Elnu Abenaki S8gm8 Roger Longtoe Sheehan on Sacred Sites in Vermont

From the YouTube channel of the “Year of Indigenous Peoples of the AmericasCultural Initiative, a program of SUNY Empire State College. For this new virtual residency curriculum, a series of videos has been created with indigenous culture keepers sharing various aspects of their people’s understandings.

In this production, S8gm8 Roger Longtoe Sheehan speaks about the Abenaki relationship with the land and rivers of Ndakinna, and how these interactions take place within their worldview. The interview took place in June, 2018 at the Abenaki Heritage Weekend annual event at Lake Champlain Maritime Museum. By request of Vera Longtoe Sheehan, a co-producer of the film, I contributed some still photography from Kchi Pontekw/Bellows Falls, VT for the video.

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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 would result 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 in 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 were not honored, and respectful acknowledgement made in the form of ceremonial practice (song, dance, gifts, prayer, proscribed or prescribed activities), it would have to be seen as a breach of conduct. It truly was 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 ineptitude of the mindset that replaced it.

Mark Bushnell at VTDigger: Uncovering Vermont’s Stone Carvings

Bellows Falls Petroglyphs 1866

Note: Mark Bushnell is a Vermont journalist and historian. He is the author of “Hidden History of Vermont” and “It Happened in Vermont.” Mark called me for comments as he was putting this VTDigger column together.

When Rev. David McClure of Dartmouth College ventured down the Connecticut River to Bellows Falls in 1789, he was on a scientific mission. As a natural philosopher – what we might today call a scientist – McClure was interested in stone carvings he had heard about from a local man. The carvings, cut into an outcropping on the Vermont side of the river, depicted a series of faces.

“The figures have the appearance of great antiquity,” McClure wrote, noting that the British colonists who first settled the area a half-century earlier had observed them. The faces were life-sized images consisting of a simple oval with markings for eyes, nose, mouth and perhaps ears, McClure wrote. Some had lines sticking out of their heads that various observers have taken to be feathers, horns or rays.

McClure’s was apparently the first written account of the carved rocks, which have been described as the oldest pieces of art in Vermont. How old? Though experts agree the carvings were made by Native Americans, they are unwilling to ascribe a specific date, or even era, to the petroglyphs, which literally means “stone carvings.” They could be anywhere from 300 to 3,000 years old.

The written observations of McClure and subsequent visitors during the 19th and early 20th centuries are invaluable because they offer a snapshot of these artifacts, which have been changing over time. If descriptions of the petroglyphs have varied since McClure’s visit, so too have the interpretations of their meaning.

Read the full article in VTDigger here.

At Round Top

round top photo northfield ma 1894Photograph from Northfield Echoes, Volume 1, A Report of the Northfield Conferences for 1894, D.L. Pierson, ed., E. Northfield, MA, The Conference Bookstore, 1894, p. 360

Last month, on October 23, 2018, I attended a Moody Center event held on the grounds of the former Northfield Seminary for Young Ladies, a school founded in 1879 by famed Christian evangelist D.L. Moody, who was born (1837) and raised in the village of Northfield, Massachusetts. The Northfield Seminary was founded specifically to serve girls from poor families who had limited access to education. In time, the school developed a reputation as an excellent academic institution, and it began accepting students from all socioeconomic classes. Two years later (1881), the Mount Hermon School for Boys was established on the other side of the Connecticut River in Gill, MA, the current site of the consolidated Northfield-Mount Hermon (NMH).

The majority of the buildings and some acreage now belong to Thomas Aquinas College, a Roman Catholic, California-based liberal arts college that plans to open an East Coast campus there in 2019. Plans call for it to eventually serve 350 to 400 students. Some additional acreage and 10 other buildings are now owned by the aforementioned Moody Center, a nonprofit organization honoring the legacy of NMH founder D.L. Moody.

auditorium northfield photo 1904

The Auditorium, Northfield Seminary, circa 1904, built 1894. Detroit Publishing Co., from the Library of Congress collection

The event was styled the official public launch of the Moody Center and an announcement of its plans for the future at the campus. It was held in the Auditorium, built in 1894 with a capacity of 2500 people, and situated on a height of land at the easterly edge of the grounds. Thousands of classes, conferences, concerts, and church services have been held inside this imposing edifice in its 125 years. Conducted as a joint public announcement and evangelical Christian service, the October 23rd event was to include a rededication of the gravesite of Dwight Moody (died 1899) and his wife, Emma Revell Moody (died 1903), situated on a small knoll known as Round Top, immediately to the south of the Auditorium. Round Top, often referred to as “the most hallowed place in Northfield,” figured largely in the life story of Moody and the many others that have gathered at the school over the years to join in the various religious and educational activities there. A search online makes its significance in this regard abundantly clear.

moody graves round top northfield ma

A contemporary view of the Dwight and Emma Moody gravesite at Round Top, ali nkihl8t, looking westward (Western Abenaki).

“Round Top,” wrote J. Wilbur Chapman, “has ever been a place of blessing. . . . Each evening, when the conferences are in session, as the day is dying out of the sky . . . students gather to talk of the things concerning the Kingdom. . . . The old haystack at Williamstown figures no more conspicuously in the history of missions than Round Top figures in the lives of a countless number of Christians throughout the whole world.” source

More on that “old haystack at Williamstown” in a bit…

Back to the event: the program was structured in two parts, the first a worship service, some history to preface the announcement of the launch,  an explanation of future plans, a recognition award, and then an intermission. The second part was to include additional worship, a keynote address, and then dismissal to nearby Round Top for the rededication ceremony. I sat in one of the many seats in an audience of scores of supporters and the curious public, for the first hour and a half, and then stepped outside at the break.

Thinking I had probably absorbed enough and would head back north toward home, I walked over to the gravesite knoll, where a photographer was setting up for the imminent rededication. I had in mind (even before I came there that day) the aphorism that disparate cultures may find the same geographical sites notable, and even sacred, and that Round Top may have been a significant location to the indigenous Sokoki, for any number of reasons within their own cultural values. There is often a pattern of displacement and replacement – intentional appropriation, both symbolic and physically – overlaid on these places, a site-specific instance of the land dispossession that defines colonization. For more, see Jean O’Brien’s excellent analysis of the wholesale application of this practice in Firsting and Lasting: Writing Indians Out of Existence in New England.

Round Top Northfield Seminary Detroit Pub 1902

Round Top postcard, circa 1902, Detroit Publishing Co.

A light precipitation had begun to fall from the darkening sky and the breeze was picking up, as I approached the small prominence. The twin gray granite gravestones stood on the rise, surrounded by an iron chain with ornate posts, and sheltered by a small grove of tall white pines and stately white birches. I took in the open prospect before my eyes, looking up and down the valley of the Kwenitekw/Connecticut River, the wolhanak/intervale meadows, and the hills rolling off into the west, toward the Pocumtuk, Mount Greylock, and the Green Mountains on the horizon, where the sun would end its traverse shortly.

The gentle mound of earth, at the height of land rising from the terraces, did indeed seem like a natural gathering place. In sight were Pachaug Meadow to the northwest, Great Meadow below, Natanis southwest at Bennett Meadow, and Moose Plain, across the River. The Great River Road following the east bank at the bottom of the immediate slope has now become Massachusetts Route 63. Thinking back to what this place may have looked like several hundred years ago, before Puritan captive Mary Rowlandson made her slow way northward past this very spot in 1676, I could picture fertile planting fields, grasslands regularly cleared with controlled burns, and wigwams on the higher ground around me. The scattered raindrops began to get larger and more frequent. I laid tobacco at the base of a twin birch, said good-bye to the photographer, wishing him well with the weather, and walked back to my car.

Since then, I hadn’t thought much more of it. But this week, I received by email a Moody Center newsletter, authored by Board Member Dr. Edwin Lutzer describing his participation as the keynote speaker during the October program. The newsletter is entitled “Standing Where D.L. Moody Stood – and Reviving His Legacy.” Several excerpts stood out as unexpected anomalies within an otherwise didactic and altogether familiar narrative (familiar because I grew up immersed in evangelical, fundamentalist Protestant Christianity, replete with plentiful references to D.L. Moody).

moody center newsletter banner

Here are the excerpts from Rev. Dr. Edwin Lutzer that caught me by surprise (or not…):

My keynote address was given in the original auditorium, built in 1894, while standing where D.L. Moody often stood to preach and where his funeral service was held in 1899. I began with a question — “Can these dry bones live?”…

After my message, the plan was for me to lead our 200+ guests to a nearby hill on the property known as “Round Top,” which is where D.L. Moody and his wife, Emma, are buried. In Moody’s day, this was referred to as the “Olivet” of the region, because Moody himself liked to gather students in the nearby valley and teach them the Scriptures. He even said he would like to be buried at the picturesque Round Top. Thankfully, his wishes were honored. 

In the many decades since D.L. Moody’s death, students have continued to gather at Round Top for times of visiting and religious services. Word also has it that witches came to the property, representing their religion. Another board member shared that, as he walked up the hill many years ago, he saw what appeared to be a witch at Moody’s grave. She was dressed in all black and was chanting until she saw someone approaching and began to run. This is why a brief ceremony was planned for Round Top as part of the launch event, thus renouncing the past and rededicating the property to Jesus Christ and the furtherance of the Gospel.

Then it gets even more interesting:

Near the end of my address, I could hear the rumbling of thunder and wind was blowing rain against the outer windows of the auditorium. For the safety of our guests, a decision was made to keep the ten-minute rededication ceremony in the auditorium instead of proceeding to Round Top. After leading everyone in a final prayer of commitment, I opened my eyes and saw sunlight streaming through the windows…
 
As the service concluded and music filled the auditorium, guests began to leave and were immediately greeted with a double rainbow. Not only was the sun shining — but there was not a cloud in the sky! Some interpreted this as a sign of God’s blessing. He speaks through the thunder (see II Samuel 22:14; Psalm 77:17); but after the thunder comes the blessing of sunshine.  

Thomas Cole The Oxbow Connecticut River near Northampton 1836

A thunderstorm sweeps over the Valley: Thomas Cole, The Oxbow (The Connecticut River near Northampton 1836).

I will end this interesting juxtaposition with several circumstantial observations:

  • The ability of medeoulin or mdawinno (an Abenaki medicine person) – or pauwau, further south in Algonquian New England – to understand and work with  the atmospheric spirit forces, among many others, was and is well-known.
  • The powers of the Bad8giak, or the Thunders, who come from the west, are – in Abenaki cosmology –  a natural positive counterbalance to other spirit powers considered more destructive or debilitating. They may be represented in the shape of a thunderbird and invoked to keep other energies at bay.
  • Native medicine people were typically equated with witchcraft or sorcery by the early colonists; it is worth noting is that this characterization of association with evil persists in modern Christianity.
  • The aforementioned “old haystack at Williamstown” is a reference to another noted moment in the Western Massachusetts evangelical timeline, this region having been a hotbed for Revivalism. At Williams College, founded through a bequest of Col. Ephraim Williams, Jr. – a relative of Northampton’s Rev. Jonathan Edwards of “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” fame and Rev. John Williams of the Deerfield Raid of 1704 –  there was an August, 1806 event known as the Haystack Prayer Meeting. It is considered “the seminal event for the development of American Protestant missions in the subsequent decades and century.” Interestingly, a thunderstorm and grove of trees figures prominently in this account as well. From the Wiki article: “Williams College students Samuel Mills, James Richards, Francis LeBaron Robbins, Harvey Loomis, and Byram Green, met in the summer of 1806 in a grove of trees near the Hoosic River, in what was then known as Sloan’s Meadow, and debated the theology of missionary service. Their meeting was interrupted by a thunderstorm and the students took shelter under a haystack until the sky cleared. “The brevity of the shower, the strangeness of the place of refuge, and the peculiarity of their topic of prayer and conference all took hold of their imaginations and their memories.”
  • And, oddly enough, in D.L. Moody’s own genealogy can be found one of the targets of the colonial Connecticut witch trials, contemporaneous with the better-known episodes in Salem, MA. Elizabeth (Moody) Seager/Seger (1628-1666) of Hartford was accused and tried three times for witchcraft, and convicted in the last instance (1665), although the charges were dismissed the next year and she was set free. Robert Stern, one of those testifying against Elizabeth, stated: “I saw This woman Goodwife Seage/ in the woods w[i]th three more wome[n]/ and wit[h] them {these} I saw two/ black creatures like two Indians/ but taller I saw likewise a Kettle/ there over a fire, I saw the wome[n]/ dance round these black Creatures/ and whiles I looked upon them one/ of the women G Greensmith sai[th]/ look who is yonder and then they/ ran away up the hill. “

Note: this is an anecdotal observation of a place-based intersection of spiritualities in Squakheag/Northfield, a center of Sokwakiak culture. Food for thought.

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.