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Elnu Abenaki Chief Roger Longtoe Sheehan, left, and Elnu Abenaki spokesperson Rich Holschuh, center, perform a traditional Abenaki calling in song during a ceremony at the Retreat Meadows in Brattleboro on Aug. 13.

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Layers of land, layers of experience

The Retreat Farm unveils marker for Wantastegok, acknowledging the region’s Abenaki presence

BRATTLEBORO—Visitors to the Retreat Meadows on Route 30 across from the Retreat Farm have a new opportunity to experience the confluence of the West and Connecticut rivers from a perspective that celebrates and honors the region as the homeland of the Abenaki people.

After a brief ceremony on Aug. 13, leaders of the Elnu Abenaki and the Retreat Farm joined Native Americans and others in the community in unveiling an interpretive sign for Wantastegok, the original Abenaki word for the area.

“It refers to the confluence of the West and the Connecticut rivers, a place where things come together, a place where things are lost, a place where things are found,” said Rich Holschuh, a spokesperson for the Elnu Abenaki and author of the text on the sign at the edge of the Retreat Meadows.

In the Abenaki language, the West River is Wantastekw; the Connecticut River, Kwenitekw.

“It has been said that the Abenaki did not focus on the idea of the River as an object unto itself, a stand-alone geographical feature,” Holschuh writes on his blog, Sokoki Sojourn. “Of course, in the grand web of inter-relatedness, it certainly is not.”

“Rather, it is a unifying presence, a vast watery web of connections, drawing together the rainfall, snowpack, brooks, ponds, vernal pools, marshes and swamps, and tributaries of an 11,260-square-mile watershed.

“Where today we see a dividing boundary between Vermont and New Hampshire, the Kwenitekw is more inherently the central heart of a vast community of communities, the Abenaki homeland of Ndakinna.”

Holschuh said that the Retreat Farm staff is in the early stages of creating a series of walking trails with interpretive signs that highlight the Abenaki experience, including the 2.5-mile Abenaki Trail.

Before unveiling the marker, Chief Roger Longtoe Sheehan performed a traditional Abenaki calling in song, while Holschuh honored the seven directions: north, south, east, west, up, down, and center.

Following the dedication, he spoke to the audience about the lasting impact of the Abenaki language.

“We are the land, and the land is us,” Holschuh reminded the audience.

Retreat Farm’s Executive Director Buzz Schmidt said that in addition to the nonprofit’s staff, 140 people attended the event. Due to the governor’s state of emergency and other COVID-19–related executive orders, people had to register prior to the event, which was capped at 150 participants.

“We believe that a proper relationship between humans and the land is the foundation of our current and future well-being,” Schmidt said. “We believe that respect for this land and the recognition that we are ‘all in this together’ are essential for human progress and, indeed, our continued existence on the planet.”

In a press release, staff of the Retreat Farm wrote that the intent of the sign is to honor “the Abenaki presence within this remarkable landscape.”

The sign, they continued, “recognizes a space in which we can better understand the continuing relationships between this Place and its Indigenous People.”

The marker also represents one piece in a broader project to document and educate visitors about the ongoing relationship between people and the more than 600 acres of land that make up the Retreat Farm.

Stories in the present tense

Holschuh thanked everyone at the Retreat Farm who helped make the unveiling possible.

He said he was grateful that the organization has “stepped forward as an institutional partner and that they are embracing this as part of their educational mission,” he said.

Holschuh said that by the time visitors emerge at the end of the Abenaki Trail, “they will have entered another world, and that world will help to inform the one that they’ve been in. And that convergence of stories will lend itself toward a better understanding of how to be, how to be here, just how to be.”

In addition to the Abenaki Trail, the Farm and Holschuh have a preliminary plan to add other opportunities to restore an Indigenous presence and Indigenous worldview to the area.

Holschuh said that the Sokoki Abenaki people and their ancestors have lived in the Wantastegok area for 12,000 years.

“If a culture has been in place, evolving in place, for 12,000 years without significantly damaging the place that they live, I think they figured a few things out,” he said.

Holschuh is specific about his use of the present tense. When community members talk about Indigenous people, they often use the past tense, he said.

“All these things that happened long ago are still happening, and the assumptions that we have as modern-day people in this place are all built on lies,” Holschuh said. “But just because things happened in the past that weren’t great doesn’t mean you can’t do something about it now.”

Holschuh said his point is not about casting blame or guilt. Instead, he said, the question is, “So what do we as a community do now?”

When people look at the land, they tell themselves stories, he explained.

They don’t always question why Brattleboro is called Brattleboro or why the Retreat Meadows are flooded, he said — and whatever stories they’ve heard about these things might just be the convenient ones.

Yet, there are other stories to tell about community, about interconnectedness, and about moving back into balance, he said.

“There are many, many worlds out there, and lives will be enriched by that understanding,” he said.

“I want to encourage people to care for each other, and when I say each other, I mean creation at large,” Holschuh added.

“Once people know something, then you’re responsible,” he said. “To be responsible is not necessarily to be guilty, it’s to help you do better. That’s the way I look at it.”

A natural and cultural commons

Schmidt said Retreat Farm staff and Abenaki leadership collaborated for many months on the Wantastegok marker.

He views the recent unveiling as “a kickoff event for this much more expansive and intensive interpretation of the Meadows” and the surrounding area, including the Abenaki Trail.

According to Schmidt, the preliminary idea for the trail focuses on the 140 acres of land across from the farmstead that is bordered by Route 30. That parcel also includes the Retreat Meadows and the islands.

Schmidt said it is important to him that the Abenaki community is an active participant in creating the trail.

The trail would include “interpretive resources” such as signs that illuminate “the long history of the Abenaki people in this area from 10,000 years ago to today, so it’ll be the lens to interpret history and the lens to interpret nature,” he said.

Schmidt said that the Retreat Farm staff shifted their focus during the pandemic from conducting in-person programs to expanding the nonprofit’s outdoor activities and improving its trails.

“The farm is very much finding its way as a public commons,” he said. “It’s not a private place. It’s a public place.”

“Our attitude has been that we are not the owners of this property,” he continued. “We’re only the stewards for today.”

“Hopefully, if we do everything right, people will realize that the real owners of the property have to be the generations that come in the future,” Schmidt said.

Layers of human decisions

The Retreat Farm is working with historian and author Jan Albers.

“One thing that I have always thought was interesting was just how landscapes kind of pile up in layers on the land,” said Albers, the author of Hands on the Land: A History of the Vermont Landscape.

Natural cycles will create a piece of land’s natural history, she said, but humans make landscapes with their impacts.

“Each generation makes its own alterations to [the landscape],” she continued. “We live on the top layer, but we do not see all these other layers of landscape that were made by human decisions.”

For example, at one time in Vermont’s history, its human occupants cut down approximately 80 percent of the trees in the state, she said. Now, approximately four-fifths of state land has returned to forest.

Albers said the different decisions people make in how they interact with the land fascinates her.

“I’ve always been interested in the fact that you can have different cultures on the same basic landscapes — the same place, with the same geology, the same flora and fauna — and yet they create landscapes that are totally different.”

She said Schmidt contacted her several years ago and asked if she would like to partner with the Farm on a “museum of the Vermont landscape.”

To Albers, this project would be one that would draw people out onto the land.

“The idea wasn’t to have a museum full of objects,” she said. “It was to have a place where people could learn history while they were walking through the landscape.”

According to Albers, she and the Retreat Farm partners want to show visitors how different human decisions impacted the landscape differently. Sometimes these decisions had healthy outcomes, while other times they did not, she said.

Overall, the farm history project partners want to provide people with information that “might make better landscape decisions in the future,” and she said that such an effort “will help the whole Earth.”

Albers remarked that so much has happened over the centuries on the more than 600 acres now called the Retreat Farm.

The landscape and the two rivers have served a variety of human needs from a place to grow food, to a transportation hub, to a tavern, to an airport, to the “water Meadows,” which were flooded when the Vernon hydroelectric dam came online in 1909.

“For the Abenaki, it was a very special place, and that’s kind of a spiritual place,” she said. “And then the settlers came in — they turned it into a very different kind of landscape with different assumptions and different dreams.”

“Landscapes seem to have started in human beings’ dreams, but they don’t all dream the same thing,” she pointed out.

To her, the events that have happened on the Farm reflect both the big picture of history and the smaller stories within.

Albers noted the conflicts between the Abenaki and the European settlers “pressing up from southern New England” and the legacy of colonization. The area was also part of the French and Indian War, which happened from 1754 to 1763. This conflict, according to several sources, was a smaller part of Europe’s Seven Years’ War.

“There were also smaller skirmishes like about building the freeway,” she said. “Or flooding the water Meadows when they built the Vernon dam.”

The Retreat Farm recently received a $40,000 Historic Places planning grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities. The grant will fund planning and creating interpretive walking paths and interactive museum exhibits that encompass generations of human activity.

Ultimately, the project to shine light on the Retreat Farm’s multiple landscapes is a project aimed at asking people, “What is everybody’s role in the world?”

“We just want to pose the questions and let people find their own answers,” Albers said.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #576 (Wednesday, August 26, 2020). This story appeared on page A1.

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