Words and Abenaki Heritage in Wantastegok

abenaki words project roundtable poster

Read: Press Release_ The Roundtable Discussion Series, Words & Abenaki History

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Mount Wantastiquet as a Prayer Seat

wantastegok wajo nibenkik

“The Indian’s Great Chair”

Pulling together some local references, with some further afield, and some discussion as to the significance of mountains and mountaintops to indigenous ways of being in relationship to place, especially certain mountains associated with certain landscapes. Keeping in mind the essence of indigeneity as an understanding of the people and the land as one entity, these places close to the sky have sacred significance and are often reserved for ceremony and ritual. Specific knowledge of these places may understandably not be a part of the historic record, but some hint or allusion may be found in careful readings, and connections made, and remade, by implication from comparable instances elsewhere.

The mountain we now refer to as Mount Wantastiquet  (Wantastegok Wajo, 1350′) stands on the east bank of the Kwenitekw/Connecticut River opposite the mouths of the Wantastekw/West River and Kitad8gansibo/Whetstone Brook and lies in today’s towns of Hinsdale and Chesterfield, New Hampshire. Its steep forested flanks, rising abruptly on the morning side of the long river valley (over 1100′), anchor the immediate landscape and provide a ready reference point from wherever a vantage can be gained above the trees, across the many dips in the rolling terrain of the Piedmont. Likewise, it looms ahead for many miles as a landmark – upstream or down – for any paddler on the mainstem, signaling the confluence of the two rivers that inform Wantastegok. Brief mention was made of its prominence in a recent post, noting that it was characterized in some old accounts as “the Indian’s Great Chair.” The nearly identical reference is made in two local history books: The Gazetteer of Cheshire County, NH: 1736-1885 by Hamilton Child (1885) and the History of Chesterfield, Cheshire County, NH from the Incorporation of “Township Number One” by Massachusetts, in 1736, to the year 1881… by Oren Randall (1882). The former gives credit to the latter as his source. Child’s description is worth sharing.

hamilton child gazeteer great chair

Let’s look a little further northwest in N’dakinna, Western Abenaki country, to one of the best known of Vermont’s Green Mountains, and its third highest, the peak known as Camel’s Hump (4081′). It is probably the most easily recognized of the state’s summits for its distinctive two-humped profile  (featured on the official VT Coat of Arms, the 2001 state quarter, and the conservation license plate), which is a classic demonstration of  its glacial past.

“The summit is an extreme example of a roche moutonnée, literally “sheep rock,” so named by geomorphologists because of a perceived similarity to sleeping sheep. As a glacier advances, it glides over ridgetops, smoothing them over. On the lee side, a steep slope forms as ice freezes into the hillside and plucks rocks away. Thus, on Camel’s Hump, the northern flank of the mountain—the lower hump—is smoothed over, but the southern flank—the taller rock hump—forms a steep rock face.”

Camels Hump VT Wiki

The singular profile of  Tawapodiwajo/Camel’s Hump from the east.

The peak has had its share of names from Champlain forward, but its original Aln8baodwaw8gan/Western Abenaki name has been variously reported as – according to John C. Huden’s Indian Place Names of New England (1962) – “ta wak be dee esso wadso,” or “tahwahbodeay wadso” (wadso meaning mountain),” fancifully translated as “prudently, we make a campfire in a circle near water (and rest) at this mountain.” But a more sober, simple, and accurate explanation is attributed by Huden to Rowland Robinson as “resting place, or sit-down place, mountain.” This is found more than once in Robinson’s own prolific writings, in one case within “Hunting Without a Gun, and Other Papers” (1905),  in the footnotes on page 33. As a source, Dr. Gordon M. Day attests to the veracity and familiarity of Robinson with the Abenaki language, which he had heard for himself in the late 19th century from Native speakers,  in his brief essay “Ethnology in the Works of Rowland E. Robinson.” Walter Hill Crockett cites Robinson’s place names as well, in his “Vermont, the Green Mountain State” (1921).

Day’s Western Abenaki Dictionary Volume II (1994) gives “dawabodi” (or “tawapodi”) as “something one sits down into; a hollow seat, can be used for a saddle.” And further, “dawaopodiiwajo” means “place to sit in mountain; saddle mountain; mountain seat; Camel’s Hump, VT.” Here, now, we see another reference to a mountain as a seat. (By the way, another Abenaki cognative for the peak, akin and antecedent to the Camel’s Hump moniker, is “moziozagan” for “moose’s shoulder or moose’s hump.”)  The video below gives a good idea of the circumferential prospect from the mountain.

Going just a little further afield, at the edge of Abenaki homelands but still well within the Algonquian-speaking region of New England, we can find a couple other examples of the seat or chair usage in reference to rocky heights. Just below the Great Falls on the Kwenitekw on the southern edge of Sokwakik/Sokoki country, and at the southern terminus of the Pocumtuck Range at Wequamps/Mount Sugarloaf (read Marge Bruchac’s insightful explanation of the landscape here), there is a striking prospect of the river valley and surrounding hills from a sheer red sandstone bluff in South Deerfield. The bare ledges and strong profile form yet another landmark to orient an approaching canoe paddler on the River, or a traveler on one of the many footpaths converging at the Falls a couple miles upstream. Just under the brow, there is a lookout point known as King Philip’s Seat, referring to Pokanoket-Wampanoag sachem Metacom/King Philip. There are several legendary King Philip’s Seats in New England, and while this lookout’s toponymic genesis may not have a solid basis in fact, Metacom was indeed very much present in the area, during the intense war that bears his name, and the site meets anyone’s need for an elevated, comprehensive perspective. A mindful consideration of the mountain’s lofty vantage and its possible indigenous uses, written by area columnist Gary Sanderson, was featured in The (Greenfield) Recorder this past summer. His provocative thoughts lead us closer to the reconnections we are considering to the north at Mount Wantastiquet.

king philip's seat mount sugarloafsugarloaf king philip's chair

A souvenir postcard from the early 20th century and an extract from the Automobile Journal, Volume 35 (1913) promote the site’s legendary past.

One more area example can be found a little to the west in the Berkshires, in Mahican country, near the Massachusetts/New York border. Yokun Seat (2133′) is a peak in the Yokun Ridge, west of Lenox, MA and overlooking the valley of the winding Ausatenuk/Housatonic (“place beyond the mountain”) River – in Abenaki, Awasadenik, with the same meaning. The mountain’s name is explained in the Wikipedia entry for Yokun Ridge: “The name Yokun derives from Jehoiakim Yokun, a Native American of the Mahican tribe. As early as the 19th Century, Yokun’s name was applied to “Yokun Seat,” a summit of Lenox Mountain. This term was accepted by the Board of Geographic Names in 1894.” This Jehoiakim, Mahican-ized to “Yokun,” seems to have been a namesake for the community-accepted  Dutch settler Jehoiakim Van Valkenburg, who moved to the area from Kinderhook, NY about 1728.  It seems that Yokun’s name may have been affixed to the Berkshires peak partly as a reflection of his significant land speculation, but again, we find the word “seat” applied to the top of a mountain.

jehoiakim yokun land speculator

Now for a final example, much farther away and set in a distinctly different cultural and language family, but demonstrating an overlap in cultural practices: Indian Seats in the Sawnee Mountain (1963′) Preserve. Forty miles north of Atlanta, this is Northern Creek/Muscogean country; the Cherokee were very late arrivals in the late eighteenth century. Notwithstanding that, the mountain is said to be named for a Cherokee man (Saunee or Sawnee) who resided in the immediate area until he was forced to relocate far to the west, with his people, under Andrew Jackson’s Indian Removal Act. The Indian Seats themselves are described thus: “…carved in the lofty, sheer face of the mountaintop [there] are several natural depressions in the rock, legendarily used by local tribes as seats for lookouts and meditation for many centuries.” Some sources state that there is evidence of the site being used for ceremonial purposes at least as early as 2500 BCE by various Woodland cultures.

indian seats sawnee mountain preserve GA

Indian Seats outlook at Sawnee Mountain Preserve, Forsyth County, Georgia

Two chapters which give some background, from an anthropological and archaeological viewpoint, about the spiritual significance of “mountaintop seats” can be found here and here: BernbaumSacredMountains. These are outside observers, but their remarks are pertinent.

Here I leave this trail up Mount Wantastiquet, and will let the mountain speak for itself, under the dome of the sky and encircled by the horizon.

Those who come afterward to these places,  unaware, or arriving after the stories have been hidden, altered, suppressed, or rewritten, may not see what is present. Perhaps their perception is simply lacking, or more likely, has been co-opted by another way of being in the world, the way of separation and objectification. This lack of  individual or systemic awareness does not mean these other, original ways are displaced or irrelevant. Those possibilities persist, seeking only acknowledgement and reciprocity from those who seek to be present.

#ReclaimingWantastegok

 

 

 

A Find Across Time: Diver Uncovers Native American Petroglyphs

annettte spaulding west river michael donovan keene sentinel

Earlier this month, under a dozen feet of water and 28 inches of sand, Annette Spaulding found something she had sought for more than 30 years. It was the outline of an eagle wing. An unknown Native American had etched it into a rock slab on the West River an unknown number of centuries ago. The rock formed the river’s bank until 1909, when construction of a dam at Vernon, Vt., raised water levels on the Connecticut River and its tributary, the West River.

Along with lowlands and barns and houses, the rising water submerged at least three Native American petroglyph, or rock carving, sites near the confluence of the two rivers, according to Spaulding’s research.

The largest one is said to depict nine figures — five eagles, a person, what looks like a dog and two wavy lines with small heads, which Spaulding suspects are lampreys. It’s known as Indian Rock. A handful of 19th-century accounts and depictions reference the site, including a drawing by a 10-year-old boy from Chesterfield, Larkin Mead, who grew up to be a renowned sculptor. But then the river rose, and the location of Indian Rock became murky.

Read the full account in the Keene Sentinel by Paul Cuno-Booth of this recent development at Wantastegok. Photo by Michael Donovan.

Not Relics of the Past: Conserving the West River Petroglyphs

 

west river petroglyph brattleboro annette spaulding

A group has hopes of purchasing land near petroglyphs under the Connecticut River (correction: Wantastekw/West River) with the goal of preventing future development on land it sees as culturally meaningful.

“This is all part of the Abenaki people trying to re-establish themselves… to raise awareness and reinforce the idea that these are not relics of the past,” said Rich Holschuh, a member of the Vermont Commission on Native American Affairs from Brattleboro.

“These are significant to people who are still here… people who still observe their significance and incorporate that into their lives because they are the descendants of these people.”

Abenaki people and other members of the public hope to preserve the land, keeping it open for hiking and other recreational activities. The project is also about protecting the Hogle Wildlife Sanctuary.

Read the full story by Chris Mays, with photography by Kristopher Radder, in the Brattleboro Reformer.

Christi Belcourt and Isaac Murdoch: Serpents & Thunderbirds

christi-belcourt-isaac-murdoch-serpent-thunderbird-art

A fundraiser from Christi and Isaac‘s Facebook profiles, two insightful and committed Native artists and activists.

48 Hour Auction! Ends Saturday March 4 at 9 pm ET. Winner gets both canvases!

Title: Serpents and Thunderbirds
By Isaac Murdoch and myself.
Two canvases make up this piece, each canvas is 12″ x 16″. Acrylic on Canvas.
Isaac’s painting of the serpent tells a tale of long ago. My painting is of the Thunderbird as it governs the night skies. The Serpent and Thunderbird keep the world in balance.

Happy bidding!

*****

An insightful juxtapostion to keep in mind, relative to the West River…

Sokwakik, the Change Begins: Whitelaw’s Map of Vermont 1796

whitelaw map 1796 vermont

Title – “A correct map of the state of Vermont, from actual survey :  exhibiting the county and town lines, rivers, lakes, ponds, mountains, meetinghouses, mills, public roads, &c   / by James Whitelaw, Esqr., late surveyor general ; engraved by Amos Doolittle, Newhaven, 1796, and by James Wilson, Vermont, 1810.

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An inset detail of Windham County (click to enlarge).

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The label for the Kwanitekw/Connecticut River tributary (known today as West River) is given as “Wantastitquck or West River” – very close in pronunciation to both Wantastekw and Wantastegok.

whitelaw-1796-brattleboro-town

Let’s look at some details for Wantastegok/Brattleboro, at this relatively early date of British settlement. The east-west Turnpike which became the basis for Vt Route 9 has not been built yet (about 1800). The road existing at the time running westward was known as the Great Military Road, or the Albany Post Road, circa 1746. This was the road used for scouting and patrolling by militia between Fort Dummer (in the southeast corner of Brattleboro, not shown here) and Fort Massachusetts (in what is now Williamstown, MA) and onward to Albany, NY. It was a repurposed Native trail, a single-file footpath, as were all of the earliest roads. In fact, there is a good chance most of the roads shown on this map as dotted lines were of the same provenance. The courses of these roads as marked on the map are general and somewhat imprecise, and some are missing. The Great River Road, a major Abenaki trail running parallel to the west side of the Kwanitekw, which is now VT Route 5, was now enjoying benefits of the first bridge at the mouth of the Wantastekw/West River, opened in 1796, the year of this survey.

More to follow…

Kwikweskas

kwikweskas-robin-pia8dagos-wantastekw

First robin seen this year! On January 28th… we are now into the beginning of the second Abenaki month, Pia8dagos, “makes branches fall in pieces moon.” Kwikweskas = whistlemaker = American robin.

We were out for a family walk in the skamonikik8n/cornfield ( just north of Wantastekw/West River near The Marina restaurant. There are a series of tamakwa nebisisal/beaver ponds at the back edge below the next terrace, where the river ancient course had been, many many generations ago… The steep bank faces south there and provides a warm, sheltered place on a bright winter  day. I had been hearing a bird call as we explored the frozen ponds, and couldn’t place the familiar sound. Just as it dawned on me (out of context), I saw a flash of orange motion and a robin flew over to a luxuriant spray of bittersweet berries on a tall tree. Another came to join a few minutes later. Kwai kwikweskasak!