Vera Longtoe Sheehan, Elnu Abenaki Tribe, Director, Vermont Abenaki Artists Association, and Abenaki Arts & Education Center.
Originaly published by Mt. Kearsarge Indian Museum on Jan 23, 2020. View original here.
If your not familiar with the term decolonization you probably recognize the Latin prefix de- meaning to reverse and the word colonization which refers to the process by which the colonial settlers move into and took control of Indigenous lands. Colonization is the brutal process by which one group of people overpowers another group of people, takes control of all of the resources and it generally causes irreparable loss and harm to the original inhabitants. The new government forces new laws and customs upon the group that is being dominated. In theory decolonization would return society in the Americas to its original state before colonization but that process would be nearly impossible and far too complicated because we cannot undo what has been done but we can help mitigate the damages that have been done to the Abenaki communities of the region. For me this work is about reclamation, truth, and education so this article will focus on my work developing decolonized educational resources for schools.
I began developing and presenting Native American programs in classrooms over twenty years ago because I knew there was a gap in what and how our children were being taught about American history and the Native American people of our region. The problem of Abenaki erasure in school curriculum is multi-dimensional. Over the years, there have been very few changes in how Native American culture is taught. Many of us grew up learning the same incorrect history as our children will and that same history is passed from one generation to another. We also rely upon history books that are out-dated and incomplete because they written from a single perspective so long ago .
Adding to the dilemma is many of us grew up learning many stereotypes and myths about Native American people.
Therefore, with some exceptions, children are still taught that the original Native American inhabitants of N’dakinna (Abenaki for homeland) are no longer here which was proven false when four Abenaki communities fought for and won state recognition in Vermont in 2011 and 2012. Therefore, it’s disconcerting when I ask children what they know about Native Americans and they always seem to use the past tense because they didn’t realize that Native Americans are still alive.
After many years of doing programs at schools, museums, and historic sites, I returned to college where my Graduate research focused on “Abenaki Erasure and Continuity of Culture in Their Homeland.” The culmination of my studies is the Abenaki Arts & Education website which is a free resource that teachers and students can use to learn more about the continuity of Abenaki history and culture into the present day. The website includes recommending readings, articles, videos, and study guides to help people better understand our culture. Visitors can be assured that the resources have been vetting by knowledgeable Abenaki educators and culture bearers.
The colonization of the Northeast did not happen overnight, quite to the contrary it is a long and complicated process, therefore reversing the history of colonization that is taught in our schools is also going to be a complicated process that cannot be done quickly or by one person. It will take all of us working together to make a difference. If your a teacher and homeschooler, consider attending our course “Presenting Abenaki Culture in the Classroom, a 3-day professional development seminar that is taught by Abenaki educators and culture bearers and you can earn a certificate or credit through Castleton University. Teachers, parents, and caregivers can also expose their children to Abenaki culture through Abenaki exhibits, heritage events, and programs that are listed on the Vermont Abenaki Artists Association’s website.
Vera Longtoe Sheehan with New England teachers during the first annual “Presenting Abenaki Culture in the Classroom.” Lake Champlain Maritime Museum. Photo courtesy of Vermont Abenaki Artists Association.
Vermont Abenaki Artists Association abenakiart.org/
Abenaki Arts & Education Center: abenaki-edu.org/
About the Author
Vera Longtoe Sheehan is an artist, educator, and activist who serves her community as the Elnu Abenaki Tribal Genealogist and the Director of the Vermont Abenaki Artists Association where she leads the education team. She has a BA in Museum Studies and
Native American Studies, MALS, and an Advanced Certificate in Public History from SUNY Empire State College. The combination of her experience and her education allows Vera to bridge the gap between the Abenaki community and mainstream society by creating and delivering educational programs, museum exhibitions, and events that preserve and interpret the vibrant culture of the Abenaki people. Additionally, Vera is a member of the Vermont Coalition for Ethnic Studies and Social Equity Advisory Working Group which is examining how Ethic Studies can be incorporated into K-12 curriculum.