2009  Vermont Indigenous Celebrations
2009  Vermont Indigenous Celebrations
Vermont Indigenous Celebration
July 9-12,2009
Burlington, Vt.
Vermont Indigenous Celebration
Vermont Indigenous Celebration
Vermont Indigenous Celebration
Vermont Indigenous Celebration
Vermont Indigenous Celebration
Vermont Indigenous Celebration
Vermont Indigenous Celebration
Vermont Indigenous Celebration
The Vermont Indigenous Celebration
In The News
For Abenaki descendants,
an ancestral revival
Adding a native focus to Champlain festivities
By Diane E. Foulds
Globe Correspondent
May 3, 2009



                                                                                     

BURLINGTON, Vt. - His face and scalp are the color of tomatoes. You do a double-take,
then wonder whether it might be a severe sunburn. But the crimson is body paint, a
mixture of red ochre and bear grease rubbed over the skin the way North American
natives must have done.

The Elnu tribe will hold two waterfront encampments, June 12-13 in Vergennes
(outside the Lake Champlain Maritime Museum, 4472 Basin Harbor Road,
802-475-2022, www.lcmm.org) and July 9-12 in Burlington (outside the ECHO Lake
Aquarium and Science Center, 1 College St., 802-864-1848, www.echovermont.org).
Activities will include singing, dancing, storytelling, genealogy, gourd art, and traditional
crafts. Free. www.elnuabenakitribe.org or vtindigenous.com.

"Red ochre is a power color," says Roger Longtoe Sheehan, a native artisan and
performer from the town of Jamaica. "It's a life force color. It's a protective color, too," he
adds, and probably where European colonists came up with the term "red man."

Sheehan, 47, is chief of the Elnu tribe of southern Vermont, an Abenaki band of about
50 largely family members who are learning about their long-vanished language and
culture. After researching woodland survival skills, they practice them at wigwam
encampments where entire families convene to grind corn, cook meals, sing tribal
songs, and create tools and clothing from natural materials. It's an attempt to
reconstruct how their ancestors lived.

Among other things, Sheehan and his tribe have taught themselves to waterproof
canoes, smoke bears out of trees, and mix ceremonial paints. Learning the language
has been more difficult, as native speakers are scarce.

The Elnu have studied and reenacted Abenaki life from the 17th century to the Civil War,
though lately they have been concentrating on 1609. On July 14 of that year the first
French explorer, Samuel de Champlain, paddled south into the island-flecked body of
water that would become known as Lake Champlain.

To mark the event, Vermont is throwing a year-long party, the Lake Champlain
Quadricentennial. Its culmination, an 11-day waterfront festival in Burlington starting
July 2, will include concerts, parades, pageants, and fireworks. Vergennes and St.
Albans will hold French heritage days, and performers in a squadron of birch bark
canoes will reenact Champlain's landing on the Burlington waterfront.

It will be the third time Vermont has marked the anniversary. Smaller celebrations took
place in 1909 and 1959, but this year is different. For the first time, the Abenakis are
coming as themselves.

Abenaki culture, long thought lost or nonexistent, is being explored more vigorously
than at any time in recent memory. St. Michael's College is hosting a two-day Native
American conference. At least three full-length documentary films have been made to
coincide with the anniversary, and three Burlington-area museums are mounting
exhibits with a distinctly native focus. More than anything recently, the quadricentennial
has drawn Vermont's four Abenaki bands together to reflect on their collective past, a
process that has resulted in more than a few surprises.

Chief among them was a theory floated by Stephen Loring, an arctic archeologist with
the Smithsonian Institution. At a March reception held to inaugurate a photo exhibit of
area Abenakis, Loring offered persuasive evidence that Vermont's Paleoindians were
advanced marine navigators who regularly sailed thousands of miles to the northern tip
of Labrador. Their incentive was a coveted stone, Ramah chert, obtainable only at
Ramah Bay, a glacier-covered area accessible only by boat. The glassy, avidly traded
substance was considered sacred and prized for its use as projectile
points.Continued...

"The fact of the matter is," Loring said, "that this dramatically demonstrates that we just
have to think of these people as a lot more clever and a lot more navigationally involved
than we thought."

For Frederick Wiseman, an Abenaki historian who teaches in the humanities
department at Johnson State College, the findings were a revelation.

"It's really convinced me that almost everything we think we know [about Abenaki history]
is actually only partially correct," he said.

Wiseman, 61, himself an Abenaki, has written three books for the Champlain
celebration. He also has produced films, borrowed from his own artifact collection to
create museum exhibits, and perhaps most important, rallied the state's disparate
indigenous groups.

"I am the gadfly that keeps telling everybody that we've got to have a native voice in it," he
said, an undertaking that admittedly has turned out to be "a long, involved, and
sometimes painful process."

A few tribal members, he explained, are disinclined to celebrate a European
"conquerer" whose arrival irrevocably disrupted native life, though most agree with more
recent interpretations that depict Champlain as more tolerant and respectful of the
tribes than his English counterparts. As Wiseman sees it, what's more important is
what the quadricentennial offers: a rare opportunity to tell the lake's history from a native
perspective. By contrast, during the 1909 celebrations, actors dressed up in Indian
costumes and performed "Hiawatha."

This time the pretense is gone. When the Elnu set up camp on the lake, they strive to
re-create the kind of indigenous village that Champlain might have happened upon in
1609.

For tribe member Vera Longtoe Sheehan, 41, a graphic artist, that means tanning deer
hides, decorating buckskin leggings with porcupine quills, finger-weaving quivers and
sandals from strands of Indian hemp and dogbane, and daubing her own and her
children's skin with ceremonial paint, not to scare off intruders, but "to bring the
creator's attention to ourselves, and for spiritual protection."

Such survival skills began to vanish, as her cousin, Roger Sheehan, explains, "when
the first European showed up here and handed us an axe. Because the day we got an
axe, we stopped using the stone axe."

"The fact of the matter is," Loring said, "that this dramatically demonstrates that we just
have to think of these people as a lot more clever and a lot more navigationally involved
than we thought."

For Frederick Wiseman, an Abenaki historian who teaches in the humanities
department at Johnson State College, the findings were a revelation.

"It's really convinced me that almost everything we think we know [about Abenaki history]
is actually only partially correct," he said.

Wiseman, 61, himself an Abenaki, has written three books for the Champlain
celebration. He also has produced films, borrowed from his own artifact collection to
create museum exhibits, and perhaps most important, rallied the state's disparate
indigenous groups.

"I am the gadfly that keeps telling everybody that we've got to have a native voice in it," he
said, an undertaking that admittedly has turned out to be "a long, involved, and
sometimes painful process."

A few tribal members, he explained, are disinclined to celebrate a European
"conquerer" whose arrival irrevocably disrupted native life, though most agree with more
recent interpretations that depict Champlain as more tolerant and respectful of the
tribes than his English counterparts. As Wiseman sees it, what's more important is
what the quadricentennial offers: a rare opportunity to tell the lake's history from a native
perspective. By contrast, during the 1909 celebrations, actors dressed up in Indian
costumes and performed "Hiawatha."

This time the pretense is gone. When the Elnu set up camp on the lake, they strive to
re-create the kind of indigenous village that Champlain might have happened upon in
1609.

For tribe member Vera Longtoe Sheehan, 41, a graphic artist, that means tanning deer
hides, decorating buckskin leggings with porcupine quills, finger-weaving quivers and
sandals from strands of Indian hemp and dogbane, and daubing her own and her
children's skin with ceremonial paint, not to scare off intruders, but "to bring the
creator's attention to ourselves, and for spiritual protection."

Such survival skills began to vanish, as her cousin, Roger Sheehan, explains, "when
the first European showed up here and handed us an axe. Because the day we got an
axe, we stopped using the stone axe."

Diane Foulds can be reached at dianefoulds@burlingtontelecom.net.
2009  Vermont Indigenous Celebrations