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.