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 This Day, May 30, 1723: Dummer’s Interest

gov william dummer massachusetts bay colony
Brief background, adapted from Wikipedia: William Dummer (16777-1761) was lieutenant governor of the Province of Massachusetts Bay for fourteen years (1716–1730), including a period from 1723 to 1728 when he acted as governor. He is remembered for his role in leading the colony during what is sometimes called Dummer’s War, which was fought between the British colonies of northeastern North America and a coalition of native tribes in what is now New Hampshire, Maine, New Brunswick, and Nova Scotia. Dummer was born into a wealthy Massachusetts merchant family, traveling to England as a young man to participate in the business. Upon his return to Massachusetts in 1712 he entered provincial politics, gaining a royal commission as lieutenant governor through the efforts of his brother Jeremiah. He served during the turbulent tenure of Governor Samuel Shute, in which Shute quarreled with the assembly over many matters. Shute left the province quite abruptly at the end of 1722, while it was in the middle of a war with the natives of northern New England.
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The following date is brought to our attention through the efforts of Brian Chenevert, Nulhegan Abenaki citizen, who has compiled a timeline of events significant during the colonization of Ndakinna by European invaders.
May 30, 1723
Massachusetts commissioners meet with Albany commissioners and representatives from the Five Nations (Haudenosaunee) and outline a proposal from Governor Dummer for the terms in which Massachusetts wanted the Five Nations to join it in fighting the Abenaki. The terms were: For the further Encouragement of your Warlike people Massachusetts will pay 100 pounds for the scalp of every male enemy Indian of twelve years or older, and 50 pounds for the scalps of all others killed “in fight.” Massachusetts will pay 50 pounds for each male prisoner. The Five Nations may keep female prisoners and children under twelve, as well as any plunder taken. The Massachusetts government will supply the Five Nations with any needed provisions or ammunition, but the value will be deducted from the money paid for scalps.
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Commentary by Sokoki Sojourn:
  • William Dummer’s name, of course, was affixed to Fort Dummer (Wantastegok/Brattleboro) – built in the winter of 1724 by order of the Governor and the Assembly immediately after this recruitment attempt. The Vermont town immediately upriver and north is named Dummerston, also in attribution to this historical figure and his outsized influence.
  • As with most politicians of the colonial period, not unlike those of today, politics and money (power) went hand in hand. William Dummer came from a wealthy family and made his own substantial fortune, in great part through land speculation – land being the transactional weapon of settler colonization. As a publicity move, he forewent his salary as Lieutenant Governor (also reminiscent of a certain current politician) while he accumulated more significant profits elsewhere.
  • Gov. Dummer had direct personal interests in protecting the Connecticut River frontier above Northfield, at what became the VT/NH/MA tri-state border. He was one of the joint purchasers of the 48,000-acre-portion of the Equivalent Lands on the west bank of the mid-Kwenitekw, Sokoki Abenaki homelands.
  • One of his fellow “investors” was William Brattle, Sr., who – with his son William Brattle, Jr. – similarly lent his name to a town that was chartered later by NH. Gov. Benning Wentworth. Another member of this land speculation pact and a highly  influential politician was Anthony Stoddard, Esq., whose cousin Col. John Stoddard of Northampton was the actual designer of Fort Dummer. John, himself, was an investor in some of the “Equivalent Lands.” As with many people, most of these parties solidified their business and social relationships through marriage as well.
  • The Abenaki resistance which Dummer and his colleagues attempted to obstruct and suppress was a direct response to the continued encroachment of British settlers on Wabanaki territories, both in the Connecticut River valley and (what became) the Maine coast, then part of Massachusetts Bay Province. Coastal and inland Abenaki groups, typically allied with Britain’s empire-building-counterpart  France to the north, sought to keep the British contained.
  • William Dummer – along with William Brattle and many other politicians/officers/investors and their extended heirs – had significant personal financial interests in the Eastern Abenaki homelands also.
  • This series of militant actions was known as Dummer’s War, along with other, more localized theater referents. In the valley of Kwenitekw, it is often known as Greylock’s (or Gray Lock’s) War, in memory of the Western Abenaki war leader Wawanolet (or Wawanolewat) who led many raids and war parties from the north. While most other Abenaki bands to the east and north made peace agreements of a sort with Massachusetts after awhile. Wawanolewat never surrendered and died an old man among his people, around 1750.
  • The clear conclusion to be drawn from these circumstances is that William Dummer (and his cronies, in the clearest sense of the word) was using public resources, influence, relationships, and funds to protect and enhance their personal interests. This included blood money for men, women, and children. One hundred Pounds was worth a fortune, over $26,000 in 1723. Not a lot has changed. The patterns of much-less-than-admirable human behavior that make up most of today’s headlines are stories that continue to play out here as well, with lasting effect.

Something to Think About

Here’s a basic general juxtaposition, upon which I will expand at some further point. It concerns intentionally-built earth structures: what is their original purpose/premise and how are they understood (or, more typically, not) by those who come after?

silbury hill neolithic mound wiltshire

First, a well-known example at Silbury Hill in Wiltshire, England near “the stone circles of Avebury and a few miles from Stonehenge.” You can read a basic overview here, from which I extract the following (evolving) observations:

“Dr Jim Leary, English Heritage archaeologist, said the creators were building the mound as part of a ‘continuous story telling ritual’ – and that the final shape of the mound may have been unimportant… the final form of the Hill did not matter – it was the construction process that was important. …It was a place that was heavily inscribed with folk memories that recalled ancestors and their origins.

‘What is emerging is a picture of Neolithic people having the same need to anchor and share ideas and stories as we do now, and that built structures like Silbury Hill may not be conceived as grand monuments of worship but intimate gestures of communication.’ “

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And, continuing in a comparable morphology and much closer to home in Sokoki country, a somewhat similar circumstance and response, is this item from Brattleboro’s Vermont Phoenix newspaper of August 6, 1897:

“The Guilford mound, which has long been supposed to contain Indian relics and which was to have been opened by some Brattleboro men, was opened by some Guilford men last Saturday. The mound was about 50 feet square and 15 feet high and was covered with a thick growth of trees, some of which were four inches through, with roots large enough to impede somewhat the progress of the shovels, nevertheless the men were undaunted and set to work energetically, determined that if within the sides of the mound there were any articles which would interest the world in general they would have the credit of discovering them. They began at the side of the mound, digging a hole large enough for them to stand up in, and penetrated the mound ten feet. No relics were unearthed and six more feet of excavation were made, but still no relics. Then the men began digging on top of the mound and descended 10 feet. At this point the sides of the last excavation caved in and the relic hunters shouldered their shovels and concluded that the secret of that pile of dirt would forever remain unknown so long as they were depended upon to reveal it.”

Not too surprising… you find what you’re looking for – or you miss it completely.

Can You Hear It?

first harris hill ski jump

From Brattleboro Historical Society’s Facebook Page today, the caption: Feb. 4, 1922 the ski jump on Cedar Street officially opened for the first time. This was the contraption you needed to climb in order to ski down the jump and fly 150 feet in the air to the landing area. Later this became known as Harris Hill.

Unfamiliar things in the woods. These forests have been here a long time, thousands of years. As have the People – thousands of years. They know these woods.

They are still here, those things and the People. The land remains.

This hill had a different name before Harris.

Can you hear it?

 

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.”

 

First Putney Road Bridge at Wantastegok

Three Bridges West River 1911

The famous Three Bridges at the mouth of Wantastekw/West River, looking southeast from the north bank of the River. The confluence with Kwenitekw/Connecticut River can be seen under the bridge to the left, which carries the Vermont & Massachusets Railroad, later the Boston & Maine. The covered bridge in the center carries Putney Road; the steel truss structure farthest to the right carries the West River Railroad. Note the high water, following the construction of the Vernon Dam ten miles downstream in 1909.

Two stories, like two rivers, converge at the south approach of the original trestle bridge built to carry Brattleboro, Vermont’s Putney Road over the mouth of Wantastekw/West River, just above its confluence with Kwenitekw/Connecticut River. This was not the town’s first ever bridge to span the River; the initial structure  was up the West less than  a mile away, and was constructed sometime in the 1770s. That is another story for another post. A succession of covered bridges followed that early trestle bridge at the mouth, until the last one was replaced by a steel truss slightly upstream in the twentieth century.

 

Three Bridges West River

A direct view at the north entrance of the  covered bridge that succeeded the original trestle bridge of 1796 – “Walk Your Horses.”

Thomas St. John mentions in his Brattleboro History compendium  – under the entertaining “Pike Fishing 1848” entry – the fact that:

“During the Civil War and later, a popular summer evening stroll was taken out the Asylum Street, then down the path leading through the meadows of Holland Pettis to a view of Indian Rock, then along by the old covered bridge, and the return to the Common by the Putney road. William Cabot had purchased a cigar store Indian, and for years it could be seen, propped up before the south entrance to the covered bridge.”

I have not yet been able to locate the original source for this Cabot-Cigar Store Indian anecdote; the full explanation of why William Brooks Cabot may have chosen to place such a carved wooden likeness in that location is, again, another account unto itself. But suffice it to say that Mr. Cabot, scion of one of Brattleboro’s prominent banking families, had a lifelong fascination and familiarity with northeastern Indigenous Peoples. Coupled with local historical knowledge, it is not surprising that he took this particular action at this specific place. And that leads to another, earlier account centered on the building of the trestle bridge itself in 1796, at the behest of John Blake, Esq.

“An examination of the files of the “Rising Sun,” one of the earliest newspapers published in Keene, N. H., between 1795 and 1798, shows definite information of the dates of opening [of] the bridge over the West River in Brattleboro…”

Dateline: Keene, N. H., Nov. 15, 1796.

“Last week, as the workmen at West River Bridge, Brattleboro were leveling the land adjoining the southward abutment, they dug up the bones of an Indian with some Indian implements. From the figures cut on the adjacent rocks, it appears that the place has been no mean rendezvous of the savages.”

Not only did the paper’s editors make note of the juxtaposition, but it would seem that – in recalling the incident many decades later – William Cabot was aware on a certain level that the presence of burials in the vicinity was closely linked to the nearby petroglyphs, only a few hundred feet to the west. Although it is the first such exhumation on record (that I have located thus far), this would not be the last time the ancestors of the Sokoki Abenakiak  were taken from their resting places in the name of progress.

Centered on this place of great power, Wantastegok, these Old Ones are witness to the understanding that in death, as in life, the People and the Land are one and the same. N’mikwaldam – we remember.

An Ongoing Exploration: Getting to Know Red Ochre

iron seep 3 rt 30 brattleboro 2019

A very significant cultural component: ritual adornment, mortuary practice, healing properties, ornamentation… the importance of red ochre to the Abenaki, and to many indigenous cultures, cannot be overemphasized. The word  in Aln8baiwi is olamanjagw, red ochre mud; when mixed with grease,  it is simply olaman. In Anishinaabemowin, the word is very similar: onaman. Ochre is derived from natural iron oxide compounds, in mineral deposits, clay, or iron seeps , where iron oxidizing bacteria augment the chemical conversion.

iron ochre names royal society of canada 1885

Publication of Royal Society of Canada, 1885.

Local people sought nearby sources of this valuable material; if they were not fortunate in this respect, they were obliged to trade for it. Here in Sokwakik there is an abundance of iron in the local geology. An iron seep just north of Wantastegok yields an abundant flow of ferrous oxide mud, carried with the groundwater through a mineral-rich ledge of Waits River schist and emerging on the east face. In the summer, the iron-oxidizing bacteria colonies form amazing cellular structures. In the winter, these lose their shape and form a hard, crumbly crust. The pigmented mud accumulates in the crevices of the rock and can be collected simply, with a little careful examination of the best pockets.

The seep in summer.

The seep in winter

By collecting this dark red-brown mud, heating (oxidizing) ’til it reached its maximum color (too much heat will result in a darker, browner hue), and then sifting it, I  was able to produce a nice amount of orange/dark red/brown pigment on an initial trial. This could be further pulverized with a mortar and pestle, before mixing with a grease or oil and used for painting the body, or another use.

More to come…

 

 

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.