In Response to Seven Days: Exploring Mt. Philo With Historian Judy Chaves

mategwas mategwas abenaki rabbit rabbit tweetOn Twitter, Nov. 1, 2018

A response to an article by Tom Slayton in the online Vermont magazine Seven Days today, November 1, 2018:

This article includes a classic example of the minimization of a 10,000 year-long (or longer) indigenous presence in the landscape, exemplified by characterizing cultural usage patterns as ephemeral and insubstantial. This biased historical trope is deployed typically in comparison to later European land settlement practices such as fence- and wall-bounded properties, permanent structures, commoditized agriculture, and extractive industry.

mt philo view

The narrative device is used so often it has become de rigueur and may not even raise an eyebrow in notice. In this case, the statement is made: “There’s no evidence that Native Americans lived on the mountain, but they may have used it as a strategic lookout.” This, in spite of the fact that the subsequent post-Contact history (to draw a fuzzy gray line) was and is exactly that as well.

Given that the Champlain Sea is estimated to have been about 450 feet above current Lake levels, Mt. Philo and a few other nearby elevations would have been islands at the time, projecting only a fraction of their mass above the surrounding brackish water. They would have been heavily utilized by the region’s first inhabitants for occupation, food processing, resource gathering, and reconnaissance. With a broad prospect over the water- and landscape, the eminence would play a significant and lasting role for the Native descendants of these first peoples. It is not hard to find evidence for this supposition. The Abenaki have their own name for the landmark: Mategwasaden – Rabbit Mountain. Immediately west, Thompson’s Point remained a significant Abenaki community well into recent times. The Point and the surrounding Lake are well-documented for archaeological significance.

With a twist of irony, the State of Vermont’s management plan for Mount Philo State Park states: “In the late 1800s, William Higbee, a Charlotte resident and journalist, wrote that Mt. Philo was named for an “Indian fighter and famous hunter” named Philo who camped on the mountain. One of the first written references to the “Devil’s Chair” [a slopeside feature] was in an 1896 article that describes a natural rock outcrop by that name.” People who are able to “read between the lines” will recognize here another common displacement trope masquerading as quaint local history: the Devil epithet is often attached to Native sacred landscape features, and a description of “chair” or “seat” will often refer to an elevated ceremonial site, used in recognition of its prominent exposure to the sweep of landscape and sky.

We are not served well by such dismissiveness.

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Through Which Runs a Vein of Quartz

quartz excerpt ethnological notes on moosehead lake

Drawn from Ethnological and Anthropological Notes on Moosehead Lake, by Joseph D. McGuire, 1908.

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.

Mount Wantastiquet as a Prayer Seat

wantastegok wajo nibenkik

“The Indian’s Great Chair”

Pulling together some local references, with some further afield, and some discussion as to the significance of mountains and mountaintops to indigenous ways of being in relationship to place, especially certain mountains associated with certain landscapes. Keeping in mind the essence of indigeneity as an understanding of the people and the land as one entity, these places close to the sky have sacred significance and are often reserved for ceremony and ritual. Specific knowledge of these places may understandably not be a part of the historic record, but some hint or allusion may be found in careful readings, and connections made, and remade, by implication from comparable instances elsewhere.

The mountain we now refer to as Mount Wantastiquet  (Wantastegok Wajo, 1350′) stands on the east bank of the Kwenitekw/Connecticut River opposite the mouths of the Wantastekw/West River and Kitad8gansibo/Whetstone Brook and lies in today’s towns of Hinsdale and Chesterfield, New Hampshire. Its steep forested flanks, rising abruptly on the morning side of the long river valley (over 1100′), anchor the immediate landscape and provide a ready reference point from wherever a vantage can be gained above the trees, across the many dips in the rolling terrain of the Piedmont. Likewise, it looms ahead for many miles as a landmark – upstream or down – for any paddler on the mainstem, signaling the confluence of the two rivers that inform Wantastegok. Brief mention was made of its prominence in a recent post, noting that it was characterized in some old accounts as “the Indian’s Great Chair.” The nearly identical reference is made in two local history books: The Gazetteer of Cheshire County, NH: 1736-1885 by Hamilton Child (1885) and the History of Chesterfield, Cheshire County, NH from the Incorporation of “Township Number One” by Massachusetts, in 1736, to the year 1881… by Oren Randall (1882). The former gives credit to the latter as his source. Child’s description is worth sharing.

hamilton child gazeteer great chair

Let’s look a little further northwest in N’dakinna, Western Abenaki country, to one of the best known of Vermont’s Green Mountains, and its third highest, the peak known as Camel’s Hump (4081′). It is probably the most easily recognized of the state’s summits for its distinctive two-humped profile  (featured on the official VT Coat of Arms, the 2001 state quarter, and the conservation license plate), which is a classic demonstration of  its glacial past.

“The summit is an extreme example of a roche moutonnée, literally “sheep rock,” so named by geomorphologists because of a perceived similarity to sleeping sheep. As a glacier advances, it glides over ridgetops, smoothing them over. On the lee side, a steep slope forms as ice freezes into the hillside and plucks rocks away. Thus, on Camel’s Hump, the northern flank of the mountain—the lower hump—is smoothed over, but the southern flank—the taller rock hump—forms a steep rock face.”

Camels Hump VT Wiki

The singular profile of  Tawapodiwajo/Camel’s Hump from the east.

The peak has had its share of names from Champlain forward, but its original Aln8baodwaw8gan/Western Abenaki name has been variously reported as – according to John C. Huden’s Indian Place Names of New England (1962) – “ta wak be dee esso wadso,” or “tahwahbodeay wadso” (wadso meaning mountain),” fancifully translated as “prudently, we make a campfire in a circle near water (and rest) at this mountain.” But a more sober, simple, and accurate explanation is attributed by Huden to Rowland Robinson as “resting place, or sit-down place, mountain.” This is found more than once in Robinson’s own prolific writings, in one case within “Hunting Without a Gun, and Other Papers” (1905),  in the footnotes on page 33. As a source, Dr. Gordon M. Day attests to the veracity and familiarity of Robinson with the Abenaki language, which he had heard for himself in the late 19th century from Native speakers,  in his brief essay “Ethnology in the Works of Rowland E. Robinson.” Walter Hill Crockett cites Robinson’s place names as well, in his “Vermont, the Green Mountain State” (1921).

Day’s Western Abenaki Dictionary Volume II (1994) gives “dawabodi” (or “tawapodi”) as “something one sits down into; a hollow seat, can be used for a saddle.” And further, “dawaopodiiwajo” means “place to sit in mountain; saddle mountain; mountain seat; Camel’s Hump, VT.” Here, now, we see another reference to a mountain as a seat. (By the way, another Abenaki cognative for the peak, akin and antecedent to the Camel’s Hump moniker, is “moziozagan” for “moose’s shoulder or moose’s hump.”)  The video below gives a good idea of the circumferential prospect from the mountain.

Going just a little further afield, at the edge of Abenaki homelands but still well within the Algonquian-speaking region of New England, we can find a couple other examples of the seat or chair usage in reference to rocky heights. Just below the Great Falls on the Kwenitekw on the southern edge of Sokwakik/Sokoki country, and at the southern terminus of the Pocumtuck Range at Wequamps/Mount Sugarloaf (read Marge Bruchac’s insightful explanation of the landscape here), there is a striking prospect of the river valley and surrounding hills from a sheer red sandstone bluff in South Deerfield. The bare ledges and strong profile form yet another landmark to orient an approaching canoe paddler on the River, or a traveler on one of the many footpaths converging at the Falls a couple miles upstream. Just under the brow, there is a lookout point known as King Philip’s Seat, referring to Pokanoket-Wampanoag sachem Metacom/King Philip. There are several legendary King Philip’s Seats in New England, and while this lookout’s toponymic genesis may not have a solid basis in fact, Metacom was indeed very much present in the area, during the intense war that bears his name, and the site meets anyone’s need for an elevated, comprehensive perspective. A mindful consideration of the mountain’s lofty vantage and its possible indigenous uses, written by area columnist Gary Sanderson, was featured in The (Greenfield) Recorder this past summer. His provocative thoughts lead us closer to the reconnections we are considering to the north at Mount Wantastiquet.

king philip's seat mount sugarloafsugarloaf king philip's chair

A souvenir postcard from the early 20th century and an extract from the Automobile Journal, Volume 35 (1913) promote the site’s legendary past.

One more area example can be found a little to the west in the Berkshires, in Mahican country, near the Massachusetts/New York border. Yokun Seat (2133′) is a peak in the Yokun Ridge, west of Lenox, MA and overlooking the valley of the winding Ausatenuk/Housatonic (“place beyond the mountain”) River – in Abenaki, Awasadenik, with the same meaning. The mountain’s name is explained in the Wikipedia entry for Yokun Ridge: “The name Yokun derives from Jehoiakim Yokun, a Native American of the Mahican tribe. As early as the 19th Century, Yokun’s name was applied to “Yokun Seat,” a summit of Lenox Mountain. This term was accepted by the Board of Geographic Names in 1894.” This Jehoiakim, Mahican-ized to “Yokun,” seems to have been a namesake for the community-accepted  Dutch settler Jehoiakim Van Valkenburg, who moved to the area from Kinderhook, NY about 1728.  It seems that Yokun’s name may have been affixed to the Berkshires peak partly as a reflection of his significant land speculation, but again, we find the word “seat” applied to the top of a mountain.

jehoiakim yokun land speculator

Now for a final example, much farther away and set in a distinctly different cultural and language family, but demonstrating an overlap in cultural practices: Indian Seats in the Sawnee Mountain (1963′) Preserve. Forty miles north of Atlanta, this is Northern Creek/Muscogean country; the Cherokee were very late arrivals in the late eighteenth century. Notwithstanding that, the mountain is said to be named for a Cherokee man (Saunee or Sawnee) who resided in the immediate area until he was forced to relocate far to the west, with his people, under Andrew Jackson’s Indian Removal Act. The Indian Seats themselves are described thus: “…carved in the lofty, sheer face of the mountaintop [there] are several natural depressions in the rock, legendarily used by local tribes as seats for lookouts and meditation for many centuries.” Some sources state that there is evidence of the site being used for ceremonial purposes at least as early as 2500 BCE by various Woodland cultures.

indian seats sawnee mountain preserve GA

Indian Seats outlook at Sawnee Mountain Preserve, Forsyth County, Georgia

Two chapters which give some background, from an anthropological and archaeological viewpoint, about the spiritual significance of “mountaintop seats” can be found here and here: BernbaumSacredMountains. These are outside observers, but their remarks are pertinent.

Here I leave this trail up Mount Wantastiquet, and will let the mountain speak for itself, under the dome of the sky and encircled by the horizon.

Those who come afterward to these places,  unaware, or arriving after the stories have been hidden, altered, suppressed, or rewritten, may not see what is present. Perhaps their perception is simply lacking, or more likely, has been co-opted by another way of being in the world, the way of separation and objectification. This lack of  individual or systemic awareness does not mean these other, original ways are displaced or irrelevant. Those possibilities persist, seeking only acknowledgement and reciprocity from those who seek to be present.

#ReclaimingWantastegok

 

 

 

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.

Vermont Yankee Buyer Assures Tribe It Will Hire Cultural Adviser

Rich Holschuh VY Sale Mike Faher

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.

Read the full story by Mike Faher in vtdigger.org here.

The same Mike Faher story in the Brattleboro Reformer here.

And a version in The Commons here.