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Why I can't speak for Vermont's Abenakis--and don't even want to try
by Anne L. Squire

Long before Europeans arrived in North America, the Abenakis lived in a "homeland" from Fryeburg, Maine, west to the Champlain Valley, and from the Adirondacks in western Massachusetts north to the St. Lawrence. Even at the height of their population, there were probably no more than 50,000 across that whole distance.

They lived in small villages with rarely more than 50 people. They moved among two or three villages throughout the year, as the deer and caribou migrated and fish spawned. In the summer, they gathered along big rivers and lakes in summer villages of at most 1000 people.

The Europeans never saw the villages at all. They assumed the land was empty and built their towns and farms across what was once a vast hunting territory. When the Abenakis returned to their seasonal villages, they found them destroyed and people living in their hunting and fishing territories.

The Abenakis had three choices: move, fight, or find a way to stay. Some moved north and east into what in now the Northeast Kingdom and southern Quebec. Some went south to join the warrior leader Metacom, called King Philip, in his war against the English colonists in 1675. They lost, and Metacom's head graced the Thanksgiving feast that year in Plymouth.

Many, even perhaps most Abenakis, stayed put. They did so by denying their history, culture, language, music and everything else that makes a group of people unique. Their denial was so successful that by 1900 no one, including the Abenakis, believed there were any Indians left in Vermont.

Most of those of mixed race descent, like my family, believed they were the last of their kind in Vermont. It wasn't until around 1990 that these descendants of the Abenakis started getting together for social or political reasons. But it was very hard for many groups to sustain themselves merely by recreating the language, or learning songs borrowed from the coastal Indians or the Native people most closely related to the Abenakis, the Algonkian speakers of the Great Lakes like the Ojibway/Chippewa people.

Abenakis never had a tradition of large gatherings under a centralized leader. There were simply too few of them ever to need that kind of tradition. Many of the groups formed in the early 1990s have faded away again, which is also part of the legacy of being of Native descent.

Without centralized leadership, without even a strong definition of "this is what Abenakis are," speaking on behalf of the Abenakis is simply not possible. We can speak for one group or one band, but only if that group asks someone to. The group at Swanton is the only group that falls under the "official" Indian stamp, with an elected leader, council and Constitution. The rest of Vermont's Abenakis are where they have been for the last 8,000 years, doing traditional things like hunting or fishing, and new things, like writing, preaching, teaching, and everything else people do.

Rev. Anne L. Squire serves the Congregational Church of Coventry, and the First Congregational Church of Westfield. She is a full-time reporter, and recently published an elementary level textbook on the Abenakis of Vermont.

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