Abenaki History

Published with permission from the Brattleboro Historical Society.

Image of historic French depiction of Abenaki Couple from the 18th Century.
Historic French depiction of Abenaki Couple from the 18th Century

In 1828 the Brattleboro publishing company of Holbrook and Fessenden produced “A History of Vermont: From Its First Settlement to the Present Time.” It was one of the first books published in town that wrote about the Abenaki.
     When writing about the “native inhabitants” the author, Francis Eastman, wrote “not a vestige of them now remains-gradually the encroachments of the whites have pushed them farther and farther on” to the west and north of the United States and Canada.
     In many early histories of Vermont, Native Americans were hardly mentioned. A Vermont school book used from 1890 to 1925 starts this way, “Very few Indians lived in Vermont when white men first came here, though hunting parties and war parties often passed through, and sometimes a party would camp all summer in a good place.” You can see that early history books did not give Native Americans much claim to Vermont.
     However, in a current history book called “The Original Vermonters,” the University of Vermont authors state that there were thousands of Abenaki living in Vermont before Europeans arrived. The authors say Abenaki, and their ancestors, have lived in Vermont for 12,000 years. So, why the discrepancy between early history books and the books of today?
     Unfortunately, many Abenaki were killed by European disease. Many of those who survived the numerous illnesses were killed in warfare with the English. Those that survived warfare were forced to leave their land by the European settlers who desired the Abenaki land that had already been cleared and farmed by them for centuries. Some Abenaki chose to adopt European ways so they could remain in the newly forming towns in what was to become Vermont. Some Abenaki were forced to move to the remote corners of the state, away from European encroachment, in order to maintain their culture.
     European fishermen landed on the coast of New England 200 years before Fort Dummer was built and, at that time, death by foreign disease began to ravage the native population. When Fort Dummer was built in 1724 the Abenaki population in the Brattleboro area had already been reduced by 200 years of illness.
     Evidence of previous Abenaki presence in Brattleboro has been found everywhere. Native American burial grounds at the Retreat Meadows, along the Connecticut River near Cersosimos and in Downtown Brattleboro between High and Grove Streets…Abenaki village settlements along the West River in Dummerston, in Vernon along the Connecticut River, and in Guilford along Broad Brook…”Indian Rock” and the petroglyphs at the confluence of the Connecticut and West Rivers and the many Abenaki artifacts found in our region since the beginning of Brattleboro’s written history…all of this evidence points to a large Abenaki presence in Brattleboro’s past.
     History books of the last 50 years have said the Abenaki who lived in our area were known as the Sokoki. In the years leading up to the building of Fort Dummer many of the surviving Sokoki moved to the northeast shores of Lake Champlain in order to join with Abenaki from other parts of Vermont. Previously separate groups of Abenaki joined together in an effort to maintain their way of life as their settlements had been devastated by disease, trade pressures and war. The St. Francis-Sokoki band of Abenaki was formed in the early 1700’s from remnants of Brattleboro area Abenaki and the Abenaki of the Lake Champlain region.
     Unfortunately, beginning in the 1760’s, Vermont governments and courts systematically denied Abenaki claims to land they had occupied for thousands of years. It was not until 2006 that the Vermont government began the process of legally recognizing the Abenaki as the First People of Vermont. In 2012 Vermont formally recognized the four existing bands of Vermont Abenaki. In 2012, 3,200 Abenaki were in the four tribes, including descendants from the Brattleboro area Sokoki.

An Interview With Jim Taylor – Part 3

Image of Jim Taylor.

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 was introduced in three parts over a period of three weeks. This is Part Three.

Jim Taylor

By Tate Sutter ’24.5
Middlebury College

Native Presence and Performance

1 June 2021  

Image of quillwork by Jim Taylor.
Quillwork by Jim Taylor

On Turtle Island, museums’ histories and relations with Indigenous Americans are fraught with lies, disregard, and theft. Native works can often be found in auction houses and museums; many of these pieces were stolen or coerced from Indigenous peoples. Returning these works to Native peoples allows for proper interactions to take place between them. Wampum belts “are living and breathing.” They do not belong sealed away in museum archives. JT, who regularly checks auction house websites for Native art and traditional pieces, saw two Wampum belts listed on Sotheby’s, a New York based auction house. He sent an image of the belts to a friend who sent it to the Onondaga Nation of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy. The Onondaga “discovered that one of the belts… was stolen from them… by Frank Speck,” a twentieth- century anthropologist. The other belt, they identified as Abenaki. JT joined “a delegation of Abenaki and Haudenosaunee people [to New York City] … We petitioned them to basically give us back the belts and the lawyers for Sotheby’s said they couldn’t.” However, Sotheby’s did refuse to auction the belts. The family selling the belts had purchased them from the Museum of the American Indian which later became the National Museum of the American Indian (NMIA) at “an after dark art auction basically in the basement [of the Museum].” When requested to return the belts to the Abenaki and Haudenosaunee, the family refused. After twelve years of Native pressure, the family finally repatriated the belts to the Haudenosaunee. The Haudenosaunee returned the Abenaki belt to the Odanak Abenaki in Canada. The belt is now safe in the Odanak museum. A coordinated group effort proved necessary for the belts to be returned. JT’s discovery of the auction, and his participation in talks with Sotheby’s, contributed to the collective effort in returning these belts to Indigenous peoples. 

As a council member for the Elnu, JT works to improve the lives of his tribe’s members. Colonial governments often ignore Indigenous leadership or interact with it in patronizing manners. Representation of the Elnu by the Elnu rebuffs these actions. The southernmost recognized Abenaki tribe, the Elnu’s traditional territory ranges from present day Gill, Massachusetts, to near Putney, Vermont. Presently, there are around one hundred tribal members. Abenaki tribes practice differing forms of government. The Elnu choose two council members, a man and a woman, and a chief. Councilmembers do not run for election; however, they are selected by the community. JT spends much of his time working with tribe members; he helps them resolve issues. The Elnu are very communal people, and the pandemic has forced them to adapt. Since elders are key community members and great sources of knowledge, protecting elders has been the Elnu’s primary goal during the pandemic.  

The financial impact of Covid has been felt by Abenaki artists. Many Abenaki practice contemporary and traditional artforms. All across the Northeastern Woodlands, shows and gatherings have been canceled. Grants have helped offset some of the economic struggles that Abenaki artists have faced during the pandemic. However, it appears we are moving towards a time that communal events are possible once more. 

Jim Taylor fills many positions in his community. He creates spectacular quillwork, worked in a multinational effort for the repatriation of wampum belts, and serves his community as a councilmember. While much appears vague in this time of Covid-19, one can be assured that JT will continue creating, teaching, and serving his fellow Abenaki.  

Resources

Bruchac, Margaret M. “Broken Chains of Custody: Possessing, Dispossessing, and Repossessing Lost Wampum Belts.” Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society Held at Philadelphia for Promoting Useful Knowledge 162, no. 1 (March 2018): 56–105. https://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=mzh&AN=2018280437&site=e ed-live&scope=site. 

Jim Taylor interviewed by Tate Sutter, March 23, 2021. 

Longtoe Schulmeisters, Lee. “A Brief Introduction to Wampum,” Askawobi Productions, November 19, 2011, video, https://youtu.be/oSrWCkvOFa0. 

Longtoe Schulmeisters, Lina and Hawk Longtoe. “Abenaki Elders and Artists Struggle in
Face of State Reopening” abenakiart.org, Vermont Abenaki Artists Association, June 29, 2020, https://abenakiart.org/blog9/2020/06/29/abenaki-elders-and-artists-struggle-in- face-of-state-reopening/. 

Taylor, Jim, “Meet Native America: Jim Taylor, Elnu Abenaki Tribal Councilman and Elder.” By Dennis Zotigh. National Museum of the American Indian, April 29, 2016
Meet Native America: Jim Taylor, Elnu Abenaki Tribal Councilman and Elder, March 29, 2016. https://blog.nmai.si.edu/main/2016/04/meet-native-america-jim-taylor.html. 

Taylor, Jim. “Quillwork by Swift Fox.” Accessed March 31, 2021. http://quillwork_byswiftfox.tripod.com/index.html. 

Toensing, Gale Courey. “Sotheby’s Wampum Belts ‘a Drop in the Bucket’ of Sacred Items for Sale.” Indian Country Today. Accessed April 1, 2021. https://indiancountrytoday.com/archive/sothebys-wampum-belts-a-drop-in-the-bucket-of- sacred-items-for-sale. 

Tuhiwai Smith, Linda. Decolonizing Methodologies Research and Indigenous Peoples. London and New York: Zed Books, 1999. 

“Wampum.” Haudenosaunee Confederacy. Accessed March 31, 2021. https://www.haudenosauneeconfederacy.com/wampum/. 

“18th Century Living History Album.” Elnu Abenaki Tribe. Accessed March 31, 2021. http://elnuabenakitribe.org/18LivingHistoryPhotos.html.

An Interview with Jim Taylor – Part 2

Image of detail on bag by Jim Taylor.

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 will be introduced in three parts over a period of three weeks. This is Part Two.

Jim Taylor

By Tate Sutter ’24.5
Middlebury College

Native Presence and Performance

1 June 2021

 

Not limiting himself to a single art form, JT also creates wampum. Wampum belts and strands tell the stories and agreements of the Abenaki and other Eastern Woodland tribes, including the Haudenosaunee Confederacy. According to JT, “my community, the Elnu, we always strongly held to the [wampum laws and traditions.] We still to this day commemorate various events where a belt is woven to record that event.” Wampum forms part of Abenaki history and memory.

Long after I am gone and the other elders are gone, these strands will remain. And you know when we have a council meeting. When the community is there, the strands and the belts are brought out and the stories are recounted so… as you grow up you would see the belts, see these strands, and hear what each one represented and how it came to be. Wampum belts and strands “are living and breathing just like human beings.” Bringing the belts out during meetings and ceremonies nourishes the belts through interactions with the community. When the Elnu gained recognition from the State of Vermont, JT was asked to create wampum strands to record the Elnu’s constitution. JT feels that this is “my legacy to my people.”  

 

Wampum belts and strands “are living and breathing just like human beings.” Bringing the belts out during meetings and ceremonies nourishes the belts through interactions with the community. When the Elnu gained recognition from the State of Vermont, JT was asked to create wampum strands to record the Elnu’s constitution. JT feels that this is “my legacy to my people.”

JT makes wampum from whelk and quahog shells. White beads are made from whelk shells, and purple beads are made from quahog shells. Originally, coastal tribes traded wampum with the Abenaki. While not currency, wampum held value and could be used for trade. Since JT lives as a visitor on Narragansett and Wampanoag land, he never sells the wampum he makes there. He does sell his wampum in other places including on Abenaki land.

An interview with Jim taylor – Part 1

Image of Jim Taylor.

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 will be introduced in three parts over a period of three weeks. This is part one.

Jim Taylor

By Tate Sutter ’24.5
Middlebury College

1 June 2021 

Jim Taylor lives life honoring his Abenaki heritage. An accomplished artist, he creates beautiful Eastern Woodlands style quillwork: he made the wampum beads for the Elnu Abenaki tribe’s constitution stands. Participating in the Woodland Confederacy, a living history group, he reminds others that Abenaki people still live in N’Dakinna. A classically trained artist, Taylor designs insignias for organizations around Turtle Island. He represents and serves his fellow Elnu Abenaki as a council member. In her book Decolonizing Methodologies, Linda Tuhiwai Smith outlines twenty-five broad projects Indigenous people can perform to strengthen their cultures. Taylor, who goes by JT as well as Swift Fox, actively lives many of these projects. He supports his culture and people through artwork and representation.

Image of quillwork by Jim Taylor.
Quillwork by Jim Taylor

When Taylor learned quillwork, he had no teacher; very few people remembered the process of stitching quills. According to Taylor, “I had no one to teach me, so [I learned by] looking at various pieces.” He spent time researching quillwork pieces in museums and exhibits to see traditional quill stitches.

From these stitches, he used trial and error to learn quillwork. Soon after learning, Jean Heinbuch published her book A Quillwork Companion which helped further expand his quillwork knowledge. As Tuhiwai Smith discusses, revitalizing strengthens and fosters many facets of Indigenous cultures that are threatened. Over the years of making quillwork, JT has revitalized and become an expert in Northeastern Woodlands quillwork. 

JT uses quillwork on bags, neck knives, sheaths, Abenaki diadems, and many other objects. His designs incorporate numerous stitches and styles including line, plating, and zigzag, which he especially loves. They include significant symbols and colors like the Thunderbird, the double curves, and the four colors of man.  He creates custom pieces. While JT finds inspiration from other quillwork pieces, he never replicates works. Each work possesses its own power; replicas do not hold the individual power of a previous work. His work can be seen in museums and in people’s homes. Painters such as Robert Griffing have used his work in their paintings as models of Eastern Woodlands quillwork. JT believes in pricing his quillwork reasonably, so that regular people, not just wealthy collectors, can enjoy it.

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