A powerful commentary piece in Vermont Digger April 2, 2018 (read full article):
While doing research on my family genealogy, I learned that my late grandfather, a child of German Jews, was born with the middle name Adolph. I knew that his family had changed their last name from Slawitsky as his father, my great-grandfather, faced insurmountable anti-Semitism while serving in the U.S. military against the German Nazis due to his surname. What I didn’t know was that when making the anglicized legal switch from Slawitsky to Lawton, the family had also changed my grandfather’s middle name from Adolph to Tilden, defiantly distancing him from a dangerous oppressor while assimilating to avoid discrimination. While I do grieve the loss that my family suffered through the assimilation of our last name, I also celebrate the agency that allowed my grandfather to feel liberation from one of the most despicable practitioners of violence and hate. The name Tilden was passed on to his own son, and just a month ago my cousin gave the name to her newborn son, his great-grandson who he did not live to meet.
Here in Vermont we have an unfortunate history of refusing individuals their agency that has played out from the first time that European settlers arrived, simultaneously and paradoxically denying both the presence and the humanity of the Western Abenaki. Since that relatively recent arrival, the Abenaki have survived genocide taking the forms of land theft, property destruction, mass murder, scalping and more – insult after injury after insult after injury. The forced sterilization of Abenaki en mass in the 1930s and early ‘40s via the Vermont Eugenics Survey is only one of the more recent manifestations of this genocide… (see link above for balance)
I was asked by someone recently what is it that makes the Kwenitekw, n’sibo, our river, sacred. Is it the traditional fishing places? Is it the burials of the ancestors? What follows is my reply:
Thank you for asking; these are understandings that are foundational and go below the surface of things. I hope we have a chance to speak together again some day, for it is simpler to express these things in person. But I will share a few things:
- It is important to remember that words have power and they derive from our worldview, which is expressed in the cultural tool we call language. There are many languages, and many ways of seeing the world. They differ dramatically, and the use of a word, or concept, can mean very different things to different people. Thus, “sacred.” When speaking of Abenaki cultural concepts, one cannot look at it through a Western religious lens. The dictionary definitions that fit “sacred” best are (from Merriam-Webster): 1) entitled to reverence and respect and 2) highly valued and important, as in “a sacred responsibility.” It is not a religious designation, but rather a spiritual recognition.
- So, with regard to your questions of the river’s significance regarding fishing locations or burial grounds, the answer is yes, all of that, and much more. The reason being that we are all related, all equally significant, and part of the same great circle of Creation. Time does not exist in a linear sense, but is a continuum, constantly changing but all part of the same. Thus, we as human beings (in common with, say, plant beings, fish beings, stone beings, wind beings) have a ongoing responsibility to honor these relationships. We cannot act to harm the River, as it is as deserving of respect as anyone else, and in fact, we derive our very life from it – it would be very shortsighted to do otherwise..
- As indigenous people (defined as the original people of a distinct place), we so identify with our homelands that we see ourselves as part of it, inseparable and continuous. For example, when an Abenaki person identifies him- or herself, they would not say “My name is so-and-so and I live in Brattleboro.” They would state “… I am Brattleboro.” Consequently, one’s attitudes and actions toward the River, are as unto one’s very self and one’s family, because it is exactly that. We (most of us!) consider human life to be sacred. So is the river.
- You have heard the expression, especially this past year with the action at Standing Rock, that “Water Is Life.” This plays out clearly in the Abenaki language, which by nature embodies its cultural worldview. Let me explain that, in a Native sense, the well-known term “medicine” means anything that promotes or sustains health and vitality – this makes complete sense, but in our Western way of thinking it has been separated and limited into a drug that addresses (often only symptomatically) sickness. It has got the relationship backwards and misses most of the bigger picture of the interconnectedness of life. The word for water in Abenaki is “nebi”; the word for medicine in Abenaki is “nebizon.” So, you can see, that water is at the heart of life. The River is our great provider, for which we can only be grateful.
- To learn that burials are often at the edge of the River is no coincidence. I don’t think I even need to explain that one! It is a place where strong connections have always been made, and where they can be accessed over and over. We go there to pay our respects to our ancestors, to say thank you to the water, and to pray for the same blessings for the generations to come. It is our “church.” There are certainly other places that are important as well, but the River is at the heart of them all. It unifies and connects – think in terms of a watershed – a flowing cradle, a web, an endless cycle enveloping the people.
Tiokasin Ghosthorse was setting the scene for a story at a gathering which I joined this past winter. He recounted a little nondescript location far away, a place which is usually characterized as being “in the middle of nowhere.” But he turned that dismissal in upon itself, and stated that it was “in the center of everything.” It was an illuminating moment, demonstrating the power of words. It has taken root and stayed with me. Language, worldview, perspective, experience – these things matter, everything matters.
Rather than making a zero-sum equation, a calculation of worth, and finding it of little or no value – objectifying, a characteristic of an English-speaking worldview, noun-based and categorical – this place was seen as a core participant in the narration of what was occurring. It was in relationship. It is a very different way of experiencing a moment as part of a whole. It is “being in” rather than “looking at.” The difference between a point on a line / a separation of otherness, and an infinite web of connection in an expanding universe.
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.”