Teaching Through Art Creation: An Interview with Francine Poitras Jones – Part 3

By Faith Wood. Middlebury College. Class of 2024
Native Presence and Performance (First Year Seminar Course)

In spring 2021, Vera Longtoe Sheehan (Elnu Abenaki) met with the students of “Native Presence and Performance: Reclaiming the Indigenous Narrative,” a first-year seminar offered by Middlebury College. After the meeting, Longtoe Sheehan recommended the students interview and write about VAAA affiliated artists. This blog post is one of a series that were created for that project, respectfully submitted by a student who self-identifies as non-Native.

Poitras Jones believes the United States government has not done nearly enough to heal the wounds it has inflicted upon Indigenous peoples. She “[does] not like a lot of what the United States government does,” but she uses her voice, through voting and through her craft, to “spread the word” about the Indigenous way of life. She asserts that if her people are to reach equity, it will be through their own resistance and initiative, not freely given. Whether the government acknowledges it or not, Francine knows that Turtle Island belongs to the people who were here before colonization. “It is still our land, even though it comes under a flag.” Calling it by its name, she affirms, “It is still our land. It is still Turtle Island.”[1][2]

Due to the length of this narrative, it is being introduced in three parts over a period of three weeks. This is the third and final part.

In 2014, Poitras Jones merged her craft with her identity and her ancestry by making her mother regalia to be worn at a powwow. The regalia, which was made with calico, included a belt, purse, head band, and moccasins. With great pleasure and gratification, Francine recalls the event:

“My mother got to wear the regalia I made her to her first and only powwow, and she got to get out into the circle and dance. It was difficult. My brother held her on one side, and I held her on the other. She wept.” This meant a lot to her because “she was able to show the world who she was. She couldn’t do that before.” On the day she “leaves us,” Francine’s mother will wear the regalia Francine made her.[3]

Another piece that is particularly meaningful for Francine is the “18th Century Abenaki Couple.” Francine was asked by Vera Longtoe Sheehan, the director of the Vermont Abenaki Artists Association (VAAA) to portray a precise portrait of what an Abenaki couple would have worn at that time. Francine spent a tremendous amount of time preparing for the piece in order to get it just right. Historical accuracy is important to the VAAA because the experiences and cultures of their people have so often been suppressed. In making this painting, Francine says she fills the need for a “historically accurate picture that can be used [by the VAAA] for education without permission [from anyone]. That is [Abenaki].”[4] After completing the painting, Francine added her signature touch of incorporating natural elements by making a birch twig frame. In July of 2019, the painting was displayed in Senator Bernie Sanders’ office.[5]21 Though Francine did not get paid in money for her artwork, she feels compensated in other ways. She says, “I am grateful that I was the one chosen to do this painting.”

Brightly colored acrylic painting of an Abenaki man and woman standing outdoors, near a river,amd they are wearing historical Abenaki clothing. They are both wearing peaked hoods, white linen shirts are white linen ,and their bottoms are blue and red wool.
Francine Poitras Jones. “18th-Century Abenaki Couple.” 2017. Acrylic on canvas framed with bunched of birch twigs, and hanging feathers.

“Art is a reminder of something,” she continues. “It is more meaningful than just what it physically is.”[6]

            Francine Poitras Jones’ craft is so much more than just what it physically is. More than the paints, the leather, and the birch bark, her art is a message. It is an expression of herself and her people, their past… It is a form of survival and resistance. It is a method of teaching, of sharing, and of inspiring curiosity and passion in others. Like mixing colors on a paint palette, each creative project Francine Poitras Jones undertakes blends together to represent what she is here to do: unite, connect, and share her story to create meaningful change for her people and the world at large.

Bibliography

Poitras Jones, Francine. “Handmade Handcrafted Native American-Made Items by BlueWolfCrafts.” Etsy, 26 Mar. 2021.

Poitras Jones, Francine. Personal Interview. March 2021.

“Sen. Bernie Sanders Exhibits Abenaki Art in Office.” Abenakiart.org, Vermont Abenaki Artists Association, 27 July 2019.

Tuhiwai Smith, Linda. “Chapter 8: Twenty-Five Indigenous Projects.” Decolonizing Methodologies: Research and Indigenous Peoples Zed, 2012, pp. 143–163.


[1] According to Tuhiwai Smith, calling places, people, and ideas by their Indigenous names is a key project of survival and resistance for Indigenous peoples (157). Francine exemplifies this project by calling this part of the world by its Indigenous name, “Turtle Island”.

[2] Poitras Jones Interview.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] “Sen. Bernie Sanders Exhibits Abenaki Art in Office .” Abenakiart.org, (Vermont Abenaki Artists Association, 27 July 2019).

[6] Poitras Jones Interview.

Teaching Through Art Creation: An Interview with Francine Poitras Jones – Part 2

Image of beaded moccasins and peaked cap.

By Faith Wood. Middlebury College. Class of 2024
Native Presence and Performance (First Year Seminar Course)

In spring 2021, Vera Longtoe Sheehan (Elnu Abenaki) met with the students of “Native Presence and Performance: Reclaiming the Indigenous Narrative,” a first-year seminar offered by Middlebury College. After the meeting, Longtoe Sheehan recommended the students interview and write about VAAA affiliated artists. This blog post is one of a series that were created for that project, respectfully submitted by a student who self-identifies as non-Native.

Due to the length of this narrative, it is being introduced in three parts over a period of three weeks. This is the second part.

Though so much of Francine Poitras Jones’s life is centered around building the bridge between these worlds through the sharing of her time, talents, and passions, she acknowledges that there are certain traditions and items that are so important to her and her people that they cannot and should not be commodified. One such item is the eagle feather. “Eagle feathers,” she explains, “are only meant to be given, not bought. The eagles fly higher than any other bird that I know of, and because eagles fly high, the eagle is closer to Creator. By lifting the eagle feather when you are in prayer, you are asking the eagle to take your prayers to Creator.”[1]  In keeping certain traditions within the community, Indigenous communities like Francine’s pass on their living heritage. When a community has had to endure much struggle to even be here today, passing on its sacred practices becomes all the more infused with meaning and power.

Though painful, the struggle Indigenous populations have had (and still have) to overcome is not something to be forgotten. According to Tuhiwai Smith, remembering the harm done to their ancestors can be a very distressing process, but it is one that can lead to both healing and transformation.[2] Poitras Jones’ family came to Massachusetts from Canada during a time of mass genocide and forced sterilization of Indigenous peoples. She says she will “never forget” the story her mother told her of the time when she asked her aunt if she was Indian, and her aunt screamed, “Don’t you ever use the word ‘Indian’ again!”[3] Her mother’s aunt reacted like this not out of allegiance to her French ancestry, but out of fear of being found out; being openly Native American at that time would likely put them in danger of becoming victims of genocide.

When she became an adult, Francine sought out the truth of her past. Though she “knew she had Native American blood,” she knew very little about her ancestry.[4] After seeing her own name, Poitras, in an Indigenous display at the Glenbow Museum in Calgary, Alberta, Francine started on her 20-year journey of uncovering her family’s history. She scoured through library archives and examined article after article, eventually being able to piece together the story of her family. Proving her lineage “meant everything” to her. She could truly be open with who she was. She could be connected with her relatives in a way many of her ancestors could not.[5]


[1] Poitras Jones Interview.

[2] Tuhiwai Smith, 146.

[3] Poitras Jones Interview.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

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