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Leaf Home arrow Tribal News VT arrow St. Francis/Sokoki Abenaki arrow Raising a reminder: Students connect with Abenaki heritage
Raising a reminder: Students connect with Abenaki heritage
Written by Administrator   
Thursday, 05 December 2013
Raising a reminder: Students connect with Abenaki heritage
Abenaki heritage - and a new flag - hailed at school in Swanton
Written by Joel Banner Baird
Free Press Staff Writer

SWANTON — Hoisting the Abenaki flag for the first time above Missisquoi Valley Union High School recently took no more than 10 seconds.

But the ceremony was centuries in the making.

Native to the region well before their “discovery” and subjugation by European settlers, the Abenaki have only in the past several decades confidently emerged as a united cultural force.

The tribe’s bloodlines are strong. More than 30 percent of the students at the school identify themselves as Abenaki, Principal Dennis Hill said.

The drumming and chanting at a Nov. 21 ceremony were strong, too. Six students (all ethnic Abenaki), facing each other around a coffee table-sized drum, solemnized the flag raising with an “Honor Song” — a composition imbued with such reverence that school authorities asked that bystanders abstain from photographing it.

Livelier, less formal drumming and singing followed.

Mitchal Shedrick, 16, the keeper of the drum and a six-year veteran of the “Circle of Courage” Abenaki youth group, explained that the drum’s black ash frame corresponded to the tribe’s mythological emergence from a tree.

What keeps him in the circle?

Shedrick squared his shoulders and quoted his elders: “Men drum for the power that women were born with.”

To his left, Lauren Ryea, 13, led the ensemble through its repertoire. She has been singing and dancing to Abenaki rhythms since she was a toddler.

Ryea’s aunt and mentor, Brenda Gagne, said she had learned the same traditions in a youth group, from her elders.

“Many moons ago,” she joked.

Then she grew more serious: “Our traditions go back 10,000 years or further. We keep everything oral because enough’s been taken from us.”

A hidden history

Historically, inter-tribal warfare likely led to fluctuations in Abenaki populations, but their numbers plummeted in the wake of diseases introduced by Europeans in the early 17th century.

Thereafter, the tribe’s marginalization continued on more systematic lines, said Jeff Benay, the flag-raising’s master of ceremonies (he also serves as the director of Indian education for Franklin County Public Schools, and acting chairman of the Vermont Commission on Native American Affairs).

Backlash against an influx of immigrants into America in the late 1880s resonated in mostly-white Vermont, Benay said. It became institutionalized in a government-sanctioned eugenics program begun in the 1920s, which resulted in the forced sterilization of marginalized residents, including Native Americans.

“For very good reasons, there was a strong sense among the Abenaki that you do not self-reveal,” Benay said. “The census numbers were unbelievably low.”

Tribal leaders, stirred by civil rights movements in the 1950s and ’60s, began a slow reversal of that slide in pride.

Prominent among them: the late Chief Homer St. Francis, the late Chief Leonard Blackie Lampman and the late Miles Jensen, who was executive director of the Abenaki Self-Help Association.

Other tribes

Benay, who moved to Swanton in the early 1980s, felt compelled to pitch in.

“It’s very, very hard for people today to understand just what existed up here,” Benay said.

“I was told, ‘Do not, under any circumstances tell people you’re going to be working with the Abenaki.’ They said, ‘Your tires will be slashed,’” Benay said.

“I wasn’t here two weeks and my tires were slashed. I’ve been the subject of death threats — it’s been unbelievable, the past 30 years,” he added.

Benay’s dark skin might suggest to an outsider that he’s got some solid Abenaki heritage. He doesn’t: He is a Jew, who moved here from Long Island — “from the tribes of David and Levi,” he jokes.

A common sense of purpose was forged with Abenaki elders through some unsettling parallels: Benay’s entire family, on his mother’s side, were massacred by Nazis.

“The understood the mantra, ‘Never again,’” he said.

Inching forward

Politically, the Abenaki have made slow progress.

Intra-tribal conflict (there are several designated bands within the tribe) frustrated efforts at official recognition and its attendant benefits, including include hunting and fishing rights, credentialed sales of arts and crafts and access to college scholarships.

State government blew hot and cold.

In the 1970s, legislators granted and then withdrew official status over fears that tribal jurisdiction over lands would result in a profusion of casinos — a phenomenon with precedence in New York.

Finally, in 2011, the Nulhegan Band of the Coosuk Abenaki Nation in the Northeast Kingdom and the Elnu Abenaki based in southern Vermont, having patched up their differences, were officially recognized by the state.

The following year, the Swanton-based Missisquoi/St. Francis Sokoki band and the Koasek band, headquartered in Newbury and Haverhill, joined their ranks.

For keeps

Flag and drumming aside, Missisquoi Valley Union High School (“Home of the Thunderbirds”) has more to celebrate than a flag and a spirited after-school program.

A scholarship and college guide on display at a table near the school’s entrance trots out two telling statistics:

• In the early 1980s, the school’s dropout rate among Abenaki students approached 70 percent; now it’s under 3 percent.

• Three decades ago, just 5 percent of graduating seniors pursued further education. The rate now is more than 48 percent.

But the new flag’s daily ascension up the pole (beneath Old Glory and the Vermont state flag; above the MIA/POW banner) is important too, said Principal Hill.

“This shows that we’re all part of the same team. It’s a phenomenal thing.”

Benay, too, sees the flag as a triumph.

“Twenty years ago, kids would not have self-identified at MVU. We knew who they were, but they would not have said ‘I’m Abenaki and I’m proud of it,’” he told the crowd last week.

“It’s an everlasting reminder: The Abenaki were here, they are here now, and they always will be here,” he concluded. “That’s what everyone here needs to know. The Abenkai are not going anywhere.”


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