A steep but blessedly short climb up a path led visitors through waist-high grasses to a knoll behind Shelburne Farms’ Farm Barn Friday evening. The destination was a campfire and stories by Chief Don Stevens of the Nulhegan Band of the Coosuk-Abenaki nation.
More than 50 people, roughly 20 more than had registered, made the trek on June 28 to hear about creation myths and Abenaki history as they watched the sun set over the Green Mountains.
Stevens, accompanied by Roland Bluto, shared artifacts, drumming and songs for a rapt audience of infants, children and adults.
Stevens said that he hoped that the sharing of Abenaki culture would be elevated by H.3, a bill concerning ethnic and social equity studies in the public schools that was signed by Gov. Phil Scott on March 29.
He also hopes the bill will encourage “government-to-government relationships” between the state of Vermont, the United States and the Abenaki.
Stevens, of Shelburne, talked about Abenaki culture and its respect for the elders and women. Historically, as members of the tribe aged and it became harder for them to get around and work, they spent more time with the children. It wasn’t just to baby-sit, it was also to educate, and this way their traditions were carried on.
“We always respected our elders because they’ve been on the Earth longer than we have and know more than we do,” Stevens said. “And we always respect our women because they’re the keepers of life.”
Drumming and singing
Stevens and Bluto started the event Friday by drumming and singing a gathering song. Their deep, resonant voices rang out across the land and echoed off the evening sky.
“See it worked. See two people came,” said Stevens, as they finished the song and two more people climbed up to join the gathering.
“When we do this song, we’re also calling in our ancestors to join us,” Bluto added.
Stevens taught the group the next song. It was just one word chanted over and over, so there wasn’t much to memorize. The one word meant “hello,” “hello,” “hello.” He said that it was just like at a graduation where everyone says “congratulations” over and over.
Or, he joked, like children say on a trip: “Are we there yet?” “Are we there yet?”
Many of Chief Stevens stories were about the Bear.
“The Bear to us means medicine,” he said.
In Abenaki culture, the Bear’s hibernation is the same as returning to the womb because when the Bear goes into a cave it is the womb of the Earth. While the Bear is hibernating, Stevens said, “He crosses over to the other side and he learns all the medicines that they need to heal.”
The Bear is extremely important to the Abenaki culture for this reason. When the bears dig up grubs and roots, they show the medicine people where the healing medicines are.
“This is why lots of Abenaki medicine people follow bears around in the spring,” Stevens said.
Protected by Bear
“Bear is very prevalent and a protector for me,” he added, as indicated two bear claws that hung from his neck.
Often when a bear is depicted on a totem, he is holding a little child because they are the protector of the family, Stevens said. If you’ve ever seen how a mother protects her cub when it’s threatened, you will understand why Bear is the Abenaki’s protector, he said.
Stevens told a story about a little boy who was teased by the other children in the village because he spent so much time in the woods with the animals. One day a squirrel came up to the little boy and the little boy followed the squirrel into the woods, farther and farther as the squirrel darted back and forth.
The little boy wasn’t paying attention and got so far into the woods that couldn’t get back to the village. He cried for his mother, then he crawled into a hollow tree and fell asleep.
In the morning, the boy was wakened by a mother bear and her cub.
The cub said, “I won’t hurt you.” And the little boy understood what the cub said.
Stevens said that we used to be able to communicate with the animals “because we were all born from the same dreams.”
The boy and the cub played until it got dark again. The cub asked his mother to let the little boy spend the night with them.
The mother bear agreed, but said the boy better keep up as they ran back to their cave. But he couldn’t. Finally, the mother bear said, “Come on, just get onto my back and hold onto my fur.”
The little boy stayed with the bears through the summer, learning their language and how to forage for food and medicine.
When it came time to hibernate, the mother bear took the boy back and snuck him into his village at night.
“Over the winter, some of the elders were getting sick,” Stevens said, So, he went out and got the medicine and healed them.”
That little boy was the Abenakis’ first medicine person.
Then Stevens and Bluto sang a song that commemorated the boy. Stevens said that the rhythm of the song echoed the rhythm and flow of a bear running with a boy on her back.
“Shelburne Farms is very important to the Abenaki people,” he said. The area would have been a location for lookouts so they could see far up and down Lake Champlain if any of their enemies were approaching.
“That is why Pitawbagok is Lake Champlain,” Stevens said. “It means the lake between us and our enemy.”
The Abenaki have been here all along, Stevens said, they just weren’t recognized by the federal government.
“We were legally extinct until 2011,” the year the state of Vermont recognized the Abenaki “as legal Indians,” Stevens said.
With that state recognition, the Bureau of Indian Affairs allows them to sell items as Abenaki under the Indian Arts and Crafts Act of 1990.
Abenaki can’t self-declare
“We cannot self-declare,” Stevens said. “We’re the only race of people who can’t self-declare.”
People can declare that they are African American or gay or lesbian, he said, and they have protections from discrimination.
“If you say you’re Indian, they say, ‘Prove it.’” Stevens said. “You can say you’re Indian all you want, but it doesn’t mean anything until you’ve got your tribal card saying, ‘I’m a member of a state or federally recognized tribe.’”
Stevens said that he was happy that the University of Vermont apologized on June 21 for its participation in the eugenics movement in the 1920s and 30s, but he hopes that the state will apologize as well.
Outgoing president of the UVM Thomas Sullivan said that the Eugenics Survey of Vermont contributed to the persecution and sometimes sterilization of certain groups.
Stevens said that his mother was listed as a “cripple” in the survey and changed her name several times to avoid the eugenics movement.
He said that the Abenaki will be at Church Street Marketplace on July 20 with vendors, drumming, singing, stories and their language.
Stevens closed the evening saying, “Wlibomkanni. It means ‘travel well,’ so travel well.”
Then he and Bluto sent the audience home with the last of the campfire smoke floating up to the darkening evening sky along with the sounds of their drumming and singing of a traveling song.