The Status Of The Abenaki In Vermont Today

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Vermont Public Radio‘s new listener-sourced investigative journalism show “Brave Little State” released its latest episode, in response to the question:

What Is The Status Of The Abenaki Native Americans In Vermont Today?

Produced by VPR staffer Angela Evancie, the story examines the resurgence of today’s Abenaki, Vermont’s indigenous people, from a long, dark, and often-hidden past. The truth is being retold and affirmed, and today’s descendants want to share the fact that they are still here, after thousands of years, and they have a story to share. I was able to play a part in this episode and it makes my heart sing to know that our Native community is well on its way to a restoration of acknowledgement and respect.

Read and hear the full story on Brave Little State here!

Benjamin Gleason and Those Bothersome Canadian Indians

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The headstone of Mr. Benjamin Gleason, early settler of Dummerston (then Fulham). In the Bennett Cemetery on Schoolhouse Rd, E. Dummerston, VT.

Benjamin Gleason was an early settler of Fulham/Fullum (now known as Dummerston), Vermont. He was born in 1745 in Framingham, MA – the same year that Nehemiah Howe was captured by Abenaki raiders on Putney Great Meadows just a few miles north of Dummerston. These were the early days of what is often called King George’s War (1744-1748), part of the European War of the Austrian Succession (1740–1748), and the third of the four so-called French and Indian Wars. Benjamin was one of the four sons of Sgt. Isaac and Thankful (Wilson) Gleason, later of Petersham, MA. He came to Westmoreland, NH, just across the Connecticut River, with his brothers when he was a young man and lived between both there and Dummerston for the rest of his life.

He married Mary Cole (circa 1775), who was born directly across the Connecticut River, on Canoe Meadow in Westmoreland, NH, eldest daughter of Jonathan and Edith (Davis) Cole. Her birth was sometime before 1764, in the blockhouse her father, Deacon Jonathan built as protection for the family and neighbors because, the record states, “in the early days of the settlement he was often annoyed by the Indians.”  Benjamin and Mary Gleason eventually had nine or ten children, depending on your sources. Benjamin was present in Westmoreland in March of 1776, when the roll call was taken of “all males above twenty-one years of age (lunatics, idiots, and negroes excepted)” and the Association Test of loyalty to the Revolutionary cause was administered. Benjamin ended up serving in the American Rebellion and his gravesite bears a veteran’s marker; his father Sgt. Isaac had served many years in the last French and Indian War, at Crown Point, Ticonderoga, and Fort Duquesne.

In the History of Dummerston is this striking anecdote:

Benjamin Gleason, a pensioner, served in the army 7 years. He was born in 1745, lived in this town many years, and died Oct.23, 1823, aged 78. Nothing can be ascertained about his long experience in war; but we met with one old gentleman, who told us the following story of his killing an Indian:

The Indians had come down the Connecticut valley, from Canada for the purpose of destroying the property of the whites and taking them prisoners. Gleason was an object of their search; but he was vigilant, and managed to escape into the forest, on the approach of the savages. His place of retreat was soon discovered; and with the intention of capturing him alive, an Indian came toward him looking very good-natured, and for the purpose of deception, came toward him pretended that he was going to shake hands, saying, as he walked along, “Sagah?” “Sagah?” in English how are you? how are you? “I’ll Sagah you,” said Ben and instantly shot him dead. The Indians were greatly enraged, on finding their comrade dead; but Gleason was too cunning for the red men, and was never made their prisoner.

I bounced this apocryphal story – the only reference I have ever found to the Abenaki language in the local settler’s history record, other than names – over to one of my language coaches and a fluent speaker of Western Abenaki, Jesse Bruchac. Jesse’s insightful reading is as follows: Very cool! Could be two things, saagat means “I’m sorry” and sagiljandi means “shake hands”.

It almost goes without saying that this strange tale, passed down in the community and originally related, no doubt, by the protagonist himself – Benjamin Gleason – may have more than one truth behind it. Dead men tell no tales and history is written by the victor. Without witnesses a story is simply hearsay, or perhaps better described as “I will say what I want you to hear.”

Sources:

  • History of Cheshire and Sullivan Counties, New Hampshire, J.W. Lewis & Co., 1886.
  • Gazetteer of Cheshire County, NH, 1736-1885, Hamilton Child, 1885.
  • History of the Town of Dummerston: the First Town Settled by Anglo-Saxon Descendants, David Lufkin Mansfield, 1884.
  • Western Abenaki Facebook discussion group.

Sokoki Sojourn and the Turners Falls Indians Debate

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The mid-Connecticut River valley, showing the traditional homelands of the Sokwakiak Abenaki (the Sokoki), known as Sokwakik (labelled in the center), south below Koasek to Peskeompskut (today’s Turners Falls). Map from Lisa Brooks’ The Common Pot: the Recovery of Native Space in the Northeast (2008).

Why would Sokoki Sojourn concern itself with the current discussion around the implications of maintaining or changing the Turners Falls Indians athletic mascot? As the social, cultural, ethical, and historical implications will be examined thoroughly in the ongoing media coverage (archived here), I would simply like to make the connection, geographically and personally, with several simple observations.

To the immediate north of what is now called Turners Falls, named after British colonial Captain William Turner, but known beforehand as Peskeompskut, lies the homeland of the Western Abenaki. Gill, Northfield, Bernardston, Vernon, Hinsdale, Brattleboro, and many other nearby towns, heading northward, lie upon this ancestral landscape and, due to their continuing presence, within the selfhood of the indigenous people.  The people of this land were and are called the Sokwakiak (today’s Sokoki), meaning “the people who were set apart or who separated.” The linguistic and historical connection  can be seen and heard clearly in the early European settler’s name for Northfield: Squakheag. This is an Anglicized derivation from the Abenaki name for the region, Sokwakik.

The people of this land were most certainly present at Capt. Turner’s dawn raid upon the sleeping fishing village on May 19, 1676. They were the de facto hosts at this peacefully neutral encampment, receiving their Algonquian cousins and political allies in Metacom’s Uprising (King Philip’s War): the Wampanoag, the Narragansett, the Nipmuck, the Pocumtuck, and no doubt members of other similarly disenfranchised Tribes. Hundreds died that day – primarily children, women, and elders – and the lives of the communities were never the same again. Which, really, brings us up to today: this is why Sokoki Sojourn has taken up the mantle. The story continues and there can be no peace without justice, no honor without truth.

Kik8mkwak: the Garden Fish

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Look in the mid-ground of this photo, taken at noon in mid-September above the shallows of the Kwanitekw/ Connecticut River at the confluence of Kitad8gan Sibo/Whetstone Brook. A squadron of suckers, kik8mkwak, maybe 50 or 60 of them, are all hovering there in the warming sun, facing west and waiting for the next big thing to wash down from the hills. The name “kik8mkwa” in Western Abenaki literally means “field or garden fish,” from their use in traditional planting as fertilizer, specifically kik8n = improved land or garden plus -akw = fish. White suckers will move upstream in May to spawn, traveling in great numbers from their usual haunts in lakes and rivers into the smaller tributary brooks and streams. Rather than using the more valuable anadromous shad, salmon, alewives, and herring for planting, the less desirable and easily procured suckers fit the bill quite well.

A story from Dr. Fred Wiseman illustrates the practice well: “Former Koasek Chief Nancy Millette says that when she was a child, she and her little friends went to the Connecticut River and its tributaries in the spring to catch the sucker fish that ran in huge schools so thick “that your could almost walk upon them.” She says the fish were not for eating, but for the gardens. This was a revelation to me, because I had known that the Abenaki word for sucker fish was “kikômkwa,” and the first syllable was hauntingly similar to “kikôn,” the Abenaki word for field. I had dismissed the connection, but after Chief Nancy’s information sunk in, I discovered from 18th-century Abenaki dictionaries that the word originally meant “the garden fish.” So linguistics from years ago explains an obscure cultural connection between spring fish runs and the gardens that were being prepared at the same time. Today, it is traditional to insert one or more fish or parts of fish “about the size of your open hand” 8 to 18 inches deep in the mound.”

Sources:

Notes on a Lost Flute, Kerry Hardy, 2009.

Sun Dance Season: An Abenaki Summer, Fred Wiseman, 2015.

There Are No Unsacred Places

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This story and article reported by Howard Weiss-Tisman appeared yesterday on Vermont Public Radio: To Fill Void Left By Vermont Yankee, Vernon Looks For New Energy Projects.

Sokwakik, Squakheag, Great Bend, Cooper’s Point, Vernon Dam, Vermont Yankee…

Once again, I am struck with the antithetical values and legacies embodied in this place, so close to home. It’s almost hard to comprehend. It hurts.

Looking ahead, this toxicity will be with us for a long, long time, essentially forever: the land is basically condemned, which is a chilling sentence. Looking back just as far, essentially forever, most people have no idea what Vermont Yankee (and the Vernon hydro complex) is sitting upon… Once a favored and sacred fishing place, with small villages surrounded by corn fields, Native people have lived and died here for thousands of years. The people and the land were one, not separated. It is still a very special place, although sullied and scarred.

I think again of Wendell Berry’s words: “There are no unsacred places; there are only sacred places and desecrated places.”

Recognizing the Symbolic Power of Words

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A bid to honor the Sokoki people within their homeland by naming the set of waterfalls on the Williams River at Brockways Mills, Vermont as Sokoki Falls has made substantial progress. Approved by the Vermont State Board of Libraries, the designation must now pass muster with the Federal government, an action which is expected to be in agreement with the local decision (article here).

“The majority of what is known as the State of Vermont has been, and remains, Abenaki traditional homelands. Specifically, the indigenous people in the central Connecticut River valley and its environs are known as the Sokwakiak Abenaki, or Sokoki. Over many millennia of occupation, all of the natural topography became intimately known and was referenced in the native tongue, Aln8baodwaw8gan (Western Abenaki). In the process of, and as an integral aspect of, colonization by European settlers and their several governments, the vast majority of the terrain was renamed. While some of the original references have survived, many (including this instance) have been lost – but it is important to acknowledge both that heritage and the actions that have displaced it. Recognizing that words have power, and that exercises in toponymy have an effect far beyond simple words on a map, it is appropriate to consider these choices carefully.”