that number.

Read the full article by Will Kyle in the Montpelier Bridge.

William Brotherton, Indian Mascots, and a Backstory

Members of the Turners Falls High School community were able to hear from William Brotherton, a lawyer and Native American who advocates for schools to keep Indian mascots. Brotherton, who is from Texas but is a member of the Abenaki Nation of Missisquoi in Vermont, was in the area and stopped in Montague Wednesday night to answer questions and discuss the Turners Falls High School situation at Hubie’s Tavern.

The Gill-Montague Regional School Committee voted in February to discontinue use of the Indian as a nickname and logo for the high school sports teams. The vote came to the disappointment of some members of the community who said they felt unheard in the decision-making process. Brotherton said there is a larger, cultural issue of political correctness in America, where people no longer feel comfortable discussing difficult issues.

Read the full story by Miranda Davis in the Greenfield Recorder.

*****

Another side of the story:

Yesterday I met William Brotherton in person for the first time. He’s a friendly, self-assured guy, and has been pro-active with me in opening up personal and intra-tribal communications. We had spoken on the phone and emailed a couple times; that afternoon, we both joined a tour of the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant (VY) in Vernon, Vermont and were able to get to know each other a little. The tour was offered to participants in VT Public Service Board (PSB, now known as the Vermont  Public Utility Commission, PUC) Docket #8880. This is the State review process for the proposed sale of VY by owner Entergy Corp. to NorthStar Group Services, for purposes of decommissioning and site restoration. I had filed in May for intervenor status on behalf of Elnu Abenaki, with the backing of the Nulhegan and Koasek bands. Brotherton, who serves on the Tribal Council  for the St. Francis Sokoki Band of the Abenaki Nation of Missisquoi, followed suit for their group shortly thereafter. The PUC process is now getting well underway with dozens of discovery and response documents going back and forth. By way of helping to inform the parties involved, the petitioners (Entergy and NorthStar) coordinated this tour within the plant’s security zone for an inside look at the scope of the project.

While on the tour of  the strongly-secured and highly industrialized site (we’re talking guards with machine guns), I asked many questions of our hosts regarding ground disturbance and oversight protocol. While I didn’t get many direct answers, Scott State (CEO of NorthStar) assured me that he understood and respected tribal concerns about cultural heritage and and wanted to be sensitive to them.  I believe he has become much more aware of these aspects than was the case previously, and while we must take any such proclamation with a grain of salt, I am guardedly optimistic that there may be some constructive dialogue going forward.

I noted that William Brotherton did not ask any questions about cultural resources. At one point, I gestured across the Kwenitekw (Connecticut River), to the eastern bank in New Hampshire, and mentioned to him about a fortified Sokoki village site there. It had been attacked in December 1663 by a  large force of Mohawk, Oneida, and Seneca warriors and successfully defended, although with a great loss of life; the land here holds many spirits, many at rest but others disquiet, whether from war or forced displacement or simply blatant disregard by modern development. William expressed surprise at what I had said. I began to understand the degree to which he was unfamiliar, indeed almost completely separated, from nearly all cultural understanding of Sokwakik. I am not sure that he knows what “Sokoki” signifies, much less represents  – if I am wrong, I welcome the conversation.

Afterward, we went down the river a half-mile and sat on a cottonwood log below the Vernon Dam, built in 1909 atop an ancient fishing site there at Great Bend. We spoke together for over an hour. I wanted to use the opportunity to talk with him about the significance of the landscape here to its people, past and present, and why we had filed as intervenors in PUC Docket #8880. I wanted to understand what he, on behalf of Missisquoi, had in mind as well. He didn’t really have an answer. I also wanted to talk to him about his endorsement, as a Tribal Council member, of the Indians team mascot/logo in Turners Falls, where he was going immediately afterward to speak to a group of supporters. I knew where he was coming from, ideologically, since I have read his articles and perused his CV.

I started by saying that I (and others) fully endorse the incorporation of a regular curriculum segment devoted to indigenous culture and the effects of colonization, not only in Turners Falls High School but all educational forums. This would probably be the best thing coming out of the entire mascot controversy, because it will help to displace the ignorance – the “not-knowing” – that brought us to this juncture and the benightedness – the “not-caring” – which follows. I pointed out to him that the contemporary indigenous people in the immediate area, Nipmuk and Abenaki, had clearly expressed their opposition to the continued use of the Indians mascot, and why this was the case. I don’t think he heard, or grasped the significance, what I was saying.

To borrow his own words, from Miranda Davis’s Recorder article: “Brotherton said there is a larger, cultural issue of political correctness in America, where people no longer feel comfortable discussing difficult issues,” this is exactly the case here. This initiative is not an erasure of history or a sanitizing campaign. Yes, this is very uncomfortable situation. It is hard to take a clear look at what has brought us all to this challenging place, recognizing that we can do much better and that everyone in the community will benefit. To NOT do so is continuing the illusion of propriety and the normalizing of disenfranchisement. This IS that difficult discussion which we are having, and to which Brotherton alludes. But first of all we need to know what we are talking about. I hope I can continue this exploration with William – I told him that as we parted on Wednesday afternoon. And I hope we can share this story with many others, in hopes for a healthier, more inclusive life for all in this beautiful place.

 

 

Missisquoi Abenaki Stand with Standing Rock

missisquoi-abenaki-standing-rock

The Abenaki Nation of Missisquoi stands with Standing Rock. Their flag waved in North Dakota, representing their solidarity, as the parent advisory committee for Title VII Indian Education spent Wednesday afternoon packing boxes full of donated winter clothing, medical supplies and non-perishable foods to ship to protesters of the Dakota Access pipeline.

The $3.7 billion pipeline has drawn opposition from the Standing Rock Sioux tribe and environmental activists who say it could pollute water supplies and destroy sacred tribal burial sites. Protesters are demanding the U.S. government halt or reroute the Dakota Access pipeline while companies behind the project ask for permission from the courts to complete it.

Looking at the stacks and stacks of donations on the table, Brenda Gagne, the president of the parent advisory committee, was in tears over the level of support and response from the community as she and other committee members organized the goods into boxes.

Read the complete story in the St. Albans Messenger.