Change, and the Lack Thereof

Deed_1661_signed_at_Rehoboth_Massachusetts_Indian_land_sale

…Thinking again about the repetition of parallel patterns in contemporary America (as a political construct) and its direct predecessors in Colonial policy right here in the mid-Kwenitekw valley. The link is the continuance of colonization as policy.

The dogmatic appeals to “Law and Order”, rather than justice, equity, and human decency distinctly echo the dispossession of Native land and the commodification of life here through the imposed structure of English (now, American) law. Social interactions between Indigenous people and Settler society were subject to English legal standards, heard in colonial courts, with self-affirming repercussions. Even more overtly, concepts of land usage and entitlement were built upon the same imposition of invasive legal/religious/social values and the reinforcing structural systems that backed them up.

When “might makes right” rather than “respect recognizes rights”, there is a self-serving abuse of power and domination. An exploitive system needs constant “taking.” It happened then, it is happening now. For Indigenous people, it is always about the Land. Right here, in this place – that fact has never changed. While we clearly recognize and oppose the injustices so clearly on broad display around us, and rightly so, do we see that continuing under our own feet? Does “charity begin at home” or not? The system is still protecting what it has taken.

On a Hillside

cupules guilford large center hole

A compilation of some information about anthropic holes created in native rock, for future learning about the ways of ‘being here.’

Pictured above are cupules, which are circular man-made hollows on the surface of a rock or a rock slab, in a bedrock deposit of local Waits River marble. The holes are in a vertically-split slab of the formation, which is a common sight here lying in beds running north-south some distance west of the Connecticut River. It is very soft and easy to carve, and always covered with a heavy growth of moss and lichen, because of the high calcium levels. It weathers to dark brown.

While Waits River marble is easily eroded, and often assumes the most fantastic shapes because of this weathering – I’m quite familiar with it in this region – these holes look to me to be human creations. My first thought was bullet holes, given its exposed flat face, but there is no shatter as would be expected. They are rather deliberate cup-shaped depressions, with well-defined edges. As a first impression, I noted that there was a cluster of three, encircled by a rough ring of other holes, about 270 degrees around (not quite a full circle). There are a couple other single holes that don’t seem to fit a pattern, at first blush.

Here’s a Wikipedia article on the subject. The article is generalized and worldwide; practices would necessarily differ depending on the associated place-based culture. It is my understanding – very incomplete, but expanding – in this landscape (Sokwakik/Sokoki country) that these creations are a product of ceremony, a direct accessing of knowledge held inside the rock, and centered only in certain locations. It is a form of petroglyph, which function similarly. As I understand, each hole is a symbolic entrance into the underworld/spiritworld and the past, to facilitate transfer of power into the present through the intermediation of a medicine person.

cupules guilford close up

I am still learning how to understand these ways, in this specific landscape. The evidence of these actions is, I feel, necessarily place-based and not randomly transferable, at will. While there are some generally applicable explanations for the methodologies (the how/what), it is much more challenging to understand the reasons they are focused in discrete areas (the why/who/when). Certain people went to certain places at certain times for certain reasons. What makes these places a destination? What are the associations that create the recognition that these are places of certain power?

These are not the only rock carvings in the area. There is another site a couple thousand feet away. The prospect from here is roughly east to southeast, on a slight hillside, looking across a small valley with a sizable brook. I happen to be aware from research that the first Euro settler in this town established himself nearby, in the valley immediately below; that is usually a significant clue that the area was known as significant and utilized in some manner. As a matter of course, there is a Native trail passing nearby.

Various scholars have undertaken to study this practice, with all of the usual differences in approach and conclusions. Some probably draw closer to the sources than others. An entire conference was organized in the last decade around cupules. Here are two papers from that conference’s presentations:

The Interpretation of cupules by Robert G. Bednarik

The ambiguity of depressions in rock art by Maarten van Hoek

 

 

Pagakanihlok: Bloodroot

pagakanihlok bloodroot sokwakik 2020

Natami pagakanihlok tali Wantastegok Wajo wskisigwaniwi. The first bloodroot at Mount Wantastiquet in early spring.

Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis) is one of the earliest spring ephemerals, inhabiting moist, rich, soils in upland or floodplain deciduous forests. A solitary white flower with a golden center opens in the fleetingly-sunlit understory, before the leafy canopy overhead brings the shade of summer. The flowers close at night and sometimes bloom just before the single leaf joins it, each on its own stem; when the deeply-lobed leaf unfurls, it clasps the flower stalk like a cloak. Bloodroot likes to gather in groups, a small community huddled in the bright spring sunshine, celebrating the return of light and warmth.

bloodroot-blossoms-leyden-ma

This little harbinger is named for the bright red sap that oozes from the thick rootstock when it is broken open. The scarlet juice is traditionally used for a strong material dye, insect repellent, and body paint, as well as for several other medicinal purposes, although skin contact should be minimized due to alkaloids that may destroy tissue.*

This memorable naming characteristic appears in the Abenaki name for the plant as well, which is pagakanihlok. The word is compounded from ‘pagakan’ which signifies ‘blood’ with a connecting ‘-i-‘ plus the suffix ‘-hlok’ to indicate ‘where it comes out rapidly’, as in bleeding. The Penobscot use a similar term, pekahkánihlαk.

* It is a prime ingredient in the escharotic preparation known as black salve, an herbal skin cancer treatment that can cause permanent scarring or damage.

 

K8g8gwibakwimenal – Wintergreen Berries

k8gk8gwibakwimenal wintergreen berries

From last year’s bearing, still very tasty in the early spring. Somewhat dry and pithy, some less than others, but crisp and a little sweet with the expected oil of wintergreen taste. The word is formed from the name of the plant, “k8g8gwibakw” with a connecting “i” to “-men” (berry, fruit) plus “-al” for the inanimate plural. See the earlier post on the plant itself here.

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.

The Other Side of Plymouth Rock

david brule joe graveline nolumbeka river stories

“…Native Americans in the Valley and elsewhere in New England are looking at the [Plymouth] 400th anniversary through a different lens. For them, Plymouth Colony was the opening chapter of a far grimmer story, one in which regional tribes would be stricken by European diseases such as smallpox, forced from their land, and finally decimated by the violence of King Philip’s War in 1675-1676. It’s a fraught memorial, much like 2019, which marked 400 years since the introduction of African slaves to North America.”

Read the full story in The Recorder.

Podcast: David Brule on River Stories 2020

david brule river stories podcast valley advocate

David Brule, president of the Nolumbeka Project, based in Greenfield, speaks about a series focusing on Native Americans in the Valley. The series, which will consist of about a dozen events, is in part a response to this year’s Plymouth 400 observance, which is more focused on white settlers and the 1620 Plymouth Rock landing by the Pilgrims.

Check out the podcast at the article link.

Kwenitekw: The River as Constant Change

ask the river cyanotype lovett billings wasserman

A cyanotype from “Ask the River”, a community art and creative place-making project, part of an ongoing collaboration with artists Elizabeth Billings, Evie Lovett, and Andrea Wasserman. The Brattleboro Museum & Art Center will host an associated exhibit and opening event, with details here.

I am quite smitten by these cyanotype images… I must admit they convey so much more than I had previously realized was possible, not having been very familiar with the medium. The artist team of Evie, Elizabeth, and Andrea have opened my eyes with these works (thank you!); they will play a large part, on a grand scale, with the “Ask the River” project this year. The blue is a perfect agent.

I appreciate the interaction of light and dark (they co-create each other), the suggested uncertainty of “which is which?”, and the realization that it all works together to present a recorded but dynamic moment of fluid relationship. The “capture” is open-ended, fading in and out, but it is a single depiction of circumstance. Linear time is unclear, and yet it is documented – this juxtaposition did happen, in this way. The images allow metaphor, layers of possible interpretation.

Constant: 1. not changing or varying; uniform; regular; invariable 2. continuing without pause or letup; unceasing 3. regularly recurrent; continual; persistent.

Change: 1. to make the form, nature, content, future course, etc., of (something) different from what it is or from what it would be if left alone 2. to transform or convert.

This is an Abenaki view of the world, and it is the way the language – Aln8ba8dwaw8gan – works as well. A word can have more than one meaning at the same time, as with the name of the Connecticut River, Kwenitekw. On the surface, it is usually translated “Long River”, with “kweni-” being an adjectival modifier suggesting extended length, and “-tekw” being a bound suffix used for rivers, tides, and waves.

But by bringing the underlying concepts of these two morphemes – these basic root words – forward, the name Kwenitekw can evoke something much more encompassing and suggestive. “Kweni-” can also mean a “duration”, as in a continuance – a length of space/time. An ongoing, sustained moment (like the cyanotype). And “-tekw” literally 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, which is the essence of life, that is moving and shifting, transitioning from one place to another – it is imbued with power.

And 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: “a continuous, connecting flow of spirit-power in transition.” This is an Abenaki expansive understanding behind the expression attributed to the Greek philosopher Heraclitus “No man ever steps in the same river twice…” Once this broadened perspective is absorbed, it begins to inform many other cultural situations, such as kinship, relationship, change, presence, and balance, to suggest a few. This is the way of it.

Abenaki New Year’s Day 2019

Joseph Joubert Facebook Abenaki New Year

Today – December 26, 2019 – the new moon following the winter solstice marks the beginning of the #Abenaki calendar: it is the New Year. On this day, it is customary to ask for forgiveness of our family, friends, and community as we enter a new cycle together. And so, I say to you all “Liwlaldamana (please) anhaldamawi kassi palilawlan.”

 

Pamgisgak – the Winter Solstice

prospect cemetery december morning
The present, here and now.
#Abenaki ways of being with this day, December 21, 2019:
 
Peboniwi, t8ni kizos wazwasa – “In winter, when the sun returns to the same place” (the solstice)
 
Kwagwanidebokak – “the very long night”
 
N8woponasik – “midwinter” (the solstice)