Burlington, VT – After months of conversations and a lot of advice from Abenaki community members, the Vermont Abenaki Artists Association (VAAA) has announced a new arts project aimed at helping the community process their COVID-19 experiences. The Abenaki Storytelling Project is a community-based arts and storytelling project that focuses on Native American strength and resiliency.
The Vermont Abenaki Artists Association is a Native American arts organization that works to connect Vermont communities to Abenaki educators and artists from the visual, performing, and literary arts. VAAA has special expertise in working with Abenaki artists and incorporating their arts and storytelling into public programs, cultural events, and museum exhibitions.
“Like so many others, the Abenaki community has been greatly affected by the global pandemic,” says VAAA Executive Director Vera Longtoe Sheehan. “We developed this storytelling project to explore this recent period of our collective history in a way that hasn’t been done before.”
Sheehan says the VAAA uses insights from Native American arts and storytelling to uplift Indigenous peoples’ voices and perspectives. “This project is a unique way for the Abenaki people to process, interpret, and share their own experience about the pandemic and vaccinations,” said Sheehan. “By personalizing the health disparities rooted in historical and social injustices, we are amplifying the voices of the Indigenous peoples in calling for a culture of health equity.”
The 2022-2024 Storytelling Project was inspired by the VAAA’s work with the state early in the pandemic to get PPE (personal protective equipment) items like face masks, disposable gloves, and hand sanitizer for Abenaki artists and Elders. Sheehan said that led to a partnership with the Department of Health to address circumstances that were unique to the Abenaki community. This included a cooperative effort to address vaccination hesitancy among the Abenaki community that was based, in part, on health disparities driven by a history of prejudice and discrimination. The partnership born of months of relationship building through discussions and working together to distribute over 760 Covid-19 Antigen Test Kits, contributed to the development of the Storytelling Project.
Ruth Steinmetz, a Department of Health communication officer who focuses on health equity said achieving health equity and reducing health disparities a top state priority. “Key to reducing persistent negative health outcomes is building trust-based community partnerships,” said Steinmetz. “The Storytelling Project is an important opportunity for us to gain more understanding of the experiences of Indigenous communities in culturally affirming ways. This project can help us to support the health and wellbeing of the Abenaki community more effectively.”
VAAA’s trained facilitators will begin collecting Native American stories and artwork at the Abenaki Heritage Weekend on June 18-19 at the Lake Champlain Maritime Museum in Vergennes, Vermont. The artwork and stories will inform an online digital exhibition and a traveling museum exhibition.
Abenaki artists will set up a Memory Booth where families can share their stories and artwork at the Heritage event. Memory Booth participants will receive an Abenaki Artists Association t-shirt and can mark the occasion with a photo taken on site. “It’s important for people to see themselves and their communities reflected in exhibitions,” Sheehan said.
Additional opportunities to participate in the project through focus groups and extended one-on-one storytelling sessions will be announced on the Vermont Abenaki Artists Association’s website and Facebook page