A new festival for a new era

Fantastic Wantastiquet celebrates the indigenous heritage of Windham County

BRATTLEBORO — Fantastic Wantastiquet, a new, multidisciplinary arts and cultural festival, opens Saturday, Sept. 16, at 2 p.m., when singer/songwriter and indigenous-rights activist Lyla June Johnston will headline a gala keynote gathering at the Latchis Theatre.

“Other special guests still-to-be-confirmed will join Johnston at this gala, many of whom will be traveling from afar, as excitement in Brattleboro grows for our first Indigenous People's Day activities in early October,” says John Wilmerding, the Fantastic Wantastiquet founder and organizer.

Johnston is a musician, public speaker, and internationally recognized performance poet. A descendant of Diné (Navajo) and Tsétsêhéstâhese (Cheyenne) lineages, she is a co-founder of the Taos Peace and Reconciliation Council, which works to heal intergenerational trauma and ethnic division in northern New Mexico.

She also is the lead organizer of the Black Hills Unity Concert, which gathers native and nonnative musicians to pray for the return of guardianship of the Black Hills to the Sioux nation.

“Lyla June's presence in Brattleboro heralds a call to people of all Nations, particularly First Nation/Indigenous peoples, to converge on the Wantastiquet region,” Wilmerding says.

Toward that end, Wilmerding is lining up other visiting speakers for the festival, including Christinia Eala and Philmer Bluehouse.

Eala runs a non-profit organization that raises funds to provide housing for people on the Pine Ridge and Rosebud reservations in South Dakota.

Bluehouse, a member of the Navajo Nation, practices indigenous methods of healing, peacemaking, and restorative justice. Wilmerding worked with Bluehouse and five other people to, helped originate Project PACT, a peacemaking method in 2004 at United States Penitentiary, Leavenworth.

Vision of unity

Wilmerding initially conceived of Fantastic Wantastiquet in the spring of 2015 as a plan to bring the area's arts and cultural offerings under one marketing banner, envisioning an arts festival that would include performing-arts events, shows, exhibits, tours, seasonal or annual expositions, and other festival activities.

He writes in his mission statement for Fantastic Wantastiquet: “The festival's purpose is to draw together existing arts and cultural events and activities in Brattleboro and in nearby areas of Windham County, Cheshire County in New Hampshire, and Franklin County in Massachusetts.

“We will create a common schedule and calendar, and share marketing, publicity, and promotional efforts. We also hope to eventually create an annual grant program to assist new jointly produced productions, works, and special events.”

Wilmerding, a classically trained tenor, folksinger, songwriter, guitarist, and poet, has been a seasonal resident of Halifax since the 1960s. His career as a full-time professional musician was cut short by an automobile accident in 1987.

He relocated to Brattleboro in 1991 to become general manager of the Brattleboro Music Center and the New England Bach Festival. Since that time, he has played active roles in envisioning the community's future, centering on the arts and culture.

He also organized Brattleboro's first Restorative Justice program, now administered by the Brattleboro Community Justice Center.

“I always wanted to organize an arts festival in this area,” Wilmerding says. “I long have hoped to help make our town a mecca for the arts, and for the people who live here to realize what a remarkable place this is.”

Wilmerding envisioned Fantastic Wantastiquet taking place annually during the fall foliage season, from early September through mid-to-late October.

However, family issues forced Wilmerding to postpone the inaugural festival, which he had originally hoped would take place in the fall of 2015.

In the meantime, a successful effort was underway to have the town of Brattleboro, starting this year, officially rename Columbus Day and observe the holiday as Indigenous Peoples' Day.

Celebrating people and place

Wilmerding wrote that this decision to rename the holiday, which was approved unanimously at this year's Representative Town Meeting, ties in perfectly with the goals of his festival.

The festival also reclaims and restores Wantastiquet as the First Nations' (Abenaki) name for the West River and the region in general.

“Fantastic Wantastiquet leaps to mind as the most graceful possible way to help celebrate a form of restorative justice, and to celebrate people and place, which is its first purpose.”

Wilmerding elaborated further for The Commons:

“Centering around 'Indigenous Peoples' Day' has deepened the Festival's emphasis on these peoples and lands. Each year's festival will have a stated theme. This year, celebrating Indigenous Peoples' Day has enabled us to choose new themes and content for the Festival.”

Spearheaded by the gala at the Latchis, Fantastic Wantastiquet 2017 will offer events that are still in development.

In the course of planning some festival events on the Brattleboro Town Common for Oct. 6-9, local community organizers and representatives of the Elnu Abenaki tribe expressed some apprehension about the festival and Wilmerding's intentions. A brief-but-tense moment on social media was quickly smoothed over with communication and respect, he said.

“Our intentions were to make the Common available for events which might possibly happen; events run by indigenous folks,” Wilmerding said. “But there will be other appropriate indigenous-run events happening elsewhere in the downtown area during Indigenous People's Day weekend.”

“So as an organization, we have decided not to organize any events for Indigenous People's Day or the weekend in question,” Wilmerding said.

Wilmerding want to be clear that Fantastic Wantastiquet is not the same thing as Brattleboro's first Indigenous Peoples' Day taking place this year Oct. 9.

“We are not organizing the Indigenous Peoples' Day events; those are being created by indigenous folks who live locally,” Wilmerding said. “The Festival steering committee, although it includes Native people, does not presume to have the same 'agency' as Native organizers and activists.

“I personally have no tribal affiliation, unless you want to count New England and local Quakers, though I have completed some other distinguished work with Native American leaders and activists.”

The opening gala at the Latchis Theatre will be admission-by-donation, with a suggested amount of $10, but no one will be turned away. Proceeds will go to charities benefiting indigenous peoples, especially youth suicide prevention and women's issues.

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