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Leaf Home arrow Heritage arrow Heritage2 arrow Language keepers
Language keepers
Written by Administrator   
Sunday, 14 November 2010
Language keepers
By Donna Laurent Caruso, Today correspondent
Story Published: Nov 9, 2010

“L8dwaw8gan wji Abaznodakaw8gan” (The Language of Basket Making) is a newly available book (November 2010, Bowman Books, New York) by Jesse Bruchac with Elie Joubert and Jeanne Brink that presents a unique way to continue the revitalization of the Abenaki language.

Bruchac writes in the preface that this is “the first attempt at creating a ‘how-to’ manual within the Abenaki language.” Western Abenaki is translated into colloquial English in a series of steps with clear black and white photographs showing the process – and thus revealing the culture – of wood splint ash basket making in the Wabanaki culture.

Bruchac is an Abenaki storyteller, musician and language teacher (and Goddard College graduate). He is the only fluent speaker of Western Abenaki under the age of 50 and has designed a curriculum to teach families conversational Abenaki. He studied under Cecile Wawanolette for many years. Joseph Alfred Joubert, (the son of Wawanolette) was born in Odanak speaking the language (Odanak is the Abenaki village across the border that accepted many southern “New England” Native refugees during the land wars with colonists in the 17th and 18th centuries). The contemporary Western Abenaki dialects reflect those many influences (the book also includes a chapter about Algonquian speaking peoples).

Jeanne Brink is a master basket maker from Vermont whose techniques, tools, baskets and cultural knowledge are used throughout the book to demonstrate how to make a basket. Brink also assisted Gordon Day with his dictionaries of the Western Abenaki language that are studied worldwide by educators, students and scientists.

Joubert and Bruchac presented their book at “Language Keepers, Language Exchange,” at Harvard University in early November in conjunction with “Continuing Oral Traditions in Indigenous Communities” in the Folklore and Mythology seminars of Professor Lisa Brooks, the only Native professor of arts and humanities at Harvard University.

Brooks is also the author of “The Common Pot: The Recovery of Native Space in the Northeast.”

The event was sponsored by the Harvard Native American program and Gedakina, a nonprofit, multi-generational endeavor to strengthen the cultural knowledge and identity of Native people across northern New England and to “conserve traditional homelands and sacred places.”

Bruchac’s book accelerates the learning of Abenaki and convinces non-fluent readers and hopeful speakers of indigenous language that it really is possible to speak the language of one’s grandparents.

For instance, the Abenaki sentence and Abenaki word-for-word breakdown with an Excel-like English chart-in-translation describes finding the ash tree, cutting it, pounding the ash, making splints, peeling, shaving, planing, and gauging. Not to worry, though, the reader with purchased materials can follow along beginning with the instruction on weaving.

It is the weaving instructions that also easily demonstrate how our cultural differences can be explored. For instance, Bruchac explains in an earlier chapter that adverbs usually come first in the Abenaki sentence. So, “The weaving pattern is very simple,” is pitta (very), ngemigen (it is easy), aleskanaw8gan (the way of weaving).

Along with Bruchac and Joubert at the seminar was Jesse Little Joe Baird, Mashpee Wampanoag, and Roger Paul, Maliseet/Passamaquoddy.

Their storytelling and exchange reflected how colonialism affected their culture and language in very different ways. Baird explained how her language had been written in many documents, including the bible, since the 17th century, so re-awakening her language has included employing written, primary documents. Her story at the seminar was about a young, contemporary, beautiful woman, a traditional dancer, who was diagnosed with cancer. She had gone to Baird for language instruction, but had feared she would not be able to learn because she was a “special needs” student all her life. The two prevailed, and the young woman passed on knowing she could greet her ancestors and introduce herself to them in her own language.

Paul, a language/culture teacher at Indian Island, was born on the Matahkomiku Reservation in Maine and always spoke Wabanaki dialects. One part of his presentation was a story of how he was instructed at the age of 7 to shoot out the television by his elders, who both refused to respond to him if he spoke English, and detested the influence of television.

He told an ancient, animated story, first in Maliseet, that allowed the listeners to understand, even without knowing any of his spoken language, that a bunch of kids had seen some ghastly, horrible monster that most agreed was terribly, horribly smelly.

In Paul’s re-telling in English, he told how the children had been ordered to go play in the woods while the adults worked to prepare for winter and when the children did that, they saw a moose for the first time in their lives.

Each described the moose a little differently, from the different point of view of where they were standing – the lesson being, Paul explained, that no one is a liar, but that there are different points of view, including that of the person who only sees things from the rear end.

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