In 2004, The Vermont Attorney General's Office responded to the documentary in a manuscipt submitted for publication in the Journal Vermont History, making the (unfortunately) valid point that it documented little of distinct Vermont native origin. Abenaki subsistence activities (hunting, fishing, etc.) and spirituality, some of which were shown in the video, were called into question as being derived from Euroamerican or distant Native sources. The implication of their analysis was that the modern Vermont Abenaki have "cobbled together" their culture, and do not deserve the rights of an ethnic minority.
But the Vermont Abenakis actually do have an ancient and ongoing vibrant culture. They have seen several bouts of ethnic renewal, beginning with the political resurgence of the 1970's and peaking in the Missisquoi (NW Vermont) pan indian revival of the late 1980's and early 1990's. But it is imperative that the Vermont Abenakis understand what is unique about their culture and be extremely careful in the portrayal of this information to outsiders.
Handwritten notations regarding Fred Wiseman Ph.D's "talk": "Why do we have to demonstrate "culutral competency to Euro-Americans"? Don't we decide our own existence? How does one person get to say how this will be? Or get to say who is "real Indian"? Being Indian (Abenaki) is not only about tradition. It is about all our lives and how we have survived and adapted - while still being Indian - all of us.
However, competency paradigms used in the applied behavioral and social sciences assume a more-or-less static, homogenized and accepted culture as a prerequisite. The modern Vermont Abenaki situation is almost entirely the opposite.
The American Abenaki community is one of the most stressed in the Western Hemisphere; undergoing three separate periods of state sponsored ethnocide in the last two centuries, the last of which is still going on. We may therefore expect that ancient indigenous traditional cultural knowledge is rather thin, obscure, and integrated with old Euroamerican traditions such as those of the Vermont Francophone community. Also, as cultural components are partly determined by age, gender and class, so is Abenaki cultural competency. An Abenaki fisherman or traditional craftsperson cannot necessarily be expected to be competent in ceremonial protocols. Thus Abenaki competency is temporally, socially and spatially dynamic, with cultural variances from place to place (even within the same village), from time to time, among families of different socioeconomic status. It is also highly influenced by authoritative individuals who profess knowledge of American Abenaki culture, and denigrate alternative understandings. This complex dynamic quality limits the applicability of a standard competency model. I propose an alternative "evolutionary gradient" model that will best allow students and professionals to evaluate and understand the indigenous Vermont situation.
It is not that the old ways are lost; it is that we have lost our way.
Wayne Newell, Indian Township (Passamaquoddy)
Wabanaki elder and educator.
Ethnic communities like the American Abenakis, who are emerging from Euroamerican oppression, undergo an involved and often-painful process called ethnic revitalization, whereby people rebuild their shattered culture by reviving the arts, language, and spirituality of their forbears. In the Against the Darkness video, we explore the Abenaki Cultural Renaissance in the Introduction, and the Sixth and Seventh child chapters. We
An evolutionary description of Vermont Abenaki revitalization
Phase I Gathering of tradition. People who have little memory of a native heritage (except perhaps a family story or two, and perhaps a vague awareness of an ancestral Indian identity), decide to abandon a desire for assimilation fostered by the United States Government (through the reservation systems) or the British-American community (in off-reservation native communities). External stimuli may include anthropologists visiting the community and valuing its distinct culture, or nation-wide political processes such as the 1960's civil rights and 1970's Red Power movements. In response, families begin talking to one another, and assess their collective native identity, and begin to build a community that sees itself as distinct from the larger American culture.
For the Vermont Abenakis, Phase I began with the Missisquoi "Kitchen Table Reawakening" of the late 1960's and the consequent coming into the (mostly baleful) public eye during the early 1970's. Although there are various assertions floating about the Internet that other Vermont groups were active or "awakening" at or before this time, the documentation is lacking, and they were certainly not noticed, as collective entities or tribes, by Euroamerican media. But for the Swanton-Highgate VT area, the rediscovery process was basically complete by 1980, as large numbers of rank-and-file Missisquoi Abenakis began collectively describing themselves as "Indian." Today, in the early 2000's, many other Vermont Abenaki populations are re-gathering their own distinct regional traditions and/or reassembling themselves as cultural communities.
Phase II. "Pan Indians" (Beaded 1950's headband) Once an internal "recovery" of a collective native identity is confirmed, it must be communicated to the community and its non-native neighbors. At this point, the community's focus is on a comprehensive Indian identity. Under the influence of generalized British American "Indian" books and mass communication, the reawakening community uses symbols and behaviors easily recognized by the larger American community as "Indian." These usually include Plains or upper Midwestern Indian style dress, Pow-wow dancing, talking and healing circles, and Pan-Indian ceremonies such as the sweat lodge and "four directions" pipe rituals.
This is the period when individual people redefine their personal ethnic identity. What Indian activist intellectuals call "Assumed post Indian names," (pan-Indian
adjective/noun titles such as "Running Bear," or "Little White Dove'), become widespread through pan-Indian naming ceremonies or personal name selection. These well-defined social processes reclassify family identity, often to the chagrin of family members unwilling to convert to an Indian identity. Constructed honorific titles such as "grandfather, "elder" or "chief' amplify the ethnic redefinition. As the community
The Missisquoi Abenaki "Pan Indian" Phase peaked in the late 1980's and early 1990's. During this time, public dances, ceremonies and symbols were generally based on Plains and Upper Midwestern Prototypes, except for an attempt by Odanak Abenakis to teach their Canadian dances. It is a significant side note that the "core" Missisquoi families, those with the longest history of being "Indian," mostly chose not to take adjective/noun names (e.g. "Running Bear") during this period. Interestingly, this decision was more in line with the secular naming of Canadian Abenaki, Penobscot and Passamaquoddy reservation citizens. Members of peripheral families with less secure Native connections
often used the Indian names, more in line with phase II of the revitalization process. In the early 2000's, most other Vermont Abenaki communities are basically at the application phase of Pan-Indianism. But since they have observed Missisquoi's somewhat rocky progress at a distance, more astute leaders and citizens have learned that there is some Phase III cultural information unique to the northeast and the Abenakis, and they attempt to apply this as well, yielding ethnic "leaps" in the revitalization evolutionary stream.
Phase III. Discovery of Local Tradition. With increasing literacy and interest in their specific culture, members of the ethnic community discover forgotten information on the cultural history of their specific community in Euroamerican books (Books on Abenakis) and museums, or by talking to neighboring indigenous communities. This newer information is fundamentally distinct from the community's then-current Pan-Indian cultural activities, which have been based on Western or Upper Midwestern Native prototypes. Those who recover this information must attempt to find allies in the community to assist in this phase of ethnic transformation. At this point, the community or parts of the community must decide whether to incorporate appropriate sections of these emerging data into their culture and articulate it with remaining old tradition and the more recently acquired Pan Indianism. One of the first indicators of a desire for Phase III is that the assumed identities and role names become more locally and culturally appropriate (e.g. Bear ► Awassos) with local language words taken from dictionaries; the honorific names may also evolve ("chief" ► Sogamo).
But people who base their leadership and identity on Phase II beliefs tend to be reluctant to accept deconstruction of their reality, and may resist the new information and its bearers. An interesting example of this phenomenon occurred in Vermont in the spring of 2006, over an art exhibit display of a modern "personal" Wabanaki style pipe. One of the museum exhibitors was personally offended that the pipe was displayed with the bowl and stem attached as directed by another exhibitor; and threatened the museum. This exhibitor, who portrays herself as an authority on Abenaki culture, was apparently well versed in Plains and upper Midwest ceremonial pipe protocols, but ignorant of the specific fact that Wabanaki personal pipes were traditionally meant to be joined, unless
separated for transport (by tradition, looped over a waist-sash). In another instance, an Abenaki family leader was furious when she discovered that a cultural viewpoint (in this case based on documentary history), other than that of her family and friends, was also
Phase III began at Missisquoi in the late 1980's with the attempts to discover local symbols and technologies by a Johnson State College research project initiated by the author (Clothing, man's coat), a revival of Vermont decorative arts by Jesse Larocque, and accumulating artifacts for a planned "cultural center" by interested Missisquoi Abenakis. Odanak Abenakis and their descendants such as Nicole Obomsawin, Denis Obomsawin, Danny Nolette, Jeanne Brink and Cecile Wawanolette also began teaching Missiquoi Abenakis the Canadian variants of Abenaki dances, language and other cultural components. Other Native communities such as the Indian Island Penobscots, the Akwesasne and Kahnawake Mohawks, and the Wabanaki Confederacy sent teachers to Missisquoi to help them understand their place in the larger Eastern Native world. The Missisquoi leadership at first accepted these ideas as an important step forward, but has backed off in recent years.
Today there are individuals and organizations discovering, interpreting and teaching more locally and culturally appropriate symbols and behaviors to young Abenakis and the public. Interestingly, not all of these people agree as to the interpretations, so there exist a variety of paradigms. Most ethnic revitalization models, as taught, retain a residual pan Indian cant, with an emphasis on "mystery," the Creator, ecology, mother earth, the four directions, etc. A few other paradigms, such as that represented by the Against the Darkness System, are pragmatic, more strictly data based, and focus on converting ancient political ceremonies, technologies and life ways into a modern usable format.
Phase IV Integration of Tradition, pan Indianism and discovered local/regional tradition. This phase, which currently eludes Vermont Abenakis, completes the revitalization process, leaders and constituents know what is local culture, and what is regional, and what is Pan-Indian. They use all of these systems, as appropriate, to stimulate Indigenous community learning and communicate Indigenous cultural uniqueness to the larger British American community. Individuals' identities as Indian people become more comfortable for them, and the need for constructed pan Indian names and titles discussed under Phase II become less necessary and/or are bestowed by competent spiritual practitioners in community ceremonies rather than those of private affirmation. Most importantly for this process, is a decision on the part of the revived community to move beyond cult-like adherence to the dictates of charismatic leaders, and become a tribe (in both the cultural and legal sense). Diversity of opinion and interpretation are celebrated, not treated as threats.
The sources of knowledge I Tradition
The first, most fragile, and yet most important source of information to apply to ethnic revitalization is tradition, heritage information handed down within Abenaki family bands. Of course, it is most important for culture bearers in hybrid societies such as working-class Missisquois to carefully separate those aspects of culture that are Abenaki from non-Abenaki traditions. The failure to do so may potentially be ruinous, as in the The Abenaki: a living culture, video example mentioned above. For instance, while ice fishing is not a distinctive Native custom, certain ice fishing sub-practices seem to be, such as warning the fish-eyes under the tongue before using them as bait. This trait seems to be acceptable to Missisquoi Abenaki ice fishermen, but seen as disgusting to Anglo and Franco Vermonters, and can therefore serve as a good ethnic identifier. There needs to be an acute understanding of the native strain embedded within ethnically hybrid subsistence activities pursued by modern Vermont Abenakis, and the strain needs to be augmented with long-missing data.
The sources of knowledge II: Repatriation
The second, and probably largest source of information for ethnic revitalization is repatriation, the returning of information, symbols and materials taken from the indigenous community in the past. Rich traditional cultures such as the Abenakis have been slowly stripped of their intellectual property by the dominant Anglo-American society. Social pressure to abandon the old ways by church, state and neighbors is an important "enabler" for the disrobing of traditional society. Ceremonial masks and clothing end up in museums and private collections, while stories and songs end up as part of copyrighted books by anthropologists, folklorists and "professional Indians". And the originating culture retains only fading memories of this ethnic sophistication. But unlike tradition, where forgotten lore is lost forever, this stolen data still exists and is at least potentially available for reclamation by Indigenous communities. If necessary information specific to the culture cannot be found after a careful search, analogous data from closely related ethnic groups may be carefully, and explicitly substituted.
Like tradition, there are problems inherent in the current use of repatriation. The Vermont Abenakis currently rely on distant, non-Wabanaki sources for their data repatriation. Moccasin and beadwork technologies currently taught to young Abenakis tend to have western, "Pan-Indian" stylistic sources. Also of western native derivation are the "talking/healing circle," medicine wheel, four (not seven) sacred directions, sage smudging, sweat lodge (as generally practiced) and other spiritual aspects of Abenaki cultural revival. Interestingly, there is a suggestion of post-medieval Roman Catholic mysticism in the "creator," "seven generations," and other spiritual concepts taught to young Abenakis. Such use of non-Abenaki culture is not a problem, since much of the pow-regalia used by modern Abenaki dancers in the May "Heritage Days" celebration is overtly Plains Indian in style and construction, and all of us take bits and pieces from other religions to add to our personal view of the world. However, culturally competent native people should not confuse pan-Indianism or 17th century Christianity with
The sources of knowledge III: Revelation
The last source for ethnic revitalization is revelation, the direct communication between the modern culture and ancestral culture bearers. Revelation has always been an important component of revitalization. There have been many Western Abenaki prophets in Vermont, Quebec, and neighboring regions. So far, they have tended to be a divisive, rather than a unifying influence on the Abenaki world, due to personal pride and distrust of others who do not follow their teachings. But that does not mean that revelation should be discounted—it may work in ways other than through dogmatic, strong-willed charismatic individuals.
Unknowable processes that bring information from tradition and repatriation together, bound by a love of the people and their culture may be just as strong a voice of the ancestors. And the ancestors, though Abenakis' desire for personal and community power, may also ask us to test ourselves through how we resolve cultural conflict. (Note: the most directly applicable and deep-time traditional, community-based revelatory ceremony is the Shake Tent. Other Wabanaki people, including the Odanak Abenakis, occasionally use it. However, few Vermont Abenakis have even heard of it, and fewer still have participated in its teachings. The Shake Tent's lore is often difficult to accept, precisely because it is unmediated by personality or politics.)
Long-held, comfortable beliefs and feelings can be upset by emerging views of the Abenaki past, but this provincialism is natural, and the new data and interpretations must be carefully compared to what is already known, especially through tradition, then either rejected or tentatively suggested for incorporation into the evolving cultural rebirth.
The revitalization process has been quite successful and heavily studied with the
American manifestation of the Iroquois Confederacy, which was moribund following the Revolutionary War. Under the stimulus of 19th century Euroamerican scholars/enthusiasts such as Henry Morgan and transcultural leaders such as Arthur Parker, they gathered at the famous Letchworth Park convention in the 1870's, and began the process reconstructing their political structure around remembered and learned information about their forbears. This robust revitalization has spread past the traditional "Six Nations" to the Great Council Fire (or "Seven Nations") Mohawks of Akwesasne, Kahnesetake, and Kahnawake, who have communally deconstructed their pre-1880's
As pointed out above, the Missisquoi Abenakis have had several bouts of ethnic revitalization, beginning with the political resurgence of the 1970's and probably peaking in the pan Indian (or "pow-wow) revival of the late 1980's and early 1990's. Its leadership has been declining somewhat since the mid-late-1990's under the burden of factionalism and inter-family rivalry. The result is that Missisquoi has two well-known cultural power bases: the original St. Francis/ Sokoki Band Tribal Council Offices, and a derivative loose, fluid coalition of families who are more-or-less based out of the Old Swanton Elementary School. Other Vermont Abenaki groups have emerged since the mid 1990's throughout the state. They seem to have learned from Missisquoi's long and painful rebirth, usually seeking to begin their revitalization based on Phase II and later, but still laden with many pan-Indian beliefs and ideals.
"Factionalism and cultism" One of the points made in the introduction of the Against the Darkness video is that a "terrible kin-strife" afflicts the Vermont Abenakis. This section is an amplification and preliminary explanation of that point. The Phase II/III "Pan Indian" transition in individual and collective identity has more ominous effects on the revival. Toward the end of Phase II often comes a period of community breakdown in the reviving population, and a rise in factionalism, based on charismatic leaders, often with constructed honorific titles. This is because the underlying, heretofore hidden structures of power become clear to all and there is a scramble for it. As long as Indigenous people are seen, and act as "cute" bead and buckskinned tourist attractions, there is no problem either internally or externally. But the situation is completely different at Phase III; recognition or no. Now people for the first time actually begin to see who they are in a global sense and, interestingly, this is a very frightening and divisive paradigm shift. So in the scramble for power, factions attempt to draw followers to their variety of created Indian reality, and then tighten their power by creating a distrust or even fear of other sub-communities. If the Abenaki community remains at the Phase II/III transition long enough, Pan Indianism and personality cults based on charismatic individuals will eventually become accepted as the traditional standard, and may even supplant the more fragile Phase I remembered family traditions.
The Vermont Abenakis began drifting apart in the late 1980's and early 1990's after it became clear that Chief Homer St. Francis was transforming the Vermont tribal community, heretofore led by the St Francis Sokoki Band, into a restrictive political cult requiring loyalty to him (and his family) rather than regional or Vermont-based community identity and culture. Led by followers of former chief "Blackie" Lampman, disaffected families began forming a separate power base revolving around Indian education. Around this time, Howard Franklin Knight Jr. led the first recognizable "non-Missisquoi" band the Cowsucks (Newport, VT area), into a wider Vermont consciousness. However,