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Abenaki petroglyphs, as shown in this illustration from Annals of Brattleboro, were carved into a rock at the confluence of the Connecticut and West rivers hundreds of years ago. The Atowi Project, a young nonprofit organization affiliated with the Retreat Farm, is looking to purchase land surrounding the sacred site.

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‘The people are the place, and the place is the people’

With plans in place to purchase a sacred Indigenous destination near recently rediscovered ancient rock carvings, the Atowi Project looks to reclaim the lost history of Wantastegok where two rivers converge

Additional reporting by Jeff Potter. Those wishing to donate toward the purchase of the land may do so at donorbox.org/wantastegok-sacred-site-protection-1.

BRATTLEBORO—In 2017, after searching for three decades, a master diver rediscovered a documented but long-lost Indigenous relic in the cove at the confluence of the Connecticut and West rivers.

These petroglyphs — etched carvings in rock, made by Indigenous peoples thousands of years ago — have been submerged for a century, under water displaced by alterations to the river’s flow from hydroelectric power stations upstream.

Now, the Atowi Project — a two-year-old nonprofit that is reclaiming and revitalizing the area’s Indigenous heritage — has successfully negotiated an offer for almost 2 acres of land on the waterfront near the petroglyphs.

Atowi has named the property the Wantastegok Sacred Site, a place that conveys significant meaning in Abenaki culture.

The organization, under the fiscal agency of the Retreat Farm and with the help of the Vermont Land Trust, will pay $325,000 for the land, adjacent to several tracts conserved as a wildlife sanctuary, giving the submerged petroglyphs a buffer of open space and creating a physical presence and visibility for the Abenaki tribe.

“The fact that there are petroglyphs here means that this is a sacred and spiritual destination,” says Rich Holschuh, the director of the Atowi Project and the public face for the Elnu Abenaki, a state-recognized tribe.

“We know from the historical relics: this is an area of great importance,” he says.

Petroglyphs are a graphic message carved into the rock, intended to last in perpetuity, notes Holschuh.

In The Petroglyph Sites of Bellows Falls and Brattleboro, Vermont, an art history dissertation written in 2001, Thomas Earl Larose of Virginia Commonwealth University writes that the petroglyphs in Brattleboro and in Bellows Falls “constitute the only known rock art within the interior of New England and are positioned at major geophysical locations along the Connecticut River.”

“The images inscribed at each site are readily identifiable within standard Algonquian symbolism and have specific mythological associations related to their geographic and physiological locations,” Larose writes, estimating that both sites were carved between 600 and 1600 CE.

“These are longstanding messages that indicate that in that place, there is a relationship between the people who would be making and seeing those messages and the place itself,” Holschuh says. “It’s a relationship between the land — the people are the place, and the place is the people.”

A decades-long quest

Holschuh calls the rediscovery of the petroglyphs “a compelling story.”

The diver, Annette Spaulding, of Rockingham, had been looking for what was described in an 1876 issue of the Vermont Phoenix as “Indian rock.”

According to that historic newspaper, the rock had “sculptured upon it some ten figures — six of birds, three of snakes and one of a dog, or wolf.”

After a visit to the Brattleboro Historical Society, Spaulding found a drawing of the rock by a young Larkin Goldsmith Mead, who would became an internationally known sculptor.

Armed with the drawing and a diagram drawn by archaeologist Edward Hitchcock in the 1860s showing Indian rock as a sloping rock ledge, she located the site. A video produced by the Connecticut River Conservancy, can be viewed at bit.ly/671-petroglyphs.

Spaulding discovered a carving of a face in 2015, and two years later found a 12 ft. {x} 8 ft. ledge

In the video, Spaulding described the long and discouraging process of underwater sleuthing. She also noted the indirect contribution of the conservancy and its decades-long efforts to clean the river — efforts that gave her the visibility to see and navigate the inundated world.

The counter story

Petroglyphs are often found where water, land, and sky come together, often near waterfalls, said Holschuh.

But those same waterfalls also held potential to power sawmills, gristmills, and other industry serving a nation that was emerging on the Indigenous land.

“In this area, waterfalls have all turned into industrial sites,” Holschuh observes.

“Places that were important were also the first to be developed by settlers,” he says. “That’s why Brattleboro is here, because it’s a good place for different reasons.”

And through his outreach, Holschuh is telling what he calls the Indigenous peoples’ “counter story to that of the early settlers.”

“We bring knowledge and respect for indigenous people. The fact that indigenous people are not acknowledged in this area is the beginning of some very important conversations,” he says.

“We say that this place is known as Wnatstique, which is an affirmation of the river where it meets the Connecticut,” says Holschuh, noting that the original name of the West River is Waneasteku.

“Wan” translates to “at the river where something is lost,” he says.

“Why is it called ‘the river where something is lost’? That goes to the heart of why the petroglyphs are there,” he said. “They are the answer. This is a story that’s been hidden for many years. Annette Spaulding was looking to pinpoint this information.”

On the shore

Holschuh anticipates that sometime in August, Atowi will be able to close on the 1.83 acres on Eaton Street, just before Veterans Memorial Bridge.

In three weeks, Atowi has raised almost $24,400 from 121 individual donors and $225,000 in large grants.

“I’m kind of overwhelmed and immensely grateful at the same time,” Holschuh says. “I had a lot of sleepless nights in the beginning. Now I’m sleeping better.”

Because of the fundraising success, the Vermont Land Trust has offered the organization a bridge loan, a guarantee that was pivotal in the success of the negotiations, Holschuh says.

“They might not have to make that loan at all,” he says. “We still have a few irons in the fire.”

According to town property records, the parcel is owned by Ian S. Leahy of Provincetown, Mass., whom Holschuh praises as having “serious discretionary choice to sell to us” instead of releasing it to a white-hot real estate market.

The group’s website, atowi.org, states, “For thousands of years, the Original People of this region have visited, lived, and been laid to rest at the confluence of the Wantastekw (West River) and Kwenitekw (Connecticut River), in what is now known as Brattleboro, VT. The significance of this place as sacred, both holding balance and exchanging Spirit, is acknowledged by the rare presence of petroglyphs — submerged due to hydro development 100 years ago — and historically documented Indigenous burials.”

Holschuh notes that this area of town was the first part of Putney Road to be farmed. Before the Vernon Dam was built in 1909, the water levels were much lower and, in the Retreat Meadows, it was dry farmland.

At that time, the Retreat Meadows was fertile farmland. It was also a burial ground.

In her 1921 history Annals of Brattleboro, 1681–1895, Mary Rogers Cabot wrote about the very piece of farmland that Atowi is looking to preserve.

“In 1850, Holland Pettis, when ploughing in ‘The Cove’ of West River, found a human skull,” she reported. “It was apparent, upon examination, that the individual (believed to be an Indian chief) was buried in sitting posture, arrowheads, pipe and pestle with him, that he might not enter upon another life without means of sustenance and protection.”

Holschuh describes Wnatstique as “a place of importance where people returned to be buried with their ancestors. It’s about place and the relationship to place.”

“Another burial site is at the top of Eaton Avenue where it meets Vermont Avenue, where this piece of land is located. There are also a couple of burial sites mentioned in the Retreat Meadows. They were uncovered when the Retreat was farming that land.”

“Burials have no legal protection until they’re unearthed, and then it’s too late,” Holschuh says.

Where worlds converge

Holschuh notes that in her research in pursuit of the petroglyphs, Spaulding found a file at the Brattleboro Historical Society that included an interview with a resident who grew up in town and would go down to the West River before it was flooded by the dam.

“He spoke of what they would do down there, fishing, swimming, looking at Indian Rock,” he says. “And he made a remark in this interview which was critical. He said that in the middle of the river, in front of Indian Rock, there was a whirlpool and there was a place in the channel that a piece of wood would spiral and disappear.”

“That is an indication of something that was lost — it was a hole into the Earth,” Holschuh continues. “This speaks to the cultural idea that worlds converge. That is an entrance to another world. It’s a point of exchange of spirit and of power.”

Holschuh believes that there is great significance to this wide hole into the river at the point where the petroglyphs were etched.

“Indigenous peoples named the river Wantastekw which means “the river where something is lost,” he says.

As the story goes, the man explained that when swimming in the river, one could be sucked down into the hole, it was strong enough that if he didn’t hold onto the ledge, he could be sucked down into the river.

“Stories are written in the past, and we work to keep the culture in the present,” Holschuh says. “Whether they happened a long time ago, they are still relevant. It’s a continuing history.”

“It’s not an accident that the petroglyphs are there,” Holschuh says. “It’s a place of importance where people returned to be buried with their ancestors. It’s about place, and the relationships to place.”

‘Why is it we don’t know about this?’

Holschuh observes that “public awareness is completely lacking” with regard to the petroglpyhs, which disappeared from public view in 1909, with the construction of the Vernon Dam. The hydroelectric facility raised the water level in Brattleboro by approximately 15 feet, according to an overview on the organization’s website.

On July 9, 1937, the Brattleboro Reformer noted that the Chamber of Commerce would be “on the job” creating wayfinding signs marking “spots of historical or scenic importance.”

“This probably will be of benefit to local persons as well as outsiders, for how many in Brattleboro know about the Indian rock carvings at the end of West river? They are well worn now and are visible only at low water.”

That marker was never created.

The last time the petroglyphs were written about in the Reformer (until Spaulding’s rediscovery in 2015) is November of 1940, where it is the first question in a five-question history quiz. The question is: “Where was Indian Rock in Brattleboro, and what happened to it?” The answer reads: “It was a rock bearing Indian symbols on the south bank of West River near the mouth. It was covered by water when Vernon dam was built.”

Without the petroglyphs being able to be viewed, 31 years after the hydro dam was built, and the petroglyphs covered under many feet of water, they became a historical question that then was forgotten.

“These are the real deal, thousands of years old, but no one ever pinpointed them on a map, The water level went up, the petroglyphs went under water and were never seen again. It took a lot of detective work by Annette Spaulding, but we now know this is the land. It’s so important that this piece of land be preserved and protected, never to be developed,” remarked Holschuh.

But the Atowi Project is racing the clock.

“This land has the potential to be 10 condos,” Holschuh said. “We’re working intensely, and with the Vermont Land Trust as a partner to advise us in saving this piece of Indigenous history. It’s frightening.”

“We need to let the public know now that there are places that should not be built upon,” he continues. “Most folks are not aware of the Indigenous relationships to this area. We are teaching a past which hasn’t been known to many, and we are looking for the public’s help in preserving this important piece of history.”

He also asks an important question.

“Why is it that we don’t know about this? Why is this completely erased from our cultural memory? We are just at the beginning of sharing this history and people are extremely interested and would like to do something about it. We’re grateful for the public’s interest and help in preserving our culture.”

Indigenous people’s history has been pushed out because of the way colonization has unwound, says Holschuh. But he also notes a practical reason for lack of awareness: that many other areas of the United States are more aware of Indigenous peoples, as there are more historical sites in the West. He also notes that there is more recognition of Vermont’s Indigenous peoples in the Northeast Kingdom.

“There are three tribes in the northern part of Vermont,” he notes, “but this is one of two sites we know of in southern Vermont.”

The other site is in Bellows Falls, he said, noting that some petroglyphs of circular face designs seen on the rocks at two sites there match some on the carvings in Brattleboro.

The recent rediscovery of more tangible evidence of Native lives, lore, culture, and heritage can only help visibility of the Abenaki culture, Holschuh says.

The Brattleboro petroglyphs “provide Indigenous people an opportunity to bring our history back out in the open, for people to come and learn, to do programing and teaching, to have a base of operations to continue this important work, and to have these important conversations,” Holschuh says.

“This is a sacred and spiritual destination that we have the opportunity to preserve,” he adds. “We ask the public to assist us in preserving this important site, so that all may enjoy it, and learn from it.”

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Originally published in The Commons issue #671 (Wednesday, July 6, 2022). This story appeared on page A1.

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