In the Center of Everything

Tiokasin Ghosthorse was setting the scene for a story at a gathering which I joined this past winter. He recounted a little nondescript location far away, a place which is usually characterized as being “in the middle of nowhere.” But he turned that dismissal in upon itself, and stated that it was “in the center of everything.” It was an illuminating moment, demonstrating the power of words. It has taken root and stayed with me. Language, worldview, perspective, experience – these things matter, everything matters.

Rather than making a zero-sum equation, a calculation of worth, and finding it of little or no value – objectifying, a characteristic of an English-speaking worldview, noun-based and categorical – this place was seen as a core participant in the narration of what was occurring. It was in relationship. It is a very different way of experiencing a moment as part of a whole. It is “being in” rather than “looking at.” The difference between a point on a line / a separation of otherness, and an infinite web of connection in an expanding universe.

W8bimizi: The Metaphor of the Chestnut

w8bimizi-american-chestnut-sprout

American chestnut perseveres on the slopes of Wantastegok Wajo.

W8bimizi: w8bi- “white” plus -mizi “woody plant” = “white woody plant”

The metaphor of the chestnut: The tree may appear lifeless or decaying, but the roots are alive and ready to sprout. Indigenous presence here in Sokwakik may be thought of in this light. Although there may not be much that meets the (untrained) eye, it is all “still here”, awaiting only a return to reciprocity: recognition, acknowledgement, relationship.

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.