Elnu Abenaki S8gm8 Roger Longtoe Sheehan on Sacred Sites in Vermont

From the YouTube channel of the “Year of Indigenous Peoples of the AmericasCultural Initiative, a program of SUNY Empire State College. For this new virtual residency curriculum, a series of videos has been created with indigenous culture keepers sharing various aspects of their people’s understandings.

In this production, S8gm8 Roger Longtoe Sheehan speaks about the Abenaki relationship with the land and rivers of Ndakinna, and how these interactions take place within their worldview. The interview took place in June, 2018 at the Abenaki Heritage Weekend annual event at Lake Champlain Maritime Museum. By request of Vera Longtoe Sheehan, a co-producer of the film, I contributed some still photography from Kchi Pontekw/Bellows Falls, VT for the video.

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Abenaki Fishing Places: Some Extrapolations

native net fishing

Fishing played an important role in the lives of the Abenaki/Aln8bak within their home riverscapes,  in a multitude of interconnected ways. The anadromous and catadromous migrations of salmon, shad, alewives, herring, and eels were especially significant. The seasonal cycles, the flush of spring and the awakening of earth’s gifts, the dependable and welcome return of the fish nations, the birth of new life… all of these give witness to a recognition that engenders a careful honoring of pervasive relationships.  Most of these relationships were severed or severely compromised with the arrival of the European colonizers, bringing a culture of separation and exploitation with the building of dams, roads, and bridges, and the choking and fouling of the rivers with logging, mining, industry, and large-scale agriculture. With this calamitous interruption, the People themselves were deeply affected as well.

Though most of the fish are gone in present-day 2019, the places where these harvests of the spring’s vast arrival of swimmers (and with eels, in the autumn) occurred are still honored and celebrated. Yet while these places remain, many of them are a shadow of their former vibrant, powerful selves, overtopped with mills, dams, bridges and blasted and channelized into ill straits in the service of commerce and convenience.

Every group of Abenaki has their home river (n’sibo – my river) and every river has these places, the Sokwakiak among them. In Sokoki country along the Kwenitekw, some of the fishing places are at the Rock Dam/Rawson’s Island/Montague, Mskwamakok/Peskeompskut/Turners Falls, the Azewalad Sibo/Ashuelot River, Vernon Falls/ Great Bend/Cooper’s Point, the confluence with Wantastegok/West River at Brattleboro, and Kchi Pontekw/Bellows Falls. At these places are found a set of conditions that act to focus the fish at constricting, usually rockbound features such as falls, rapids, narrows, and channels. Accompanying these settings is the tumultuous energy of rushing, swirling, shimmering, splashing  water in full voice.

8manosek peskeompskut kwenitekw rock dam

The convergence of spirit, the elements, and resurgent prolific life – epitomized by  over-arching sky, shaped and shelving bedrock, sunlight and reflection, deep and strong currents – create a place of exchange. Spirit is able to move between worlds more readily here; the edges between the underworld of earth and water, existence on the surficial plane, and the above world of sky, blur and cross over. Things are in a state of flux, moving and mixing, intersecting. The constant change of creation is present here, closer and better accessible. This is one reason that messages of acknowledgement in the form of petroglyphs are often found at these places. These ancient representations, placed by medawlinnoak, medicine people, as they worked to seek balance with and through the presence of spirit concentrated there, continue to speak their opportune truths into the present. We see and hear them even now, carrying through the dysphoria and disturbance of the modern milieu.

The Aln8ba8dwaw8gan (Western Abenaki) word for the action of fishing is 8maw8gan, with the root being 8m- signifying “to lift.” On a pragmatic level this can be seen as a simple reference to the fish harvesting techniques of using a net, or a spear, or a hook and line. On another level it speaks of active, upward transition from one place to another.

The great waves of sustaining life that swam up the rivers and streams in Sigwan – the Spring, the “emptying or pouring out” – in the form of salmon, shad, and their kin – were and are an embodiment of this free exchange of spirit, in the very real form of cyclic return of abundant sustenance. Converging on these significant places, met there by the Aln8bak (the Abenaki people) and joined by other relations – the feeding eagles, osprey, gulls, bear, and otter –  the swimmers were lifted up – 8mawa – from the under[water]world into the surface world of the Aln8ba, at that juncture transitioning into another form for the good of the people.

The recognition of this great transformative gift would result in an outpouring of gratitude and celebration, with reciprocal honoring (giving back) to the fish people and the life-giving river waters themselves. All of this in a ritual acknowledgement of “the way it is” – the connected circles of creation, the constancy of change, and the intention to find balance in the midst of it. If these agreements were not honored, and respectful acknowledgement made in the form of ceremonial practice (song, dance, gifts, prayer, proscribed or prescribed activities), it would have to be seen as a breach of conduct. It truly was unconscionable to not do so; that this approach of reciprocal relationship worked well and sustainably for thousands of years is ample testament to its efficacy. That these same processes are breaking down around us now is a corroborating witness to the ineptitude of the mindset that replaced it.

Mark Bushnell at VTDigger: Uncovering Vermont’s Stone Carvings

Bellows Falls Petroglyphs 1866

Note: Mark Bushnell is a Vermont journalist and historian. He is the author of “Hidden History of Vermont” and “It Happened in Vermont.” Mark called me for comments as he was putting this VTDigger column together.

When Rev. David McClure of Dartmouth College ventured down the Connecticut River to Bellows Falls in 1789, he was on a scientific mission. As a natural philosopher – what we might today call a scientist – McClure was interested in stone carvings he had heard about from a local man. The carvings, cut into an outcropping on the Vermont side of the river, depicted a series of faces.

“The figures have the appearance of great antiquity,” McClure wrote, noting that the British colonists who first settled the area a half-century earlier had observed them. The faces were life-sized images consisting of a simple oval with markings for eyes, nose, mouth and perhaps ears, McClure wrote. Some had lines sticking out of their heads that various observers have taken to be feathers, horns or rays.

McClure’s was apparently the first written account of the carved rocks, which have been described as the oldest pieces of art in Vermont. How old? Though experts agree the carvings were made by Native Americans, they are unwilling to ascribe a specific date, or even era, to the petroglyphs, which literally means “stone carvings.” They could be anywhere from 300 to 3,000 years old.

The written observations of McClure and subsequent visitors during the 19th and early 20th centuries are invaluable because they offer a snapshot of these artifacts, which have been changing over time. If descriptions of the petroglyphs have varied since McClure’s visit, so too have the interpretations of their meaning.

Read the full article in VTDigger here.

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.”

Unrecorded Petroglyphs in the Valley?

gary sanderson greenfield recorder

Petroglyphs and pictographs here in the Pioneer Valley? Well, there is no question they were here. Now we’re left to ponder how many are still decipherable and where do you suppose they reside? The answer is that one never knows.

According to Edward F. Lenik, author of “Picture Rocks: American Indian Rock Art in the Northeast Woodlands (2002),” the most likely sites are around water. These shamanistic images show up throughout the Northeast, around lakes and ponds and especially near important riverside gathering places at waterfalls and mouths of rivers, where you’re apt to find carvings of fish, eels, serpents, thunderbirds, effigies, maybe deer or elk or moose, scratched into large stones and ledges, including midstream outcroppings splitting a river, and others jutting far out from the shoreline to provide natural entry and exit points for ancient canoe travelers. Remember, rivers like the Hudson, Connecticut, Merrimack, Penobscot, Saco and many others were our native peoples’ interstate highways when Europeans arrived on the scene.

Read Gary’s column musing on this topic in the Greenfield Recorder.

Strange Events at the Vilas Bridge

Alex Stradling and Mike Smith had an idea to raise community involvement in Bellows Falls.

The two run the local television station, Falls Area Community TV, Stradling as the stations executive director and Smith as the board’s president. FACT TV teaches young and old alike how to work in the broadcast industry. The station also films local town events like Select Board meetings. Lately, however, the station has been branching out into entertainment-based shows. From religion talk shows to news, to shows examining horror, FACT TV is expanding its brand.

In November, the station debuted a fictional series. “Strange Events at the Vilas Bridge,” is a roughly 49-minute show that feels like a small movie. Only the first episode has been produced and aired, but Stradling hopes to film the next episode in spring.

Stradling said the station worked together to pair experienced actors and crews with beginners.

The first episode stars four teenagers who work together to uncover the Vilas Bridge’s supernatural past. The episode has teenagers and adults working all aspects of the production.

Read the article by Harmony Birch in the Brattleboro Reformer.

*****

Thoughts: This is rather disquieting… a new pilot production at Bellows Falls’ FACT TV brings Abenaki mystical mish-mash into the plot of its local supernatural suspense drama. I have doubts about the helpfulness of this approach… At 35 minutes in, the dialogue is pretty bizarre.

A Find Across Time: Diver Uncovers Native American Petroglyphs

annettte spaulding west river michael donovan keene sentinel

Earlier this month, under a dozen feet of water and 28 inches of sand, Annette Spaulding found something she had sought for more than 30 years. It was the outline of an eagle wing. An unknown Native American had etched it into a rock slab on the West River an unknown number of centuries ago. The rock formed the river’s bank until 1909, when construction of a dam at Vernon, Vt., raised water levels on the Connecticut River and its tributary, the West River.

Along with lowlands and barns and houses, the rising water submerged at least three Native American petroglyph, or rock carving, sites near the confluence of the two rivers, according to Spaulding’s research.

The largest one is said to depict nine figures — five eagles, a person, what looks like a dog and two wavy lines with small heads, which Spaulding suspects are lampreys. It’s known as Indian Rock. A handful of 19th-century accounts and depictions reference the site, including a drawing by a 10-year-old boy from Chesterfield, Larkin Mead, who grew up to be a renowned sculptor. But then the river rose, and the location of Indian Rock became murky.

Read the full account in the Keene Sentinel by Paul Cuno-Booth of this recent development at Wantastegok. Photo by Michael Donovan.