Last week I went to a 2 and a half day training about Abenaki history and culture. The Abenaki are Native Americans who inhabited northwestern Vermont and lower Canada for thousands of years. Today they still fight an ongoing battle for recognition and land, as well as to preserve their culture and way of life. The state has finally granted recognition, but all it does is give them a minority status. “We are not minorities,” the leader told us. “We are aborigines.” The federal government still has yet to recognize them.
On the first day we sat in a circle with the leader and three others in the Abenaki community. They invited us to ask questions and they talked about their experiences. They gave us a genealogy exercise- write down the names of your parents, grandparents and great grandparents. Give the dates and locations of their birth, marriage, and death. Every one of us found that we could give names and dates for our parents and grandparents, but then things got very fuzzy when it came to great-grandparents.
“Stories about my ancestors have been handed down by oral tradition. I feel as if I know my great grandparents. I know their stories, what they were like, what they did.” The leader shared. “I can trace my family and my people back ten thousand years.”
They shared their pain about the earth. The dirty rivers and lakes, the polluted land. They stated that they were the first to notice that there was something wrong with the fish and the frogs years before it was finally recognized by the state. They tried to warn others but no one listened.
“We can survive on this land. If you take us and leave us in the woods, we know what to do.” The Abenaki have knowledge of the healing properties of plants and trees that is lost to the rest of us. They can self-sustain on the land through knowledge passed down hundreds and thousands of years.
That day was heavy and exhausting, despite all of the interesting stories and information. We were confronting a deep, tragic issue that has been ignored by the history books and is not talked about even though ancient burial grounds sit in between houses in the neighborhood.
The second day we were taken on a tour. To a sacred cave, to ancient burial grounds, to significant sites on the river, to land that they fought for and won back. All of this, right here, in place we have driven past so many times. Other guides joined us and shared amazing, heart breaking stories. They shared of visions in sweat lodges and their wish to build one here. Thirty years ago, their children were not picked up by school buses and forced to walk. “Don’t tell anyone you are Indian,” their mothers told them. Now they tell their stories to awed groups of people throughout the year.
At the end of the day, we stood in the sunlit woods and they filled a shell with sweetgrass and other grasses and herbs and lit it. The sweet smoke filled the air. Each of us went up to the shell and breathed it in. I felt such sadness I cannot describe. Not only for what they went through and the power of storytelling, but for myself and the rest of us. The rest of us who have lost the earth. We who have lost our roots and don’t know anything beyond our grandparents. Wisdom, tradition and meaning lost to fast food and commercialized holidays. To unspeakable acts that only the few who survived can attest to it. It was never meant to be this way.
I left with the determination to recover or create what I can of my roots and what practices may bring meaning and spirit.