Valley Post: Comments on Northern Hydro

From a contribution to a column by Eesha Williams (Editor) in the Valley Post, linked here.

Native Americans are trying to stop a plan to send hydro-power from Canada to Massachusetts. They have a web site at www.NorthEastMegaDamResistance.org.

Rich Holschuh lives in Brattleboro and, with seven other people, [serves on] …the Vermont Commission on Native American Affairs. That’s part of the state government. In an April 30 interview with the Valley Post, he said, “Indigenous people worldwide share the common experience of colonization. Colonization is the process of appropriating a place for one’s own use, exercising control by force for the benefit of the newcomer…. The original inhabitants of a place consider themselves to be a single entity: the people and the land are the same. It is a network of sustained, interdependent relationships overlapping with others in a balanced, self-supporting continuum. This balance is disrupted and harmed when those relationships are disregarded, by manipulation and appropriation for externalized profit. Colonization is not a historical event; it is an ongoing system, with lasting damage to the subjects while continuing to accrue benefit to the takers.”

Holschuh continued, “What is happening in the northeastern reaches of this continent, with massive hydroelectric development and export of energy to markets elsewhere, much of it in New England, derives from the same mindset that created the antecedent hydro facilities here on the Kwenitekw (Connecticut) river, and across the continent in the realization of so-called Manifest Destiny. The natural abundance of earth — the gift of Creation — has been coerced, privatized, commodified, extracted, and sold, without due regard for the lasting effects of that interruption of the sustaining cycles. The indigenous people of these places are implicated equally, left outside of consideration, with the network of relationships that constitutes their existence grievously harmed.”

Holschuh said, “The northern mega-dams may seem out-of-sight, and thus out-of-mind, not important or impactful to lives proceeding apace to the south in New England. Vermont, in its claims to cleaner, greener policy, derives a significant portion of its electrical energy demand from facilities such as those of Hydro-Quebec. This is projected to increase as the state adjusts its goals away from less-desirable sources through the Comprehensive Energy Plan. The issue has been raised with Lt. Governor Zuckerman’s Vermont 2050 Planning Group — it’s a very real exacerbation of an existing policy flaw. A reliance on imported energy, and its associated human and environmental costs, has been a contested issue in the past, and it should/will be again soon. This is not a problem in somebody else’s backyard. It is a problem of our own making and it is a repetition of what has and is happening right here in the homelands of the Abenaki and their kin. If we are being honest, this connection and the dynamics that effect it are easily recognized. What happens to one, happens to us all. And so, I recognize All My Relations and ask that together we seek balance and exercise compassion, seeing that there is a better way.”

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.

On Being In Place, and Motion

rock dam kwenitekw erosion

Imagine yourself at a certain point, a point around which everything converges. Not because you are the most important presence there, but because you are completely surrounded by presences, in every direction, in every dimension. This is everyday life. Wherever you are, you are surrounded by everything else.

You are not in the middle of nowhere, you are in the center of everything. No matter where you are, you are in the center.

This is a good description of the state we call the “present.” You – are – here – now.

Then what happens? What is ahead of you? Change is ahead of you. Change is with you. Change is constant.

Keep in mind that all along you are still in the center, at that convergence point. You are still completely surrounded by everything else, but since change is constant, everything around you is in motion. Creation is continual. And you are surrounded by it – you are a part of it – thus you yourself are literally in “motion.”

In that moment of the continuum, you are necessarily in the present, in the center, but the totality – including you – is shifting and moving. This is the illusion of time. It is motion, it is change. From one thing to another and back again.

What does this even mean? – like, in real life?

As things move around you, and you move around as well, your view of what is before you – your perspective – shifts. As a crow flies past your field of sight, you are able to see different parts of it, moving east to west, now the head and now the tail. As you circle the stoutness of a hemlock tree, the enveloping pattern of the furrowed bark morphs subtly, wrapping the trunk in texture. As the sun arcs overhead in the mountainside grove, the shadows lengthen and pivot. Everything changes.

You, the crow, the tree, and the sun are all there, in that place, together, but in shifting circumstances. Everything has transformed a little bit (or a lot). You are relating to each other in a different manner than you were before. You are in a set of constantly evolving relationships.

This is the way of it.

 

It Is Done: Gov. Phil Scott Signs S.68 Into Law May 6, 2019

Yesterday, May 6, 2019, Vermont’s Governor Philip J. Scott signed S.68 “An act regarding Indigenous Peoples’ Day” into law, without prior notice. Although the opportunity of a ceremonial signing has been denied, the objective has been realized. We will be able to tell a more complete story going forward. Christopher Columbus is an incontrovertible part of that story, but he has come to represent the onslaught of colonization and destruction with (dis)respect to those who where already here. And are still here. And whose resilience and understanding is witness to the efficacy of their relationship to this land. This is cause for recognition and honoring.
Received today, via Rep. Brian Cina, from the staff of VT Governor Phil Scott:
From: Smith, Kendal <Kendal.Smith@vermont.gov>
Sent: Tuesday, May 7, 2019 10:31 AM
To: Smith, Kendal
Subject: Action taken by the Governor on bill – May 6, 2019

Good Morning All,

The Governor has informed the Senate that on the on the 6th day of May, 2019, he signed bills originating in the Senate of the following titles:

S.53        An act relating to determining the proportion of health care spending allocated to primary care

S.68        An act relating to Indigenous Peoples’ Day

S.89        An act relating to allowing reflective health benefit plans at all metal levels

The Governor has informed the House of Representatives that on the 6th day of May, 2019, he signed bills originating in the House of the following titles:

H.204    An act relating to miscellaneous provisions affecting navigators, Medicaid records, and the Department of Vermont Health Access

H.321    An act relating to aggravated murder for killing a firefighter or an emergency medical provider

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 necessarily results 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 as 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 are not honored, and respectful acknowledgement made in the form of ceremonial practice (song, dance, gifts, prayer, proscribed or prescribed activities) it is seen as a breach of conduct. It truly is 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 thoughtlessness of the mindset that replaced it.

Rev. Ezra Stiles Visits Wantastegok, 1763

ezra stiles diary excerpt

From Rev. Ezra Stiles’ travel diary, circa 1764, recounting a visit to the confluence of the Wantastekw/West River and Kwenitekw/Connecticut River. He traveled widely and recorded faithfully. This excerpt is from a trip up from his home base in Connecticut state, to scout what became the chartered town of Wilmington, VT. Note his references to particulars: There is no underbrush. White Ash trees 100 feet to the limbs and 4-5 feet in diameter at the base.

How did this happen? Indigenous people practiced a sophisticated permaculture. A nuanced, sustainable forest management regimen – working with water, fire, topography, seasonal changes, succession. This was and is not happenstance, circumstantial, or the divine gift of god. This is demonstrable evidence of reciprocal relationship in motion, the give and take of constant creation.

Putney Mountain Association Annual Meeting: Talking to the Mountain

On January 13, 2019 I was invited by Emily McAdoo, board member, to present at the Putney Mountain Association‘s annual meeting, held at the Putney Community Center on Christian Square. About 100 people attended – PMA members and the general public – and we discussed a Native relationship with place, in this case, of course, Putney Mountain itself. Russ Grabiec from Brattleboro Community Television (BCTV) was there and he graciously filmed the proceedings. This is the first time I’ve used slides throughout to accompany the narrative, and it seemed to be quite helpful. The audio is a little echo-y, due to the large space, but the gist is apparent.

Link to listing on BCTV’s site.