Guest perspective: The People of a Place
Reconnecting with Wantastegok
By Rich Holschuh
“…the [Abenaki] chiefs from Saint-François and Bécancour went to Quebec to complain to Vaudreuil. Atecouando addressed the governor, setting forth his people’s aversion to leaving the land where their ancestors were buried.”*
The concept of indigeneity signifies a duality, meaning “the people of a place” — they are part and parcel, the same thing. Reciprocally, they define each other in a dance of ever-shifting relationships. Indigeneity co-creates ways of being and knowing that are informed by intimate experience through deep time. The people recognize that they belong to the land which sustains them, rather than owning it as separable subject and object. In a very real way — expressing the conservation of energy and matter — the land (and one’s ancestors within it) makes up oneself, and the larger community of “all our relations.”
Most of what is known today as Vermont constitutes a part of Ndakinna, the traditional homelands of the indigenous group known as the Abenaki, a part of the larger Wabanaki peoples of the northeast. They have been continuously present, with their ancestors, in this landscape and on its waters for thousands of years. Although the ongoing process of colonization, by which this continent was settled, has destroyed and displaced many (if not most), the Abenaki have persisted and are still here, in their homeland.
The Elnu Abenaki in southeast Vermont
Not very long ago, the State of Vermont at last began to grapple with these realities and in 2010 the legislature passed a bill acknowledging the Abenaki as indigenous to the region. One of the four bands recognized thus far in this process is the Elnu Abenaki Tribe, centered toward the southeast, along the Kwenitekw (Connecticut River) and its western tributaries. They have begun the long, deliberate process of reconnecting with the Land, which is the foundation of cultural self-identification. Critical to this mission is sharing their stories with the larger society, most of whom are little aware of how the current situation became the status quo — which is, in itself, a truth worth learning.
As part of this effort, Elnu has recently partnered with Brattleboro’s Retreat Farm to create the Atowi Project, a public interface for outreach and capacity-building. Retreat Farm has already worked extensively with VLT, having a similar mission of reconnecting community with landscape. With VLT, Elnu has begun to affirm their own goals here in Wantastegok — the traditional name for the confluence of the Wantastekw/West and Kwenitekw/Connecticut Rivers. A small parcel of highly significant riverfront land has been secured and conserved, and other priorities are being actively established.
Renewing community in place
It is Elnu’s intention that they — with the allyship and support of friends and neighbors in the larger community — will be able to share truth, help heal the separations, and begin to restore vital relationships, in the seasons to come. Now that we are all here, with a growing, shared sense of how we can choose to do better, we welcome you to join in learning and uplifting Native voices, bringing honor and respect to the Land from which we are gifted life.
Kchi wliwni — with great thanks.
*Atecouando, a chief and renowned orator of the Abenaki tribe of Saint-François-de-Sales (now Odanak, an Abenaki First Nations reserve in Quebec, Canada), in protest to Governor Vaudreuil of New France at the suggestion that his people remove to the Ohio River valley; Summer, 1757. (Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. III)
About Rich Holschuh
Rich is a resident of Wantastegok (Brattleboro) and a historical and cultural researcher. He has served on the Vermont Commission on Native American Affairs and is a public liaison and Tribal Historic Preservation Officer for the Elnu Abenaki, members of the contemporary Indigenous community. Rich is founder and director of the Atowi Project. His work draws upon indigenous history, linguistics, geography, and culture to share beneficial ways of seeing and being in relationship with place.
A guide to Abenaki words in Rich’s essay
Ndakinna | en DAH kee nah | Abenaki name for their traditional homelands, literally “our land”
Kchi wliwni | kih TSEE oo LEE oo nee| literally “with great thanks”
Kwenitekw | KWEH nee took (w)* | the Connecticut River, literally “long flow”
Wantastegok | wahn TAHS teh gock | the location of the West River, i.e., Brattleboro, literally “at the river where something is lost”
Wantastekw | WAHN tahs took (w)* | the West River, literally “the river where something is lost”
Wôbanaki | wohn BAH nah kee | original form for Abenaki, literally “dawn land”
*note: the ending w is a little voiceless breath
VLT is honored to support the Elnu Abenaki in conserving an important piece of land in Wantastegok/Brattleboro. We hold title to this land on their behalf and partner with Elnu on land stewardship as the tribe deems appropriate. For instance, we are working together to reduce invasive plants and promote native plants (especially species of traditional cultural significance), and to create an outdoor gathering space for the community.
If you’d like to learn more
- Atowi Project
- Elnu Abenaki Tribe
- Abenaki in Vermont today
- Reclaiming Abenaki Placename ‘Wantastegok’ (video)
Essays by Rich
- Kwenitekw – The Long Story
- The Winter Season, Solstice, and the New Year
- Abenaki Fishing Places: Some Extrapolations
Photo of Wantastegok/Brattleboro by David Middleton.