A Lasting Testament

quartz grouping under boulder

Hands and hearts, high on a ridge above the Kwenitekw.

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How the Saco River Got its Name: Wabanaki Place Names in Context

Biddeford Historical Society and Biddeford Pool Historical Society are co-hosting a weekend of events illuminating life in the 17th century colonial Province of Maine. Events are free, but donations are accepted/

“How the Saco River Got its Name: Wabanaki Place Names in Context,” will be held at 7 p.m. Friday, Aug. 24 at First Parish Meetinghouse, corner of Pool and Meetinghouse roads in Biddeford. Joe Hall, professor at Bates College, will present the program.

Plenty of people know that many placenames in Maine, such as “Saco,” come from Wabanakis, the indigenous group of this region. A few people might know what some of these words mean, such as that “Saco” means “a river outlet.” But what did it mean for Wabanakis to use these words and not others in their conversations with English colonists? In exploring that question, participants can see how Wabanaki place names tell us not only something about English-Wabanaki relations in the 1600s, but also how Wabanakis continue to have a presence in Maine in the centuries since.

Hall teaches colonial, American Indian and environmental history. He is researching the history of Wabanakis, Maine’s indigenous peoples, and is particularly interested in the ways that Wabanakis continued to cultivate ties to their homeland even as colonial peoples sought to dispossess them of it. In his lecture he will speak about the ways that Wabanaki place names offer some clues not only to how Wabanakis inhabited their homelands before colonists’ arrival, but also how they continued to inhabit those lands in the midst of colonization.

See the original listing in the Courier.

Ishi’s Name: Seeing and Being Seen

ishi

Perhaps you have heard a story of Ishi. He is considered to have been the last of his people, the Yahi of the Yana, whose homelands are the western slopes of the Sierra Nevada, in today’s California. I won’t go into the story here; it is oft-told and readily available. I would like to think about a particular aspect, which helps to inform the rest, of course.

I learned of Ishi’s story many years ago… it is powerful, haunting, and telling – a cautionary (true) tale of how humans can become separated, estranged from each other and the earth.

I have always been deeply moved by the statements encountered in the introductions to the stories: “Ishi means “man” in the Yana language. The anthropologist Alfred Kroeber gave this name to the man because [it is said] in the Yahi culture, tradition demanded that he not speak his name or that of anyone who was dead. When asked his name, he said: “I have none, because there were no people to name me,” meaning that no Yahi had ever spoken his name.”

I don’t think it’s as simple as a basic omission or quid pro quo. That is a shallow observation, true on the surface but much more complex than a verbal exchange with social proscriptions.  I see this situation with a vastly wider underlying significance. Simply put, our names are not who we are as an individual. They are what we are called by others (I am called… Abenaki: Nd’elewizi… ), ideally by our own community, the people who know us best. Humans do not exist by themselves. Not for long.  We are social creatures. Without his people – the Yahi, with their cultural understandings derived directly from their homelands, a context within which to make reference to a sense of being- to call to him, to create that relationship of knowing, seeing and being seen, Ishi had already been dealt the ultimate separation. Outside of community, he was no one. There was no context, no one to know him for who he was, a being in relationship to a place and all of its other beings. “There were no people to name me.”

This rattles me to the core. As it should.

 

 

Finding Balance in Place

A personal musing.
When looking for understanding and self-guidance on something that is fraught with implications and possibilities (such as the thorny question of  identity), I try to back way up to a starting point for as much clarity and grounding as possible, before I move ahead into the present. It seems that when one jumps into the midst of a currently-transpiring moment, there are a lot of moving pieces: actors, past experiences, expectations, emotions, outcomes… all the elements of drama. It is nigh on impossible to see clearly, so gaining perspective as soon as is practical is important. With the challenge of the charged moment, it can be difficult to get one’s footing, or stay focused. The more that I can bring that groundedness to the matter-at-hand from the get-go, rather than try to develop it on the spot, the better my chances of coping adequately and mindfully. I have come to the realization that, as a human, the only thing I have any “power” over are my choices in the present. It is only the present which actually exists, with the past and the future existing as integral parts. So I try to make the best choices in the moment, by way of seeking balance in the place where I am.
So I think about things beforehand, when I am able, before diving in to the “question du jour.” I try to operate from an “ideal” perspective (to the best of my understanding), and then temper it with the realities of the situation and the others with whom I am involved. Note that “the others” are not limited to simply human. So, I try to handle identity in this manner as well. My basic understanding is that grappling with identity, as with everything else, is a seeking of balance. There is the way in which I see myself, and there is a way in which others see me. Ideally, I will conduct myself in an appropriate manner so these things are as clear as possible. I will be guided in these decisions by what I perceive as my responsibilities. I want to meet them as best as I can, to maintain the relationships with which I have been gifted in this state of being called “my life.” We are all a part of each other, in the totality called Creation, constantly changing and interacting. I am honored to do the best I can with what I have been given – this moment. It’s all I have. It’s all any of us have.
Then, all of the other “stuff” – the drama – gets added in, and I seek to navigate it as mindfully as possible, always keeping the basic understanding centered within. The balance acts as an anchor. The question arises: there are so many things to choose from (belief systems, religions, cosmologies, ideologies)… how do you decide what you will use for your anchor? what is your basic reference point? This is where I feel that place-based understanding, indigenous wisdom specific to the location where one finds oneself is the best choice (because those are the relationships within which you are a part, just then, whether you acknowledge them or not). And so, I seek to learn from the land, and from the people who know this land best, from intimate relationship with all of it for thousands of years. I look for those “original instructions.” This is how I will form my concept of identity…. I will identify with the place where I am. I am this place and this place is me. This is the essence of community, of being in relationship.
Bringing this around full circle, I will borrow a quote from Lisa Brook’s “Our Beloved Kin” which I just came across, reading the last chapter while on vacation in Maine (extracted from the discussion in pp. 339-342). This quote seems to embody the concept of seeking balance in the midst of tumult and influences pulling one way or another. During negotiations with the English during strife over land claims, with encroaching settlements and Native resistance, Wabanaki sagamores Moxus and Madoasquarbet express their desire (making their best choice) for stillness in the midst: “Our desire is to be quiet.” This speaks of balance. Finding the center. This, to me, is at the heart of me finding identity. If I can maintain that centeredness, to the best of my ability – making my choices to honor my relationships in place, in the present, to be quiet – I will best be myself.
And I must add, this is not about being as individualized as possible… far from it. The cult of the individual – the disease of separation which rules our modern Western society – is at the heart of our dysfunction and lack of relationship/community. It is estrangement and not at all life-affirming. When I recognize that I am a part of everything else, and start acting like it, I become who I was meant to be. And the corollary, I will then be best able to relate to all others around me. They will have to figure that balance out for themselves, of course, and bring it to the conversation. Some will be more coherent and collaborative, some will be agitated and discordant. That is the human story.
As a benchmark, I understand the gift of indigenous spiritual leaders, the medicine people, to be the highly developed ability to work with spirit to seek balance. They have great insight and understanding, and thus great responsibility to help their people. But, at the core, we all have those responsibilities, to all of our relations. It is not a religion, but a way of life. I am honored to do the best I can, always learning, always changing, because that is the way of Creation. Creation is a process, a totality, ongoing, not a point in time. There is no “time.”
Yesterday I realized a new way to understand the expression “We Are Still Here” – in Abenaki “Askwa n’daoldibna iodali”:  Be here. Be still. We are still, here.

Northfield MA: Day of Indigenous History and Culture

bryan blanchette abenaki musician

Members of the Abenaki nation will bring people into the history and culture of local indigenous groups on Saturday, July 21, at the Northfield Mountain Recreation and Environmental Center. This “day of history,” from noon to 3 p.m., is the second in the Northfield Historical Commission’s series on “bringing to light the native history of our area” that encompasses a period of at least 12,000 years, Commissioner Lisa McLoughlin said.

Roger Longtoe, Chief of the Elnu band of the Abenaki nation, will talk about local history from the 17th century up to modern times, using period-authentic “things that we would have had in the 17th century,” like muskets, spears and bows and arrows, he said. Longtoe specializes in what he calls “living archaeology” of the 17th and 18th centuries, using materials and traditional stories to help people understand the way Abenaki peoples lived when they occupied vast regions in Massachusetts, Vermont, New Hampshire and eastern New York.

But, “a lot of people have questions about modern history, too,” he said. Now, the Abenaki nation has about 15,000 members and is mostly based in Vermont, with reservations in Quebec. The Elnu band has about 60 members and is based in southern Vermont, making it the southernmost group of the larger nation.

Rich Holschuh, representative of the Elnu band, will lead a walk through Northfield Mountain’s trails where he will try to communicate the traditional understanding of the environment.

“I want to talk about the very real hands-on things in front of us, and then I want to talk about the relationship of the people to this place,” Holschuh said. “All of the various aspects out there in the natural world are considered to be a part of you, literally a relation to you. So you’re going to interact with them as equals. It’s not simply a harvesting or a taking, but there’s also a giving, a reciprocity. It’s a two-way relationship. “Some of these things would be very practical,” like identifications of plants, Holschuh said, “but you’re also perhaps going to learn a lesson from the plant about how it is, why it’s growing there, how it’s growing there.”

Singer-songwriter and guitarist Bryan Blanchette will play traditional and new songs in both Abenaki and English.

Also, an update on a National Park Service-funded study of King Philip’s War will be discussed by David Brule, president of the Nolumbeka Project. The Nolumbeka Project advocates for a more thorough understanding of indigenous history up to and including the colonial era. The study, now in its third phase of funding, is focusing on the Battle Turners Falls.

See the original article by Max Marcus in the Greenfield Recorder.

Possession, a War That Never Ends.

A line from “Crazy Horse”, a song by John Trudell, from his 2001 album “Bone Days.”
Possession, the concept of holding control over something, as in the “ownership” of land, devolves from power structures. It is the exercise of strength through force (by various means, be they physical, financial, legal, psychological, spiritual) by one entity over another. It requires a constant application of those energies to maintain (defend) its dominant position. It is a slow, steady aggression – a war that never ends – because it does not come from a place of balance, but rather from imposition. Balance is the nature of peace, when things are at rest, maintaining equilibrium, in proper relationship. When relationship is honored, and we acknowledge our gratitude for the gifts (all of them) that enter our lives, the war subsides. They are gifts, not possessions gained by the exercising of power. The understanding of this is the great responsibility of our time – truly, of all time. We do not own anything – we are, all of us, in this together here and now.

Our Beloved Kin: King Philip’s War Informs Today’s Events

lisa brooks amherst our beloved kin

The story of King Philip’s War, which ended [340] years ago, may be central to the history of this place, marked in locations like King Philip’s Hill in Northfield, the Bloody Brook Battle monument in Deerfield, and even King Philip restaurant in Phillipston. The three-year armed conflict is largely blamed on attacks on colonial settlers by Wampanoags and other native “savages.”

But a book released this week by Amherst College associate professor Lisa Brooks, an Abenaki, depicts the prolonged war on a dozen settlements throughout much of the region as more complex. And it’s seen as the result of mistaken assumptions English settlers made about the native tribes.

What’s more, Lisa Brooks’ “Our Beloved Kin” (Yale University Press) is based on written letters and other materials written by those Indians, who are largely assumed to have been illiterate. And the creative, readable telling by this associate professor of English and American studies she describes as a relevant and timely interpretation, suggesting the plight of refugees and racial profiling.

Her history, which traces the interwoven paths of three characters — Wampanoag leader Weetamoo, who as a woman is less known than Metacomet (aka King Philip); James Printer, the persecuted Christian Nipmuc; and Mary Rowlandson, the Puritan woman whose own account of her capture in Lancaster is recast in this deeper interpretation.

Read the full review by Richie Davis in the Greenfield Recorder.

This article also appeared in the Hampshire Gazette on 1/25.