Kchi Psahakw: American Wild Mint

kchi psahakw wild mint mentha canadensis

Kchi psahakw (Western Abenaki) – great/big smell(ing) plant, from “kchi” = great/big, plus “psah-” = to smell, plus “-akw” = a plant

American wild mint (Mentha canadensis)

American wild mint is the only native Mentha of the half-dozen species found in New England. This one has a very strong mint smell and enjoys wet, rich soil.  People seek it as medicine for stomach upset, insomnia, and to relieve anxiety – similar to contemporary uses for peppermint.

The Dialogue of Change

reclaiming wantastegok sign retreat farm meadows

So, this happened: observations and extrapolations.

About two weeks ago, on August 13, 2020 – building upon a multi-faceted exchange that had already been underway for about four years – Abenaki community members, in collaboration with the Retreat Farm, dedicated a marker near the water’s edge. The site chosen was and is not coincidental. It is a place where worlds come together – sky, land, and water – a place that has cared for many and has been cared for in return, for thousands of summers. The marker is a recognition of the enduring relationship between People and Land – the duality embodied by indigeneity. Through the deliberate action of “Reclaiming Wantastegok” – restoring the space within which both this place and its occupants are singularly identified – a process of remembrance and reconnection has been recognized and enabled. See here and here for local media reports on the day’s celebration.

The event hosted its maximum allowable number of guests: 150 at an outdoor venue, according to the state’s Covid-19 guidelines. Sadly, a few had to be turned away. But, by all reports, the experience was as well-received as it was attended. Many folks traveled home having happily added to their understanding of  being an integral part of one’s surroundings. The word “Wantastegok”, spoken aloud, reaffirmed the Place where it had first been voiced, so many rivers ago. A fresh dialogue between People, Land, and Water was convened, mixing old words with new, and Original Peoples with more recent arrivals. An opportunity for a community to learn together what it means to be in relationship: hard truths, healing connections, humbling realizations, affirming values.

brattleboro vermont sign chalked

A little over a week later, someone decided to chalk the Abenaki words “Wantastegok” and “Ndakinna” on the “Welcome to Brattleboro” sign just 300 feet further south. Both sign posts were tagged, and the words Brattleboro, Vermont overwritten as well. It was a little jarring, and dismaying, to witness. What was the point of this?

I posted the discovery on Facebook for reactions, thinking that perhaps most of the respondents – in common with the proponent of this action – would have known that this dialogue for change was already well underway in the community, a shared effort, and forefronted by Indigenous voices. I didn’t count on Facebook’s randomized algorithm; consequently, many of the commenters were not aware of the previous week’s events, much less the lead-up during the previous years. No doubt the chalk-wielder, however, was well-aware because they knew the significance of these two words and of their proximity.

Some of the post comments, though, were right on the mark. This, from Amber Arnold of the SUSU Collective, expresses it succinctly:

“In my opinion….which doesn’t matter much as I am not Abenaki, but I would say it matters more so who wrote it and if it was a collective decision I guess? If someone outside of the Abenaki community wrote on the sign it seems it could be harmful because then it just puts you in a position to seem responsible or take the blame or scrutiny I guess or negativity from others. If it was a collective decision made in your community and you all feel that it is needed and important than I believe it is a good decision…but in my opinion really depends on who wrote it. It always sucks when well intentioned outsiders do these things because it puts lots of labor on the actual people who experience attempted erasure.”

Wliwni – thank you, Amber.

And, to everyone: we can do better, together. And we will.

Reclaiming the Abenaki Placename Wantastegok at Retreat Farm

The Brattleboro Words Project commissioned this appealing, succinct video by filmmaker Donna Blackney, as part of its NEH-funded documentation of the intersection of people, places ,and words in this region. The event was well-attended and well-received, and signals the beginning of an inclusive and mindful collaboration between the Elnu Abenaki, other members of the Native community, and Retreat Farm, in Wantastegok/Brattleboro.

This video will be shared several times through programming at Brattleboro Community Television (listing here).

Layers of Land, Layers of Experience

wantastegok retreat farm sign ceremony

Visitors to the Retreat Meadows on Route 30 across from the Retreat Farm have a new opportunity to experience the confluence of the West and Connecticut rivers from a perspective that celebrates and honors the region as the homeland of the Abenaki people.

After a brief ceremony on Aug. 13, leaders of the Elnu Abenaki and the Retreat Farm joined Native Americans and others in the community in unveiling an interpretive sign for Wantastegok, the original Abenaki word for the area.

“It refers to the confluence of the West and the Connecticut rivers, a place where things come together, a place where things are lost, a place where things are found,” said Rich Holschuh, a spokesperson for the Elnu Abenaki and author of the text on the sign at the edge of the Retreat Meadows.

Read the full report from Olga Peters in The Commons (issue #576, 08.26.20), photography courtesy of Josh Steele.


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…



Abenaki Fishing Places: Some Extrapolations

native net fishing

Fishing played an important role in the lives of the Abenaki/Aln8bak within their home riverscapes,  in a multitude of interconnected ways. The anadromous and catadromous migrations of salmon, shad, alewives, herring, and eels were especially significant. The seasonal cycles, the flush of spring and the awakening of earth’s gifts, the dependable and welcome return of the fish nations, the birth of new life… all of these give witness to a recognition that engenders a careful honoring of pervasive relationships.  Most of these relationships were severed or severely compromised with the arrival of the European colonizers, bringing a culture of separation and exploitation with the building of dams, roads, and bridges, and the choking and fouling of the rivers with logging, mining, industry, and large-scale agriculture. With this calamitous interruption, the People themselves were deeply affected as well.

Though most of the fish are gone in present-day 2019, the places where these harvests of the spring’s vast arrival of swimmers (and with eels, in the autumn) occurred are still honored and celebrated. Yet while these places remain, many of them are a shadow of their former vibrant, powerful selves, overtopped with mills, dams, bridges and blasted and channelized into ill straits in the service of commerce and convenience.

Every group of Abenaki has their home river (n’sibo – my river) and every river has these places, the Sokwakiak among them. In Sokoki country along the Kwenitekw, some of the fishing places are at the Rock Dam/Rawson’s Island/Montague, Mskwamakok/Peskeompskut/Turners Falls, the Azewalad Sibo/Ashuelot River, Vernon Falls/ Great Bend/Cooper’s Point, the confluence with Wantastegok/West River at Brattleboro, and Kchi Pontekw/Bellows Falls. At these places are found a set of conditions that act to focus the fish at constricting, usually rockbound features such as falls, rapids, narrows, and channels. Accompanying these settings is the tumultuous energy of rushing, swirling, shimmering, splashing  water in full voice.

8manosek peskeompskut kwenitekw rock dam

The convergence of spirit, the elements, and resurgent prolific life – epitomized by  over-arching sky, shaped and shelving bedrock, sunlight and reflection, deep and strong currents – create a place of exchange. Spirit is able to move between worlds more readily here; the edges between the underworld of earth and water, existence on the surficial plane, and the above world of sky, blur and cross over. Things are in a state of flux, moving and mixing, intersecting. The constant change of creation is present here, closer and better accessible. This is one reason that messages of acknowledgement in the form of petroglyphs are often found at these places. These ancient representations, placed by medawlinnoak, medicine people, as they worked to seek balance with and through the presence of spirit concentrated there, continue to speak their opportune truths into the present. We see and hear them even now, carrying through the dysphoria and disturbance of the modern milieu.

The Aln8ba8dwaw8gan (Western Abenaki) word for the action of fishing is 8maw8gan, with the root being 8m- signifying “to lift.” On a pragmatic level this can be seen as a simple reference to the fish harvesting techniques of using a net, or a spear, or a hook and line. On another level it speaks of active, upward transition from one place to another.

The great waves of sustaining life that swam up the rivers and streams in Sigwan – the Spring, the “emptying or pouring out” – in the form of salmon, shad, and their kin – were and are an embodiment of this free exchange of spirit, in the very real form of cyclic return of abundant sustenance. Converging on these significant places, met there by the Aln8bak (the Abenaki people) and joined by other relations – the feeding eagles, osprey, gulls, bear, and otter –  the swimmers were lifted up – 8mawa – from the under[water]world into the surface world of the Aln8ba, at that juncture transitioning into another form for the good of the people.

The recognition of this great transformative gift necessarily results in an outpouring of gratitude and celebration, with reciprocal honoring (giving back) to the fish people and the life-giving river waters themselves. All of this as a ritual acknowledgement of “the way it is” – the connected circles of creation, the constancy of change, and the intention to find balance in the midst of it. If these agreements are not honored, and respectful acknowledgement made in the form of ceremonial practice (song, dance, gifts, prayer, proscribed or prescribed activities) it is seen as a breach of conduct. It truly is unconscionable to not do so; that this approach of reciprocal relationship worked well and sustainably for thousands of years is ample testament to its efficacy. That these same processes are breaking down around us now is a corroborating witness to the thoughtlessness of the mindset that replaced it.

Rev. Ezra Stiles Visits Wantastegok, 1763

ezra stiles diary excerpt

From Rev. Ezra Stiles’ travel diary, circa 1764, recounting a visit to the confluence of the Wantastekw/West River and Kwenitekw/Connecticut River. He traveled widely and recorded faithfully. This excerpt is from a trip up from his home base in Connecticut state, to scout what became the chartered town of Wilmington, VT. Note his references to particulars: There is no underbrush. White Ash trees 100 feet to the limbs and 4-5 feet in diameter at the base.

How did this happen? Indigenous people practiced a sophisticated permaculture. A nuanced, sustainable forest management regimen – working with water, fire, topography, seasonal changes, succession. This was and is not happenstance, circumstantial, or the divine gift of god. This is demonstrable evidence of reciprocal relationship in motion, the give and take of constant creation.

Red Paint, Red Ochre

iron seep 1 rt 30 brattleboro 2019

iron seep 2 rt 30 brattleboro 2019

iron seep 3 rt 30 brattleboro 2019

Iron-oxidizing bacteria feed on dissolved ferrous solutions in groundwater at the point where it emerges back into the atmosphere. There it may form deposits of ferrous oxide which can be collected and converted into yellow or red ochre pigments. This is also a historical source of what is known as bog iron.

These pigments are an important resource for many indigenous cultures, including the Wabanakiak. Ochre is a strong, persistent pigment that can last for thousands of years and has many practical and ceremonial uses. At times, the trickling iron-rich water will create intricate, organic cell-like patterns on rock or soil as the molecules aggregate. Sometimes it’s just a rainbow shimmer on the water surface.