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‘Words on the Water’ features stories of the Abenaki

BRATTLEBORO—Since construction of the Vernon Dam flooded the Retreat Meadows 110 years ago, Abenaki petroglyphs — ancient images carved in stone — have rested submerged, unseen evidence of the significant Native presence all around us.

A special installment of the monthly Brattleboro Words Project’s free Roundtable Discussion series will be held on the waters of the West River/Connecticut River confluence to explore this presence and celebrate ongoing Vermont Land Trust conservation efforts adjacent to the site at The Marina Restaurant on Friday, Aug. 16, at 6 p.m., for “Words on the Water: Stories of Wantastegok, the West River and Abenaki Presence.”

Archaeologist and diver Annette Spaulding, whose 25-year search led to finding the petroglyphs, will be joined by Rich Holschuh, a member of the Vermont Commission on Native American Affairs, and anthropologist and indigenous-studies scholar Jessica Dolan.

They will present on the petroglyphs and their significance to the Western Abenaki community and our region as a whole. Brattleboro Historical Society President Joe Rivers will lead with a land acknowledgment and moderate the discussion. Reg Martell, Brattleboro Words Project Multimedia Producer, conceived of and is producing the event.

The presentation will be given from a pontoon boat — Spaulding’s diving platform — from 6 to 7 p.m., and the public is invited to gather round by boat, kayak, and canoe, or to observe from The Marina’s outdoor deck (call The Marina at 802-257-7563 to reserve a deck table for dinner at 6 p.m.)

After the presentation, attendees are invited to gather at the Marinaville tent (parking lot adjacent) for continued discussion and to learn more about local indigenous history.

Spaulding, a certified Underwater Criminal Investigator, was determined to find the petroglyphs after seeing a circa 1850 drawing that described them. She spent decades of research, did hundreds of dives (where she discovered many other historical artifacts) and dug through much sediment to find them in 2017.

“This is a very sacred site for Native Americans,” Spaulding said. “The land should be undisturbed and protected forever."

“The Petroglyphs here and in Bellows Falls are examples of an indigenous form of art and textual communication about creation stories and the meaning of place” Dolan said.

Dolan said her research with the Words Project “is dedicated to highlighting the cultural history and ecology of Abenaki relationships with the greater Brattleboro area so the next generations can better understand the indigenous histories of this place that we, and many others, have called home.”

Dolan’s work is supported in part by the New England Grassroots Environment Fund.

Dolan and Holschuh are working on podcasts and school curriculum development on indigenous studies for seven sites for The Brattleboro Words Project, a multi-year collaboration between the Brattleboro Historical Society, the Brattleboro Literary Festival, Write Action, Brooks Memorial Library and Marlboro College.

It is backed by a National Endowment for the Humanities matching grant and funding from The Windham Foundation, Edward Jones, Brattleboro Savings & Loan, and other area sponsors. For more information, visit

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Originally published in The Commons issue #522 (Wednesday, August 7, 2019). This story appeared on page B3.

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