I was invited by Green Mountain Mornings host Olga Peters to join her for the show on Monday, Oct. 8, 2018, for a discussion of Indigenous Peoples’ Day. We had an enjoyable 20-minute conversation about the who, what, why, where, and “now what” aspects of this symbolic yet significant change of observance from Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples’ Day. A link to the podcast resulting from the airtime dialogue is here on SoundCloud.
Happy note: Our time ended with Olga asking me if I would be interested in putting together a regular monthly show devoted to a place-based indigenous perspective, with guests and a wide variety of Abenaki-centric topics. Of course I said “Yes!” Centering on n’siboal – our rivers – and Wantastegok, we will explore local history, linguistics, politics, relationship to place and all of our relations, ways of being in the world, traditional skills, arts, music – you name it… culture is complex.
Photo by Kristopher Radder of the Brattleboro Reformer.
From the article by Harmony Birch in the Brattleboro Reformer, May 9, 2018:
[Alex] White Plume visited Vermont Hempicurean on Saturday to share stories about his fight with the Drug Enforcement Agency to grow hemp, and to talk about Oglala Lakota-U.S. relations… The saga with the DEA, White Plume said, relates directly to the genocide of native American peoples.
“On the East Coast here there’s no more natural Indians. They were wiped out because they have 511 years [of colonization].” Local Native Americans have had their cultures wiped out, White Plume said. “We’ve only had 200 years of contact so we’re still real,” he said of the Lakota. “Our language is real, our ceremonies are real. We’re still alive; we still remember.”
This, coming from a Lakota man, shows the extent and depth of the darkness surrounding the stories about “here”; and then, further, in the article, another perspective from mainstream society:
Common Sense director Kurt Daims…wants to raise $1 million to distribute among local Native American groups. Brattleboro Common Sense has an anonymous council working out how the organization can move forward with the project. “There are four parts,” Daims said. “Money, a committee on determining certification, an education component requiring education about the American genocides in high school, and [possibly] considering a new form of currency to be used on reservations.”
None of the components are written in stone, Daims said. When approaching people to join the council, Daims said he wanted to include diverse voices. He wasn’t aware of committee members’ ancestry before asking them to join the council, but many of the people he approached happened to be of Abenaki descent, he said. “People say [of the Abenaki] ‘we’re here but you just don’t see them,'” he said. Still, Daims said he doesn’t think all Native Americans will be in favor of reparations. Daims said he spoke to one local Abenaki leader who said he didn’t think people were ready for reparations…
My perspective on this (I believe I may be the person to whom Kurt Daims refers) aligns with that of Native author Tommy Orange, as quoted in this recent NY Times article about his new novel, “There There.” “…Tommy Orange’s polyphonic debut novel, takes its title from Gertrude Stein’s cutting line about Oakland, Calif: “There is no there there.” …For native people, Mr. Orange writes, cities and towns themselves represent the absence of a homeland — a lost world of “buried ancestral land, glass and concrete and wire and steel, un-returnable covered memory. There is no there there.”
And, then, at the end of the review, the explanatory words with which I concur:
“Mr. Orange struggled for several years with the structure, puzzling over how the characters’ lives fit together, and discarded hundreds of pages and entire chapters delving into different characters’ family histories. Eventually, he settled on an unconventional form: The novel opens with a series of brief and jarring vignettes revealing the violence and genocide that indigenous people have endured, and how it has been sanitized over the centuries.
Mr. Orange said he felt like he couldn’t move the story forward without first going back. “As native writers, there’s a certain feeling that you have to set the record straight before you even begin,” he said. “It’s been told wrong, and not told, so often.”
This is why we are not ready for suggestions for reparations. It’s not that simple, it’s not appropriate. The story is not yet told, much less heard. I spoke briefly with Alex White Plume while he was here, greeting him and assuring him he was welcome in these homelands, but his remarks to the Reformer reporter demonstrate that even our fellow indigenous people do not clearly understand the situation here. It will be hard, it will take awhile. The stories are only now beginning to be told. There is much to learn. The past is with us and creates the present. We cannot know where we are going until we understand the places we have been. We are the dreams of the ancestors, and we ourselves are dreaming the next generations into being. We must acknowledge first, accept, and allow. Only then will we know the way.
Again from Sokoki Abenaki country, a line of observations drawing from the statement in the previous post, quoting Hon. Charles K. Field (who married Julia Ann Kellogg, a descended cousin of Capt. Joseph Kellogg, second commander at Fort Dummer) in The Vermont Phoenix of July 7, 1876:
The intervales and meadows at Fort Dummer, upon West River, and at the Asylum farm, were found entirely bare of forest trees. Such was the fact with all the meadows on the Connecticut River at the time of the first settlement of New England. The Indians burned them over every year, and used them for planting grounds.
Much has been stated about this practice, in general, and I need not belabor it. One quote via William Cronon’s “Changes in the Land” (1983) is probably enough to stage the subject, and is appropriate here: “Selective Indian burning thus promoted the mosaic quality of New England ecosystems, creating forests in many different stages of ecological succession. In particular, regular fires promoted what ecologists call the ‘edge effect.’ By encouraging the growth of extensive regions which resembled the boundary areas between forests and grasslands, Indians created ideal habitats for a host of wildlife species.”
More specific and with a connection to Wantastegok is another quote, from the letters of Timothy Dwight IV (1822), eighth President of Yale, and grandson of his namesake, the first commander at Fort Dummer (1724) established in what would later become Brattleboro:
A good overview of the Eastern Algonquian practice in general can be found here, in a USDA publication entitled “Wildland Burning by American Indians in Virginia” by Hutch Brown (2000).
Grounding this locally, we can now take a look at Walter Needham’s “A Book of Country Things” (1965). Walter was a lifelong Guilford, VT resident, who wrote (with co-author Barrows Mussey) a rather popular little book recounting the things he learned from his grandfather Leroy L. Bond, born in 1833. Among them was a familiarity with locating the signs of indigenous presence in the local landscape, a skill that Walter modestly claimed was the only thing at which he had become more adept than “Gramp”. In fact, he is known as one of the more active “relic hunters” in the immediate area (present-day Dummerston south to Vernon, Vermont); regrettably, his collections, for the most part, seem to have disappeared leaving only loose, vague accounts. The memories that remain, however, bear out a story of widespread, active settlement and extensive usage of the Kwenitekw and its landscape, counter to the prevailing Euro-American narrative that held (and often still holds) otherwise.
Speaking of the land management practices of the area’s original inhabitants, Needham relates: “Instead of plowing the cornfields like we do, the Indians burned them over every year. In most of the flat places where I find Indian relics, there’s a black line at one level of the soil, and under a [magnifying] glass you see it’s tiny pieces of charcoal.” Needham refers several times to this thin black line in the riverside stratigraphy.
Finally, we can pull another quote from a legacy account in the immediate area, the voluminous “A History of the Town of Northfield, Massachusetts: For 150 Years, with an Account of the Prior Occupation of the Territory by the Squakheags” by Josiah Howard Temple and George Sheldon (1875). This compilation (which must be read critically, as is the case with many period accounts) is the single best historical source for an admittedly colonized perspective on the Sokwakiak, the indigenous people who preceded the European incursion. Temple and Sheldon implicitly acknowledge the provenance of the land the settlers eagerly apportioned to themselves:
And yet, “There Are No Evidences of Indian Settlements in This Town.”
From The Vermont Phoenix (Brattleboro, VT) July 7, 1876, an excerpt of the Centennial Address given by the Hon. Charles K. Field.
The final sentence of the paragraph above, following the previous observations, demonstrates the willful, almost ludicrous, elision of Native presence by descendants of the colonizers. The very same paragraph affirms the evidence of long-term indigenous occupation and specific resource-management practices.