Brave Little State: the Resiliency of the Abenaki People

angela-evancie-vpr-brave-little-state-locust-ridge

I met Angela Evancie of Vermont Public Radio in Brattleboro’s Locust Ridge cemetery this morning for an hour-long interview (it’ll probably be closer to three minutes after editing). We were putting together material for a Brave Little State episode on the resiliency and resurgence of the Aln8bak – the Abenaki people – in what we now call Vermont. Angela’s editorial idea (brilliant) was to chat next to the grave of Col. John Sergeant, “the first person born in the state of Vermont.”

We covered a lot of territory (all good – it is n’dakinna after all) and I enjoyed the time spent exploring the state of things. And Angela is a wonderful, kind person. I believe this is going to be a good episode; it will be airing in November. I’ll post coverage here on Sokoki Sojourn of course.

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There Are No Unsacred Places

sokwakik-great-bend-vernon-vt

This story and article reported by Howard Weiss-Tisman appeared yesterday on Vermont Public Radio: To Fill Void Left By Vermont Yankee, Vernon Looks For New Energy Projects.

Sokwakik, Squakheag, Great Bend, Cooper’s Point, Vernon Dam, Vermont Yankee…

Once again, I am struck with the antithetical values and legacies embodied in this place, so close to home. It’s almost hard to comprehend. It hurts.

Looking ahead, this toxicity will be with us for a long, long time, essentially forever: the land is basically condemned, which is a chilling sentence. Looking back just as far, essentially forever, most people have no idea what Vermont Yankee (and the Vernon hydro complex) is sitting upon… Once a favored and sacred fishing place, with small villages surrounded by corn fields, Native people have lived and died here for thousands of years. The people and the land were one, not separated. It is still a very special place, although sullied and scarred.

I think again of Wendell Berry’s words: “There are no unsacred places; there are only sacred places and desecrated places.”

A New Year

Notably amongst the northeastern Algonquian tribal territorialities, the W8banakiak have been described as a riverine people. The various band’s homelands are centered on watersheds – a river and its dependent streams, lakes, marshes, and floodplains.  Whereas many other tribes would reckon their lands in terms of primarily terrestrial landmarks such as mountains, rivers, lakes, and perhaps a certain forest or clump of trees, denoting borders within which they circulated, the Abenaki centered themselves within the waters, ranging out through a branching, interconnected bowl [sources: Speck, Snow]. As an example, in this place I dwell, known today as Brattleboro – near where the states of Vermont, New Hampshire and Massachusetts converge – the annual cycles of life revolve around the gathering of the Kwanitekw, Wantastekw, and Azewalad Sibo (Connecticut, West, and Ashuelot Rivers), with their respective tributary brooks, lakes, and ponds pitching down from the valleys and ranges .

A family’s hunting territories, above the plantings flourishing upon the floodplains and river terraces (the wolhanak), were bounded by these watery, connecting sinews, and stretched up into the hills and mountains to the next ridge top division. A person would describe their homeland as n’sibo, my river, allying with that flowing, veined world as a part of their own identity, a unity, all the same. Intimately familiar with the land, and its fellow dwellers – whether animate or inanimate – a person saw themselves as a continuous part of the spirits there, with roles to play and responsibilities to honor, inconceivably separable.

This merging may perhaps be seen in the phrase n’dai, which can mean “I am” – describing oneself – as well as “I live” – in a certain place. An understanding of this can help to inform the depth of the relationship between the homeland and its people, one so profound they merged into a single entity. The people are the land, and the land is the people. To separate them, as recent history has so graphically inscribed, is to assault the meaning of life itself, leaving it broken and futile. Healing can be found only in a restoration of relationship, a re-balancing through reciprocity among the community of beings. Note the prefix “re-” occurring in all of these words, meaning “again” and speaking of cycles, and the Great Hoop of Life.

This healing comes through an awareness of what is lacking, or what is interfering, with the flowing continuity of the river of life, and then addressing that lack, or obstruction. At the beginning of the New Year –  Alamikos – with the winter solstice and the return of the sun, the Abenaki have a custom of asking for forgiveness, and a fresh start in the new season. As elder Joseph Elie Joubert tells us: “The new year’s forgiveness time is called Anhaldamawadin = The act of forgiving. We would go to the house of the people we offended during the past year and say the following: “Anhaldamawi kassi plilawawlan”. It is basically saying “Forgive me for the many wrongs I did you.”

wantastegok n'dakinna my river

N’sibo, my river, is Wantastekw, where it meets Kwanitekw. N’dai Wantastegok, Sokwakik, known today as Brattleboro. And so I say, to all my relatives here:

N’didam n’dal8gom8mek Wantastegok: Anhaldamawi kasi palilawalian.

Please forgive any wrong I may have done to you in the past.

It is a new year. Alosada, mina ta mina. Let us walk together, again and again.

American Beech

…Known to the Western Abenaki quite simply as the mountain tree: wajoimizi, from wajo (mountain) + i (connector) + mizi (tree). The moist, well-drained slopes of eastern North America are where you will find the American Beech, an unmistakably familiar inhabitant of the forest. No other tree has bark so smooth and imposing.  Its preference for rich soil was an indicator to early settlers of fertile ground but by the same token, its hard, heavy, tough wood meant a large beech was often left standing, being too difficult to work into lumber.

Wajoimizi is a stalwart, handsome member of the northeastern climax community; its sleek gray muscled trunks rise, twist, and spread into a fine-twigged crown. Though quite tolerant of shade itself, very little grows beneath its broad canopy other than perhaps its own slender offspring, since the beech will spread through root sprouts as well as reseeding with its bristly nuts. Beechnuts are an important food to the woodland creatures that travel beneath its shelter; turkey, bear, squirrel, deer, and grouse enjoy the bountiful crops that fall every autumn after frost. They were perfectly edible for the Aln8bak as well. Sometimes tracking a four-footed harvester to its cache or collecting them from the leaf litter, the Sokwakiak would gather them for winter storage, pound them into flour, roast them fresh, or boil them to extract the oil – over half of the content is fat. A slow grower, a beech will not begin to bear nuts until it is 40 years old, gaining in strength ’til it reaches 60, and then producing heavy crops every 2-8 years; if it is fortunate, it may live a full life of up to three centuries. Sadly, many of today’s beeches are succumbing to bark disease and entire stands are slowly dying. But not all…

american beech wajoimizi

A simple way to estimate a tree’s age is to multiply its diameter by its specific factor, a multiplier which reflects its rate of growth. Wajoimizi, being one of the slowest growing trees of N’dakinna, has a growth factor of 6; by comparison, white oak and white pine are both a slightly faster 5 and cottonwood is a downright speedy 2. As I was circling around a river terrace above the Wantastekw the other day, scouting out the site of a proposed solar farm and thinking it may likely have been a past encampment, I came upon a giant beech in the treeline. I stopped in awe… perfectly healthy and thriving, this monarch (surrounded by its children) rose majestically from a tangle of roots, to a multi-branched trunk and vast crown, just beginning to leaf out. I came back the next day to take its measure: 144 inches around gave a diameter of 46 inches, with an estimated age of 276 years. I was stunned, again. This chief of the wajoimiziak was born around 1740; it is older than the town of Brattleboro. It may very well have seen Abenaki war parties stealing down the River to raid Fort Dummer, built just 16 years before and only 3 miles south on the Kwanitekw. What changes this ancient one has seen! Its wise spirit speaks quietly to those who will stop and listen beneath the broad arms and green cloak of centuries. Wligen – it is good.

Confluence

The February sun sets over the low terrace where Fort Hinsdale once stood, on the north point above the meeting of the Connecticut and Ash Swamp Brook.

Confluence means ‘a flowing together.’ In a literal sense, it is about rivers. But it’s often used to talk about the coming together of ideas or cultures as well. Swirls, eddies, currents, cycles, transitions… Nothing changes, yet everything changes. It is said one can never step in the same river twice. Perhaps the message is not that all things are changing so that we cannot encounter them twice, but something much more subtle and profound: it is that some things stay the same only by changing. A river is a river because it is moving and shifting. Here constancy and change are not opposed but inextricably connected.

On seeing: The boundaries and labels we encounter on our modern-day maps are relatively recent political and historical constructs springing from a Western worldview. It can be difficult to view the land clearly with this tangled overlay of demarcations, polities, and hierarchies. If one can see beyond the arbitrary notions that this is Vermont, and that is New Hampshire, for example, and begin to think in terms of watersheds, and in terms of hundreds, if not thousands of years, then the true face of the country begins to appear. This is the Dawnland: N’dakinna. A land from before time, a land that begins anew each day. The same water that flows here  now has coursed down the valley of the Kwanitekw for thousands of years, to the ocean and back, in towering clouds with crashing thunder and twisting, silvery rivulets wending down the mountainsides to return to the gathering valley below.