The second month of the Abenaki annual cycle has begun. The new moon following Alamikos (also known as Anhaldamawikizos) occurred on February 4, 2019 here in Sokwakik. In Western Abenaki, Pia8dagos means “makes branches fall into pieces” or ‘falling in pieces branches maker.” Last night’s windstorm made the reasoning abundantly clear.
In the interests of sharing some of the insightful conversations happening here and there… A discussion of the Abenaki names for “fox” and its variants on the Western Abenaki Facebook page this past week (02.09.2019) led to a discovery about its original and expansionist range. I would like to archive that dialogue here.
How would you conjunct “red fox” as a person’s name aln8baiwi? I was thinking mkuigow8kwses
Sipsis – pronounced seep-sees – #Abenaki for small bird
S8soseli – pronunced sohn-SOH-seh-lee #Abenaki for White Throated Sparrow
The pure, simple song of the white-throated sparrow reminds us of the conversations to be joined outside of our own minds. This was going to be a post observing #NationalBirdDay, then realized it was a rather ludicrous construct. So, I will let sparrow speak for himself.
In English, the song is often described as “Old Sam Peabody, Peabody, Peabody” or, if you are a little further north, “Oh Sweet Canada, Canada, Canada.” I grew up having been taught and hearing the “Oh Sam Peabody” mnemonic. Many small birds are now known (in Western Abenaki) simply as “sipsis” (literally small bird), with no surviving differentiation between species. But a number of specific names have persisted into the present, mostly the more common and larger individuals such as crow, robin, blue jay, eagle, and turkey. I wondered if the #Abenaki had an onomatopoetic name for this little songster, a device often employed in the language, given that the song of the white throated sparrow is so memorable. To my joy, I was able to locate it! Father Rasles gives it as “sôhsohseli” – which I might rewrite as “s8soseli” pronounced sohn-SOH-seh-lee. It is a pretty good evocation of the song.
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.
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.
Advocates for racial justice in Vermont hope that a recently created poster will soon be seen in schools, libraries, town offices and small businesses all over the state. The poster reads: “Please respect and protect N’Dakinna (our land) while you are here. This is the homeland of the Western Abenaki People.”
The wording and imagery on the poster was chosen with great care by Don Stevens, chief of the Nulhegan Band of the Coosuk Abenaki Nation, who worked with Quebec based Nulhegan Abenaki artist Jon Guilbault to make sure that the most important Abenaki cultural symbols would occupy a prominent place in the artwork.
“It is important to remember that we are but stewards of this land we occupy and are only one part of the web of life,” Chief Stevens said. “What we do to the earth, we do to ourselves. This poster is a reminder that the creator gave the Western Abenaki the responsibility to care for our land and in turn would provide for our needs. Once the land was taken from us, we could no longer fulfill this responsibility. We ask that you respect and protect the land so it will continue to provide for us all.“
Sweet-fern – Comptonia peregrina – is a small, highly-aromatic, mounding shrub, 2-4 feet tall, that may occur in dense colonies in poor soils. It has multiple stems with loose, spreading branches bearing long, narrow, olive-green leaves, the edges of which have rolled back edges and rounded, fern-like division. Flowers are brown catkins that appear before the leaves unfold. They develop into small nuts in a bur-like husk. While sweet-fern’s common name derives from its appearance, it is not a fern at all; it is a member of the wax-myrtle or bayberry family (family Myricaceae). As with many other members of the family, the leaves are very aromatic: on a hot, sunny day you will know when you are walking past a stand of sweet fern.
Colonies are usually found in dry, sandy, infertile soils in full sun where other plants might have a hard time becoming established. Pine woods, cut-over forest, powerline right-of-ways, gravelly banks, abandoned and over-grazed pastures, and rocky outcrops are favorite places for sweet-fern. Preferring poor, acidic soils, sweet-fern fixes its own nitrogen through a symbiotic relationship with Frankia bacteria living in nodules on its roots. It grows throughout N’dakinna – Abenaki country – from Quebec and the Maritimes south as far as Georgia, following the mountains.
Sweet-fern, along with many other aromatic plants, happens to be a good repellent for ants. This is a good thing to know when one is living close to the soil, in a bark wigw8m or lodge, perhaps with food items in loosely covered containers. Scattering fronds around the walls of the shelter would help to keep these tiny visitors from wearing out their welcome. Knowledge of this ant-repellent aspect is what creates sweet-fern’s Native name, which translates to “ant bush.”
Working from the Penobscot and Passamaquoddy names for this plant relative (see next paragraph), which both translate literally to “ant tree” or “ant bush,” we can easily construct an equivalent in Aln8ba8dwaw8gan – the Western Abenaki language. Sozap Lolo – Joseph Laurent – in his “New Familiar Abenakis and English Dialogues” gives the word for ant as alikws; to this we can add the Abenaki suffix for “tree” or “bush” which can take the form -mizi or -mozi. With the letter “i” as a connector, the combination is: alikws + i + mozi = alikwsimozi. The pronunciation can be given as ah-leek-oo-SEE-moh-zee. The third syllable “oo” is nearly voiceless.
This photo and the one preceding are from the sweet-fern nation in Sokwakik, Sokoki Abenaki country – n’dal8gom8mek. #allmyrelations
The Penobscot cognate is enikwsimosi (listen to audio here). It is used for eye medicine, with the leaves steeped in hailstorm water. It translates literally as “ant bush”.
The Passamaquoddy cognate is eniqsimus (listen to audio here). It, too, translates literally as “ant tree (bush).”
Among the Wabanaki people, and close relations, the uses of alikwsimozi include:
- Ant repellent, also used for mosquitoes, as a skin rub or smudge
- Lining berry baskets and buckets to aid in keeping the fruit fresh
- Edible nutlets
- As a relief for poison ivy and other skin itches, infusion in water or rubbed on
- As a relaxing, dried ingredient in smoking mixtures
- As a tea for upset stomach and colic
- As a poultice for sprains or swelling
- Burned for smoke in ceremony
In closing, I end with a poem by Mi’kmaq writer Alice Azure, from the collection entitled “Dawnland Voices: An Anthology of Indigenous Writing from New England,” edited by Siobhan Senier, et al (Vol. 1, 2014):
Mi'kmaq Haiku Kejimkoojik cliffs, old sweet fern petroglyph still keeping us calm.