Kwenitekw – The Long Story

kwenitekw-prospect-wantastegok-may-2016

It is a traditional understanding that Creation is continual – the only constant is change. What we see now was once something else, and what may come afterward will only be known when it is here. All that we encounter is made of the same substances… combining, recombining, transitioning, growing, fading. It has all “always been here” and it is still here. We are each a part of everything else in this whole we call Creation, in a very pragmatic manner, and even now there is change underway: things will be different afterward but Creation continues.

To state that something is “exactly this or that” is to not see the situation as it truly manifests itself. This is the mind of separation and objectification – the illusion of control – which, after all, is the process of colonization, and the (literal) force that has been and is having a great effect upon our existence here on this Earth. When we step out of a recognition that we are in a continually evolving relationship with everything around us, we move away from balance and toward increasing disarray and dysfunction. We are no longer fulfilling our roles and responsibilities.

We see the world in part, for at least several reasons. Internally, our individual life lessons color our experience; in other words, we can only understand the world in terms of what we already know of it, and if we encounter something unfamiliar, we either learn from that moment, or not. Externally, our cultures frame our worldview; they provide the tools, including language, by which we make meaning and interpret our intersections with our surroundings. And, on a practical, material level, our degree of perspective is necessarily limited by both the physical location at which we are situated, and by how much attention we devote to the moment. We see what is before us, if we are present there and then, using our full senses – and those need not be limited to the basic five. There are many ways to be “sense-itive.”

west-river-december-brattleboro-2018

All of this suggests that there are multiple, equally valid experiences of existence – many ways of being – and all of these entities are experiencing each other at the same time. There are layers of relationship, always in motion and shifting, seen and unseen, moving between forms and effects, all present at once and energized by the Spirit within. There is no “one objective way of being,” since all is in constant flux and centered on the interactions of that moment. This is not license for carelessness and anarchy, but a call to recognition and responsibility.

This is an Indigenous view of the world. This is why Place is so important. These interactions and overlapping realities are shaped by the ways that the entities of a particular place are relating to each other, in the moment – they are present, together, in that Place. In any other location, there would be necessarily be a different set of actors, interacting in different ways. The dictionary definition of an Indigenous person is “ the original people of a place.” The critical characteristic here is the landscape within which the People (and every other entity there) are connected; the Place is the lens through which they define themselves. They, and the Place, are the same thing. It is no accident that the Abenaki word “tôni” means both “where” and “how.” The setting matters that much.

rock-dam-connecticut-river

Quite often, this is the way that Aln8ba8dwaw8gan (the Western Abenaki language) works… A word may evoke more than one meaning at the same time, since there is more than one possible reality, and the language allows for that. A term may have a direct, descriptive significance, and at the same time it may make a metaphorical reference. It can be a launching point for a deeper exploration of significance or suggestion, totemic for an entire story or understanding. That the language structure itself is polysynthetic – combining smaller, individual root words, known as morphemes, to add inflection – means that a single word can express a complex concept.

This is the case with Kwenitekw (KWEN- ee – took – uh, the last syllable almost voiceless), the Abenaki word for today’s Connecticut River. On a pragmatic level, it is usually taken to mean “Long River”. The two morphemes that impart inflection in this word are “kwen-” and “-tekw”, with the “i“ connector. “Kwen-“ is an adjectival modifier suggesting extended length and usually translated as “long” or “tall”, a spatial dimension. And “-tekw” is a bound suffix, used for water in the form of rivers, tides, and waves. At first examination, this results in the straightforward “Long River.” And it is a long river – the longest in the region – flowing southward over 400 miles, from the eponymous series of Connecticut Lakes at the US/Quebec border to the Atlantic Ocean at Long Island Sound. But it doesn’t stop there.

connecticut-river-confluence-dummerston-canoe-brook

It has been said that the Abenaki did not focus on the idea of the River as an object unto itself, a stand-alone geographical feature. Of course, in the grand web of inter-relatedness, it certainly is not. Rather, it is a unifying presence, a vast watery web of connections, drawing together the rainfall, snowpack, brooks, ponds, vernal pools, marshes and swamps, and tributaries of an 11,260-square-mile watershed. Where today we see a dividing boundary between Vermont and New Hampshire, the Kwenitekw is more inherently the central heart of a vast community of communities, the Abenaki homeland of Ndakinna.

The Abenaki (and the Wabanaki, by extension) see themselves as river-centric people, using the place-based paradigm of indigeneity, applied to their various dwelling places in the lush, well-watered mountains of the Northeast. Scholar Lisa Brooks makes mention of this in her relation of the Native leader Polis, who lived on the Presumpscot River in the early 18th century. When he travelled to Boston, protesting colonial abuse and usurpation of the Presumpscot, he referred to it as “n’sibo” – “the river to which I belong.” Each band of Abenaki people had their own river, or other body of water, each with its own associated name – which typically became their name for themselves as well. The tributaries of the Kwenitekw provide examples: Wantastekw, Ammonoosuc, Ashuelot, Mascoma, Ompompanoosuc, Nulhegan, Pocumtuk. These places (often at confluences) were centers unto themselves, a network of relations connected by the River, but also by kinship, trade, culture, diplomacy, seasonal gathering, and more, down through the generations.

connecticut-river-summer-sunset-brattleboro

By allowing these cultural understandings to illuminate underlying concepts of the two constituent morphemes, the name Kwenitekw can evoke something much more encompassing and suggestive than simply Long River. “Kweni-” can also suggest “duration”, as in a continuance – a length of space/time. An ongoing, sustained series of connected moments: a story line. A cognate, perhaps, to what the Aboriginal People of the Australian continent call a dreaming track or a songline. And the suffix “-tekw” more closely means means “flow” as in “water in dynamic motion” – thus, it is used for rivers, tides, and waves – but not lakes, ponds, and bays. Rather, it is water as the essence of life – moving and shifting, transitioning from one place to another – it is imbued with power.

So, while Kwenitekw can be seen to express the “Long River” as a rather straightforward toponym, it can also describe an expansive concept. In sentence form, it might be expressed as “a continuous, connecting flow of spirit-power in transition.” One might think of it as an Abenaki expansion of the expression attributed to the Greek philosopher Heraclitus “No man ever steps in the same river twice…” When this broadened perspective is absorbed, it begins to inform many other concerns, such as relationship, change, presence, responsibility and balance, to suggest a few. This is the way of it.

connecticut-river-sunset-february-ice

This essay appeared online in the Mt. Kearsarge Indian Museum blog on March 25, 2020. I encourage you to visit them, in Warner, NH, when you have an opportunity.

Temez8was: Cutter (Harvester) Moon

wiseman abenaki harvest

I was unable to finish this post in a timely manner, within the past, actual month (!) – but in the interests of having a complete cycle, I post it now. Tonight begins the new month, but we will take that up very shortly. I submit this entry as I had begun to draft it mid-month.

The eighth month of the Abenaki lunar calendar is the Cutter (Harvest) Moon, Temez8was, following the preceding seventh month of Temaskikos, the Grass Cutter Moon. This is the time when the first fruits of the summer planting – squash and beans among them,  and the gifts of field and forest – blueberries, blackberries, and their kin, begin to ripen and are ready for harvesting. The month began in this sun cycle with the new moon on July 31, 2019, and we are now just beginning to wax toward  the full moon August 15th, which gives the name.

The month’s name  – similar to the previous – derives from the root tem- (also spelled tam- or simply tm-) meaning “to cut, to sever tranversely, to chop” plus -ezo (or -izo) for moon (kizos) with -was signifying “one who”.

 

We should keep in mind that a moon may have more than one name, depending on the region and the people there, the predominant activities of the season, and evolving realities.  Other names used for this time, equally apropos for the harvest time, are Mijow8gankas ala (or) Michinikizosak – Meal Maker or Eating Moons. Another one is Kawakwenikas, the Gatherer or Wild Harvester, as the voluntary bounty of our Mother is also given freely in late summer, for which we give great thanks. Kchi wliwni, Nigawes – nd’alamizi!

 

Temaskikos: Grass Cutter Moon

 

jackie traverse sweetgrass mother earth

The hair of our Mother, wlim8gwkil mskiko, sweet grass – literally, “sweet smelling grass” – is one of July’s many gifts. Artwork by Jackie Traverse, Ojibwe

Sweet Grass …is a gift to the people from Mother Earth. It is said to be part of her hair, and the braided strands represent mind, body and spirit. Since sweet grass promotes strength and kindness, it is often used in healing circles and in ceremony to allow positive energy, kind thoughts and kind feelings to surface through any pain and suffering.

My Mother Earth is under the ground, surrounded by rocks known as the grandfathers. Her hair grows through the earth’s surface to allow us to pick sweet grass, providing medicine and a gift for the people. Take only what you need when picking sweet grass – offer Mother Earth tobacco in appreciation for the gifts she gives to us all.

Jackie Traverse, Anishnaabe-Ojibwe

The seventh month of the Abenaki lunar calendar is the Grass Cutter Moon, following the preceding sixth month of Nokahigas, the Hoer Moon. This is the time when the new sprouts of the year’s planting appreciate some nurturing care, in the competition of their warming rush toward the sun. The month began in this sun cycle with the new moon on July 2, 2019, and we are near witnessing  the full moon which shines in two days, July 16th, and gives the name.

The compounding word derives from three roots: tem- (also spelled tam- or simply tm-) meaning “to cut, to sever tranversely, to chop”, and maskiko (also mskiko), meaning “grass”, and -kos as a combination of “one who” and “moon”.

sweetgrass braid

Now that we are in midsummer, n8winiben, the abundance of the growing season surrounds us. Crops are growing, fruit and nuts are ripening, our other-than-human relations are raising their young. The sweetgrass (Hierochloe odorata) the living hair of our Mother, is long and lush, gleaming and bright green in the meadows. It is time to harvest the strands with gratitude, braiding and drying them in a sheltered place – the sweet scent filling the air and reminding us of our Mother’s continual care.

A moon may have more than one name, depending on the region and the people there, the predominant activities of the season, and evolving realities. Culture is not static, neither is it right or wrong – it is about being appropriate and “in community.” Two other names used for this time, equally apropos for their own reasons, are Sataikas (Blueberry Maker) and Pad8gikas (Thunder Moon). You can readily understand why…

 

Nokahigas: Hoer Moon

nokahigas abenaki hoer moon

The sixth moon of the Abenaki lunar calendar is the Hoer Moon, following the planting moon (fifth moon) of Kikas, the Field Maker Moon. This is the time when the new sprouts of the year’s planting appreciate some nurturing care, in the competition of their warming rush toward the sun. The month began in this sun cycle with the new moon on June 3, 2019, and we are nigh on to the full moon which shines tomorrow, June 17th, and gives the name.

The word derives from two roots: noka- meaning “to soften” as in hoeing the earth, and -higas, a combination of “one who” and “moon”. Another name for this moon is the Strawberry Moon, in appreciation for the delicious earthly gift of the season: it is called Mskikoikas, after the Abenaki name for the strawberry itself, mskikoimens, “the little grass berry.”

And so we enter into Niben, the bountiful season of summer…

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

Nebi, Abenaki Ways of Knowing Water

A just-released short film by Vince Franke of Peregrine Productions, LLC, created to support the watershed education programs of Lake Champlain Sea Grant, UVM Extension, the Rubenstein School of Environment and Natural Resources, and to help preserve these stories for the Abenaki and others. Funding was provided by NOAA, Sea Grant, and an anonymous donor.

Centering on Bitawbagw/Lake Champlain and then water in general, the film is a series of interviews with people in the Native community expressing their understanding of  being in relationship with life-giving water. Each story teller provides their own unique interpretation; I was honored to participate in this group effort with Chief Don Stevens, Chief Roger Longtoe Sheehan, Chief Eugene Rich, Melody Brook, Lucy Cannon Neel, Cody Hemenway, Morgan Lamphere, Bea Nelson, Fred Wiseman, and Kerry Wood.

#WaterIsLife

Direct link to Vimeo here.

Testimony for VT S.68, An Act Regarding Indigenous Peoples’ Day

Video links for ORCA Media/CCTV coverage of Committee hearings – testimony and debate – for S.68  of the 2019-2020 Session.

1. Senate Committee on Government Operations. S.68 – Indigenous People’s Day. Recorded February 28, 2019.

2. House Committee on General, Military, and Civil Affairs. S.68 Indigenous Peoples’ Day recorded April 10, 2019.