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It Is What It Is…

March 5, 2011

(Barton Chronicle, March 9, 2011)

To the editor:

Professor Fred Wiseman

There seems to be some confusion in the Northeast Kingdom regarding individual and community Indian identity.  There have been letters to the editor and articles regarding The Nulhegan Band and it ethnic legitimacy, in which my work has been mentioned.  Since 1989, I have researched, taught undergraduate and graduate-level courses and published books and scholarly articles on the Abenakis and their neighbors, as well as worked with Vermont state officials on Native issues ranging from legislative recognition to education, to the celebration of the 400th anniversary of the discovery of Lake Champlain –and would like to offer another, more “external” perspective on your local debate.  On the most basic level, S.117 passed by the Vermont General Assembly in 2006, gives all people who profess a native identity protected minority status; and so that point of identity is moot.

However, there is lingering debate as to whether there is a viable indigenous Native community in the Northeast Kingdom.  By indigenous, I mean with a local history and culture not derivative from anywhere else – “home grown.”  If there is a community, it must first have behaviors, beliefs and traditions that any anthropologist would recognize as “Native.”  It is interesting that in my research on Northeast Kingdom culture, most people who are practicing these “Native behaviors” are unaware that they are doing anything Native, or special.  It is just what they and their ancestors have always done.  This prevalent belief is refreshing and indicative of deep-time local culture and tradition, rather than borrowed or “fake” ethnicity.  Some of these newly revealed (to historians and anthropologists) behaviors and traditions of the Northeast Kingdom include: 1.) distinctive horticultural mounds and distinctive crops in its agriculture, 2.) Native style fish spears and a unique communal tradition for fishing for walleyes, 3.) Native style game lures such as bark moose calls and shadow decoys 3.) a land tenure system identical to that of the Penobscot Indians of Maine, 4.) communal memory of bark “longhouses” and current wigwam architectural technology, 5.) medicinal technologies including healing wands similar to the “spirit root clubs” that figure in Maine Indian museum exhibits, 6.) and multi family gatherings where these native traditions are passed down.  Interestingly many of these documented Native behaviors and technologies, while present in rural Maine, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia communities, seem absent in the more compressed Canadian Native enclaves such as Odanak, Quebec.

So I find the assemblage of traditional Native cultural data convincing.  But a mere assemblage of people doing Indian things is not an Indian community; it needs a definitive Native-style geographic character.  In this, the Northeast Kingdom is quite similar to that of the Penobscot Indians of Maine before they were concentrated onto their reservation near Old Town.  This is a series of semi-autonomous extended families arrayed across the upper Missisquoi, Lake Memphramagog shore, to the Clyde and Nulhegan drainages, each of which has a slightly different historical and geographic adaptation.  From cursory study of the complex inter-family politics in the area, leadership seems to have been more vested in individuals from a constituent band than inter-band “chiefs,” a social system also historically characteristic of Northeastern North American Indigenous bands.  But a viable ethnic community, especially one so spread over several river drainages, cannot be merely a mish-mash of families; it must have a level of genetic or cultural integration and separation from the “outside” Vermont community.  The extended Indigenous families have always maintained communication through multi-family gatherings, and ties of intermarriage that separates them from their neighbors.

The modern Nulhegan Band has managed to celebrate rather than suppress the traditional semi-autonomous band structure and so it has flourished; although some extended families have chosen to remain apart.  As a result, the Band has documented over 75% of its population as related by blood or marriage, a sure sign of an historical and viable community in the Northeast Kingdom.  By any measure, geography, ethnography, folklore and history, there is a distinct local Native strain in your area.  It needs not appeal to Maine or Canada or anywhere else for its authenticity – it has been there all along.  With legislative recognition by statute, this divisive silliness about who is or is not Indian in your area will be over.  The Northeast Kingdom has much to gain by celebrating its Indians — and needs not look elsewhere than its old home soil.

Fred M. Wiseman, Ph.D.
Swanton, Vermont
Author, Voice of the DawnReclaiming the Ancestors (University Press of New England)
and numerous other scholarly publications on the Abenakis.


All images and commentary owned exclusively by Luke Willard (c) 2011

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