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.
If NorthStar Group Services gets a chance to decommission Vermont Yankee, the company will have a hired cultural expert watching over its work.
In a nod to Native American concerns about the Vernon site’s historical importance, NorthStar CEO Scott State is committing to enlisting a consultant on matters such as archaeology, anthropology and history.
The costs of that expert, State pledged, “will not impact the Nuclear Decommissioning Trust or the Site Restoration Trust, and instead will be borne solely by NorthStar.”
Rich Holschuh, a Native American activist representing the Elnu Abenaki tribe in Vermont Yankee proceedings, applauded NorthStar’s commitment but expects to stay closely involved in decommissioning issues. “I see this as the first conversation in an ongoing dialogue,” Holschuh said.
One cannot care about that of which you are ignorant.
Charity begins at home.
Education, awareness, understanding. #respect#indigenous
State officials saw in the Vilas Bridge and nearby petroglyphs an opportunity to try out their latest gadget.
“LiDAR,” Vermont State Archaeologist Jess Robinson said, referring to a terrestrial Light Detection and Ranging unit, “creates very detailed three-dimensional models. This is becoming very popular in archeology as a form of virtual curation; to preserve things in three dimensions and in real space and be able to broadcast them when the actual artifacts or, in this case, the petroglyphs are not available to people.”
Last Thursday, the Vermont Division for Historic Preservation and the Agency of Transportation tested out the equipment specifically purchased for documenting the Vilas Bridge. One of the officials had suggested scanning the petroglyphs to get “a very detailed record of them at this point of time,” said Robinson.
Eva McKend of Burlington’s WCAX Channel 3 News spoke with Vermont State Archaeologist Jess Robinson about the significance of petroglyph sites in Vermont, and specifically the fledgling effort to conserve those at Wantestegok – the West River in Brattleboro. Click on the first link for the video interview.
A group has hopes of purchasing land near petroglyphs under the Connecticut River (correction: Wantastekw/West River) with the goal of preventing future development on land it sees as culturally meaningful.
“This is all part of the Abenaki people trying to re-establish themselves… to raise awareness and reinforce the idea that these are not relics of the past,” said Rich Holschuh, a member of the Vermont Commission on Native American Affairs from Brattleboro.
“These are significant to people who are still here… people who still observe their significance and incorporate that into their lives because they are the descendants of these people.”
Abenaki people and other members of the public hope to preserve the land, keeping it open for hiking and other recreational activities. The project is also about protecting the Hogle Wildlife Sanctuary.
Vandals are destroying ancient indigenous pictographs throughout Canada at an alarming rate and activists are trying to call attention to the desecration and its consequences.
As of late July vandals had defaced, and in some cases destroyed, indigenous pictographs in Ontario, Quebec, Alberta, Manitoba, British Columbia and Montreal in the last six years including some recent dramatic incidents.
“We are talking about indigenous heritage, oral traditions, cultural memory,” [Zawadzska] told CBC. “The sites are associated with sacred places, traditional territories, and traditional knowledge. They are living sites.”
I was asked by someone recently what is it that makes the Kwenitekw, n’sibo, our river, sacred. Is it the traditional fishing places? Is it the burials of the ancestors? What follows is my reply:
Thank you for asking; these are understandings that are foundational and go below the surface of things. I hope we have a chance to speak together again some day, for it is simpler to express these things in person. But I will share a few things:
It is important to remember that words have power and they derive from our worldview, which is expressed in the cultural tool we call language. There are many languages, and many ways of seeing the world. They differ dramatically, and the use of a word, or concept, can mean very different things to different people. Thus, “sacred.” When speaking of Abenaki cultural concepts, one cannot look at it through a Western religious lens. The dictionary definitions that fit “sacred” best are (from Merriam-Webster): 1) entitled to reverence and respect and 2) highly valued and important, as in “a sacred responsibility.” It is not a religious designation, but rather a spiritual recognition.
So, with regard to your questions of the river’s significance regarding fishing locations or burial grounds, the answer is yes, all of that, and much more. The reason being that we are all related, all equally significant, and part of the same great circle of Creation. Time does not exist in a linear sense, but is a continuum, constantly changing but all part of the same. Thus, we as human beings (in common with, say, plant beings, fish beings, stone beings, wind beings) have a ongoing responsibility to honor these relationships. We cannot act to harm the River, as it is as deserving of respect as anyone else, and in fact, we derive our very life from it – it would be very shortsighted to do otherwise..
As indigenous people (defined as the original people of a distinct place), we so identify with our homelands that we see ourselves as part of it, inseparable and continuous. For example, when an Abenaki person identifies him- or herself, they would not say “My name is so-and-so and I live in Brattleboro.” They would state “… I am Brattleboro.” Consequently, one’s attitudes and actions toward the River, are as unto one’s very self and one’s family, because it is exactly that. We (most of us!) consider human life to be sacred. So is the river.
You have heard the expression, especially this past year with the action at Standing Rock, that “Water Is Life.” This plays out clearly in the Abenaki language, which by nature embodies its cultural worldview. Let me explain that, in a Native sense, the well-known term “medicine” means anything that promotes or sustains health and vitality – this makes complete sense, but in our Western way of thinking it has been separated and limited into a drug that addresses (often only symptomatically) sickness. It has got the relationship backwards and misses most of the bigger picture of the interconnectedness of life. The word for water in Abenaki is “nebi”; the word for medicine in Abenaki is “nebizon.” So, you can see, that water is at the heart of life. The River is our great provider, for which we can only be grateful.
To learn that burials are often at the edge of the River is no coincidence. I don’t think I even need to explain that one! It is a place where strong connections have always been made, and where they can be accessed over and over. We go there to pay our respects to our ancestors, to say thank you to the water, and to pray for the same blessings for the generations to come. It is our “church.” There are certainly other places that are important as well, but the River is at the heart of them all. It unifies and connects – think in terms of a watershed – a flowing cradle, a web, an endless cycle enveloping the people.