Petroglyphs in Bellows Falls, carved into stone centuries ago by Abenaki people, will be preserved for the future thanks to a recent grant from the National Park Service.
Robert F. Smith/The Commons
Petroglyphs in Bellows Falls, carved into stone centuries ago by Abenaki people, will be preserved for the future thanks to a recent grant from the National Park Service.

Elnu Abenaki move forward amid questions about lineage

As new projects — study of petroglyphs in Bellows Falls and a tribal center in Brattleboro — bring visibility to the smallest of the four state-recognized tribes, Abenaki in Canada say that most Vermont tribe members cannot claim Native ancestry and that these activities are cultural appropriation.

Southern Vermont's Elnu Abenaki tribe may be the smallest in the state, but it has seen some important changes in recent years.

Within the past year or so, the tribe has purchased a new Tribal Center at 350 Putney Rd., and has received grant money to research regional Native petroglyphs, especially those in Bellows Falls.

At the same time, the four Vermont Abenaki bands - collectively known as the Western Abenaki tribes - have also had to face a challenge to their tribal status from an unexpected source - the Abenaki in Québec, Canada.

"There is no Vermont Abenaki, and there is no Canadian Abenaki," said Jacques T. Watso, a band councilor for Odanak First Nation. "There is only one nation."

In addition to Elnu, other state-recognized tribes in Vermont are the Abenaki Nation of Missisquoi, the Nulhegan Band of the Coosuk Abenaki Nation, and the Ko'asek Traditional Band of Sovereign Abenaki Nation.

When the four tribes applied for state recognition in 2011, they collectively reported 2,611 members, with the vast majority in the Missisquoi tribe.

State recognition was granted the four tribes in 2011 and 2012.

None of the Vermont tribes has been granted federal tribal recognition, and only the Missisquoi tribe has applied.

Tribal leader Rich Holschuh said that the discussion, which is not limited to the Abenaki but is found throughout the Native populations of the U.S. and Canada, "needs to be humanized and de-politicized."

He said that there is a need to provide context to the debate, which he says is "a result of colonization, one of a series of events going back hundreds of years."

"Why are there Odanak and Vermont Abenaki?" Holschuh says. "It's because it was a Colonial problem between the English and the French not being able to live together. It wasn't an Abenaki problem."

Testimony in stone

In the spring of 2022, the town of Rockingham, in collaboration with the Elnu Tribe, received a $37,000 underrepresented communities grant from the National Park Service to study the historic indigenous rock carvings on the Vermont side of the Connecticut River in Bellows Falls at the base of Kchi Pôntegok, Abenaki for the Great Falls.

Local archaeologist Gail Golec and Holschuh are guiding the project, which includes several other local members from both the tribe and the community. The two-year grant started in the fall of 2022 and ends this year.

Two panels of petroglyphs, containing at least 28 figures between them, have been part of the written record in Bellows Falls since the first Europeans traveled through and eventually settled in the area. Historical records indicate that dozens of other carvings might be near the site.

Records indicate that numerous other petroglyphs were buried there during construction projects - in particular, the building of the road directly above the carvings, which allowed a train spur from the nearby rail yard to feed directly into the lumber mills south of the carvings along the river.

Widening of the gorge by dynamiting the ledges on the New Hampshire side of the site during a half century of huge log drives down the Connecticut also likely destroyed other carvings there.

While a number of similar carvings can be found in New England, they are extremely rare, and the Bellows Falls petroglyphs are one of the largest collections in the East.

Vermont's State Archaeologist Jess Robinson said that, while the written record dates the carvings back at least a few centuries, they could be as old as 3,000 years.

Similar Native petroglyphs historically chronicled at the convergence of the West River and the Connecticut River in Brattleboro have been rediscovered in recent years after decades of underwater searching by scuba diver Annette Spaulding. The carvings ended up some 15 feet underwater when dams built along the Connecticut River a century ago raised the water levels.

The study hopes to create a context for the Bellows Falls carvings and connect them with others in the region. Vermont has at least 41 astronomically aligned stone chambers, as well as dozens of astronomically aligned stone sites and cairns up and down the Connecticut River Valley.

While the sites remain archaeologically controversial, there are strong arguments to be made that many of these pre-date European settlement. The Abenaki hope that future study and research on these stone witnesses scattered across the Vermont landscape will shed more light on the region's earliest inhabitants.

New tribal center

In the last few years, the Elnu tribe has been working to buy the property bordering the West River in Brattleboro, where the long-lost petroglyphs were rediscovered.

The site was on what was once part of the Ennis Farm along Route 5. A 2-plus-acre plot with a large house and an attached garage/caretaker's building was for sale, but it was difficult to raise enough funds to buy the property.

The main house recently burned, while the caretaker's building was salvaged. The loss of the large main house lowered the price and, with Holschuh spearheading the efforts, the tribe was able to raise the $350,000 to purchase the property.

The building will serve as a meeting place, tribal center, research site, and education center.

The property has special meaning to the Abenaki people for several reasons. In addition to the ancient petroglyphs on the edge of the property under the river, archaeologists have discovered village sites in the area, and historical records show that early European settlers at the site encountered Native graves there.

Changes amid controversy

In 2022, the University of Vermont hosted representatives from members of the Abenaki First Nation in Québec, giving them a platform to question the tribal status of Vermont's Abenaki.

Specifically, the Odanak First Nation and the Wôlinak First Nation, both federally recognized by the Canadian government, claim the Vermont tribes have not proven their genealogical links to their shared Abenaki ancestry.

"The leadership from Odanak have called for self-identified Abenakis in Vermont to undertake their own genealogy, to show how they are related to the Abenakis in Canada - who are the documented descendants of the original inhabitants of Vermont," said Jessica Dolan, Ph.D., a postdoctoral research fellow who grew up in and lives in Brattleboro. She has described herself as a "non-Native scholar ally" who has worked for Native communities as a scholar and professional researcher for the last 15 years.

Canadian tribal leaders charged at the symposium that the Vermont tribes were appropriating legitimate Abenaki culture and "erasing us by replacing us."

The Abenaki First Nation tribes have officially asked dozens of Vermont housing, environmental, and conservation groups to not work with the Vermont Abenaki Tribes.

While both factions agree that they share distant history centered around Lake Champlain and that bands of Abenaki spread all over New England and Québec for centuries before Europeans arrived, it is the modern history, particularly from 1800 to 1970, that is creating the conflict.

The basic argument of the Abenaki in Québec is that by 1800, what was left of the Abenaki people in New England had moved to two main tribal centers there.

"All Indigenous nations define membership through kinship and genealogy - not political, philosophical, or spiritual values affiliation," Dolan said. "The State of Vermont was likely misguided in developing their state recognition process, because they did not seek guidance from the Abenaki nations already in existence."

On the other hand, the Vermont Abenaki have argued since the 1970s that small tribal groups remained scattered around Vermont after 1800, distancing themselves from tribal connections and culture.

The Vermont tribes have pointed to the eugenics movement as a main reason that they hid their Native heritage and culture.

Vermont tribe members say they often hid their Native heritage due to prejudice, particularly during Vermont's Eugenics Survey at the University of Vermont from 1925 to 1936.

That project gave academic legitimacy to the question of what its zoology professor leader termed "the quality of [Vermont's] human stock."

In 1931, Vermont passed a State Sterilization Law, which allowed the state to perform coerced sterilizations on those deemed unworthy of having children.

In 2019 and 2021, first UVM and then the Vermont Legislature publicly apologized for their roles in the sterilizations.

Whether there is evidence for these claims by the Vermont Abenaki lies at the heart of the debate. They say that there is strong archaeological and cultural evidence for their continued presence here and that they have good reason for the lack of state data documenting their presence through Vermont's recent decades.

But in 2002, the office of the Vermont Attorney General released a response to the Missisquoi application for federal recognition. The report determined that the Abenaki people had migrated north to Québec by 1800 and thus lacked a continuous presence in Vermont.

Complicating matters is the fact that 90% of the Native population died off, mainly from disease, in the first century following contact with European explorers and invaders. In the centuries that followed, intermarriage of the Native population with Europeans was common.

The result is that, by the 2020 census, more than 60% of indigenous people in the U.S. claimed to be multi-racial.

'The original inhabitants of Vermont'

Watso acknowledged that as the Abenaki migrated to their current Canadian locale, some of their own had remained not just in Vermont but scattered throughout New England.

So in the 1990s, when Vermonters would come to Canada claiming shared ancestry, they "wanted to reconnect, so we accepted them," he said.

But when pressed for proof of their connection to Native heritage, "nobody had [any] links to [any] Native families," and "they all had this story of a mystical grandmother who was hiding in plain sight."

Odanak is about one hour's drive from the Vermont border, Watso said, making the claims of Abenaki ancestry of 10,000 Vermonters highly suspicious to their increasingly skeptical putative relatives.

He said that today, only about 1% of the Vermont tribes' member rolls have the genealogical bona fides to be recognized as Abenaki - and they already are.

As for the rest, Watso said that anyone from all these four groups and all that they know were culture, language, sounds, storytelling. Anything related to the Abenaki nation emerged here in Odanak.

Dolan works for the Indigenous organization Plenty Canada and consults with Saint Regis Mohawk Tribe Environment Division (Akwesasne), though she emphasizes that her opinions do not represent these entities.

She has been outspoken in her stance that absent genealogical connection, the four Vermont Abenaki tribes are inappropriately appropriating a cultural heritage.

"I think it is important that the state and anyone claiming Abenaki ancestry or affiliation follow the lead of the Abenakis from Odanak and Wôlinak," she said.

"Self-identified Abenakis may find that they are distantly related or closely related enough to possibly enroll in that nation. But, people cannot 'work together' until people in Vermont honor Odanak and Wolinak tribal sovereignty by following their guidance, governance and membership structure," she said.

Addressing the questions

Local Abenaki leaders have decided it is time to publicly address the issues raised by the Québec Abenaki, and they have scheduled a public meeting to do that.

Holschuh added that the debate misses the context, the big picture and "the stories that got us to this place."

"This is not something we should be fighting about," he said. "The fighting is the problem."

Living Earth Action Group, a group based in Westminster West that is centered on promoting sustainability and spirituality, will host a presentation by Holschuh and other possible speakers on Sunday, Jan. 21, at 6:30 p.m. at the Congregational Church of Westminster West at 44 Church St.

Press for the meeting says that it will discuss the dynamics at work among those who "question the standing of the Vermont Abenaki," the Living Earth Action Group said in its release. "To those unfamiliar with place-based Abenaki histories and cultures, and Native-Settler politics through the present-day, this apparent dispute may appear puzzling or confusing."

The group promises to "examine some of the questions that arise: What is being said and by whom? What is the context? What might be the point? Are there root causes of these differences and how might they be engaged?"

For her part, Dolan noted that "the current conflict offers a complex learning curve and tremendous opportunity for motivated education on Indigeneity - on kinship, Indigenous governance, on Abenaki history in Vermont over the last 300 years."

"Many Vermonters conflate distant Indigenous heritage with being Native, and that is not correct," she said, urging Vermonters to "lean in and listen to what Native people from the Northeast are saying about their cultures and kinship."

"Be prepared to listen and think carefully about this, and seek diverse sources of learning," Dolan said. "And please, listen to what the Abenakis from Odanak and Wôlinak and their families are saying and honor their suggestions. Their families are the original inhabitants of Vermont; their historians and archaeologists have documented the last 300-plus years of history that so many Vermonters are missing."

Additional reporting by Jeff Potter.

This News item by Robert F. Smith was written for The Commons.

Subscribe to the newsletter for weekly updates