Abenaki Organizations

The four state-recognized tribes of Vermont are very active. It is important to note that, though the tribes are recognized in Vermont, our land was not divided by borders. We, the Abenaki, call our homeland N’dakinna. The citizens of the four tribes do not live in only Vermont – they live in many places throughout N’dakinna, such as New Hampshire, Maine, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, and New York. Some of the People even live in states other than the northeast. So, you will find that some of the organizations listed below are far-reaching. 

Over the next several weeks, we will be sharing the links to various organizations that you may find of interest. Please take some time and click on the links to learn more about each of these organizations. We have put a description for each organization to help you identify whether they may meet some of your needs or interests. 

Abenaki Arts & Education Center

The Abenaki Arts & Education Center (AAEC) was created because Abenaki history and culture are not included in the regional curriculum, it is difficult for teachers to find Abenaki educators and authentic curriculum resources. In addition to the free resources listed on this website, they also offer many educational programs, and a YouTube channel with videos. Following is the mission of the AAEC:

“Our mission is to support American Abenaki sovereignty through education and sharing Abenaki history and cultural resources with people of all ages so Abenaki living culture can be taught across N’Dakinna (our homeland).”

Amy Hook Therrien – Acclaimed Abenaki Watercolor Artist – Part 1

Image of magazine cover with Amy Hook-Therrien

Sylvan Linck ‘24.5 – Middlebury College

FYSE 1570: Native Presence and Performance – 13 May 2021

Due to the length of this narrative, it will be introduced in two parts over a period of two weeks. This is part one.

Amy Hook Therrien is a local artist who specializes in watercolor painting and is a citizen of the Koasek Traditional Band of the Koas Abenaki Nation. Therrien grew up with her family in Chelsea, Vermont in a house overlooking the valley, and surrounded by nature. She graduated from Randolph Union High School and, with the support and encouragement of her parents, attended the University of Maine in Orono to study art. She considers herself very lucky to have such a supportive relationship with her family. While at the University of Maine in Orono she majored in fine art and specialized in painting and sculpture. Therrien moved back to Vermont after graduation, and is living in Windsor with her husband Alex, along with their bunny and two dogs. When she isn’t creating art, she loves spending time with family, traveling, and getting outside to do activities such as hiking and gardening. She is also a Traditional Abenaki singer, and for a time participated in an Abenaki singing group. 

Therrien often starts her paintings by drawing lines and details with pen and then going over those drawings with watercolor. When first beginning to incorporate watercolor into her work, the fluidity and uncontrollability of the medium made her nervous. However, with time and practice, she “learned to love the uncontrollable chaos” of it. She often purposefully mixes her paint loosely to allow the paint to separate in a way that creates a more exciting and realistic texture. Therrien believes that “painting in nature is always exciting,” and loves painting things that she finds outdoors. She is passionate about exploring that excitement, and enjoys painting natural things such as landscapes, flowers, leaves, waterfalls, stones, and is “obsessed” with painting birch trees, which she really loves. 

Therrien sometimes enjoys going on walks or hikes either by herself or with family to find inspiration for her paintings. When experiencing some trouble thinking of the next project idea, she enjoys painting leaves. Painting leaves is a way to continue creating while possibly helping to inspire a new project idea. When the objects she is painting are small enough, like leaves, she often brings them back to her studio to paint there. While painting outside sounds romantic and lovely, logistically it is quite difficult, and she prefers to work in her studio. When the subject of her painting cannot be brought into her studio, she often takes pictures of it and brings those back to her studio to work with. 

When choosing what to paint in nature she rarely picks the “perfect” leaf, tree, or other subject. She finds great value in painting “imperfect” subjects, such as a cracked up dead leaf or a flower that is missing a petal. Nothing in nature is perfect, and nothing looks exactly the same. Painting things in nature and painting them realistically and “imperfectly” allows for more freedom in her painting style and her paintings. She believes that “you can fall in love with the imperfect.”  One of Therrien’s pieces titled Aerial View of N’dakinna, appears in a Study Guide that the Vermont Abenaki Artist Association created to educate people about the Abenaki and their dress throughout time. The painting of N’dakinna, meaning homeland, is placed next to a geopolitical map of the same area. The painting contains no place names or borders and shows the very “different perspective that the Native people have of the land.” It is a drastic visual shift from the geopolitical map next to it, and it sometimes takes longer for people to recognize the area when portrayed in this way. Therrien herself says that “I know if I hadn’t painted it would take me a little while to place it.”  Her piece challenges European dominated thinking and inspires a new perspective more inclusive of Native people.

Melody (Walker Brook) Mackin: Weaving Core Values Through Time – Part 2

Image of Melody Walker with hand drum.

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 two parts over a period of two weeks. This is part two.

Annabelle Wyman 24.5 – Middlebury College

Native Presence and Performance – 1 June 2021

Melody also uses cultural weaving to move forward from the injustices of the past. When I asked her about the Abenaki history with colonization, she shared the advice of her Chief, Roger Longtoe Sheehan, on rebuilding traditions through the analogy of a broken puzzle. Their community is still trying to piece the puzzle together today, but the painting is different so you can never piece the original one together. However, the ancestors knew that life was going to change, so it is okay for the picture to change, because some traditions no longer fit into the current native culture. Melody thinks that the important thing to ask is “what do ancestors want me to bring forward and what do I want to bring forward?” She believes that through cultural weaving, she can help bring forward the core values of her ancestors. When we discussed the finger weaving tradition and its value, she explained that she does not think art is the most important part of her culture and heritage. The best aspects of Abenaki culture cannot be dug up at an archaeological site and returned to its Native owners. It is more important to understand the way the ancestors walked in the world and how they worked to make it better. With the help of her Chief, she began to ask herself whether it was more important to honor the material culture or the lessons the ancestors left with you and the fact that you survived. This is another one of Tuhiwai Smith’s indigenous projects in action. Survivance is achieved by Native cultures through teaching and storytelling. Celebrating survival is used to help bring forward indigenous values to the future. Melody celebrates the survival of her culture and uses cultural weaving to pass on the weaving tradition and most importantly, the core values of her ancestors. 

As we began to end our conversation, I asked Melody what she is currently working towards, and she told me about land activism. She explained that one of the most important parts of Abenaki identity is land — N’Dakinna — as it is central to who they are. Without a reservation or land that is designated for Abenaki use, fully reconnecting with her heritage can at times be difficult. Nevertheless, the Abenaki have been on this land for 10,000 years and will be here for another 10,000 years. They are the original inhabitants of this land and know how to take care of it. Their community works very hard to protect spiritual sites and to fight developers who are trying to build on them. The goal of land rights activism is less about having land returned to the Abenaki, and more about protecting it from industrial uses and educating people about how to care for land. Land activism is one of Melody’s ways of envisioning a better future for her community, and more importantly the whole country, as the treatment of land is so important for our survival. Her fight is now about being heard by legislators, particularly in Vermont, and convincing people with power to listen to the wisdom of the Native community. But it is not just a fight for Abenaki people; those of us whose settler-colonist ancestors refused to listen also need to help create a space for Native people to be heard. 

Melody (Walker Brook) Mackin is a truly influential and devoted member of the Elnu Abenaki Tribe who uses her work as an educator and activist to protect the land which holds spiritual significance for her people. Above all, she is a cultural weaver who works to bring the core values of her ancestors forward to the next generations and teach others about the value of Abenaki culture. I am incredibly honored to have interviewed her, and I will carry the wisdom she imparted upon me by using my power as a non-native member of the Vermont community to help elevate Native voices like hers. 

Bibliography: 

Brook, Melody Walker. Interview by Annabelle Wyman. March 21, 2021.

Brook, Melody Walker. Weaving a Thread through the 7 Generations, TEDxStowe, 

2018. YouTube, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vFSRiQ2h6NY&t=60s.

Tuhiwai Smith, Linda. “Twenty-five Indigenous Projects.” Decolonizing Methodologies: 

Research and Indigenous Peoples, Zed Books, 2012, pp. 143-164.

Vermont Abenaki Artist Association. Melody Mackin: Elnu Abenaki Tribe. 

Melody (Walker Brook) Mackin: Weaving Core Values Through Time – Part 1

Image of Melody Walker with hand drum.

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 two parts over a period of two weeks. This is part one.

Annabelle Wyman 24.5 – Middlebury College

Native Presence and Performance – 1 June 2021

Melody Mackin is a wonderful finger weaver, diligent activist, ardent educator, and devoted member of the Elnu Abenaki Tribe. In March of 2021, I had the privilege of speaking with her about this work and what she believes are the important aspects of Abenaki culture and history. Melody was taught to weave by two of her community members, Linda Longtoe Sheehan and Rose Hartwell, both of whom provided her with information on different facets of weaving. She explains that Linda taught her about the value of deliberate, slow, and methodical work while Rose taught her the intricacies of the craft and helped Melody to develop her own style of finger weaving. In the Abenaki community, finger weaving is deeply interwoven with the personality of the artist. The artist who creates the project incorporates their own techniques and methods to the process that bring their own style to the piece. Weaving has not changed much over the thousands of years it has been in existence, and members of the Abenaki community continue the tradition by using the same patterns, techniques, and materials as their ancestors to create a nearly identical product. However, the projects that are completed today are often very different than the ones of the past. Many products that were originally needed are not necessary today. Instead of ceremonial sashes, modern weavers have created pieces such as cell phone cases; beautifully connecting modern needs with traditional practices. 

When Melody first began learning, there were only a limited number of finger weavers left in the community. She used her new skills to teach others in her family and the community, which then helped the number of weavers to multiply. She also took the time to teach non-native people from outside of her community in schools and at gatherings (most notably the Affirming Traditions Conference) in an effort to raise awareness about indigenous art forms. As Melody began to teach weaving to other members of her community, she came to a realization: her students were creating amazing products their first or second time weaving. She explains that her ancestors showed her that she was meant to be a teacher and should use her skills to educate others about the Abenaki community. 

In her book Decolonizing Methodologies, Linda Tuhiwai Smith introduces twenty-five indigenous projects that serve to help Native communities in their attempts to conduct research and renew their tribal identities and culture. She explains that Protecting is a project used to ensure the continuation of oral and cultural tradition. Melody exemplifies this project by using her knowledge and passion for teaching to share her skills with her community and thus protect the art of finger weaving from extinction. As she began to explore her passion for teaching further, Melody worked at Johnson State College where she taught Abenaki history, culture, and spirituality, and Native American history and culture. After Johnson State College, she taught a class called “Making Connections” at Champlain College. This class was about bringing a community together and building cohesive relationships; which is the ideology that shapes Melody’s current work as an educator and mentor in the Abenaki community. Then she went on to Northern Virginia Community College to teach history of western civilization and U.S. history. Melody also gave a wonderful TedTalk entitled, “Weaving a Thread Through the 7 Generations” in which she explains her process of cultural weaving. Cultural weaving is a way to reconnect with the past in order to move through the world in a way that respects your ancestors from the past and in the future. It is done by bringing the core values of the community –– seeing the spirit in all things and understanding one’s role in the community of creation –– into daily life and using them to make decisions in the present for the seven generations. The seven generations that the Abenaki community focuses on are the generations that you can live with, from your great-grandparents to your great-grandchildren. With every decision Melody makes, she works to honor the past, present, and future of her community. Unlike western civilization, the Abenaki community does not focus on the individual, it focuses on everyone, including the ancestors. Melody explained to me that walking in your ancestors’ shoes is a beautiful exercise that helps with this practice. She says that “the whole point of the seven generations is to understand where you’ve been to understand where you need to go.” This is a beautiful practice that could deeply change the culture of the U.S. In fact, Melody contends that if everyone made decisions based upon respect for their ancestors in the past and present, the world would be a much better place.

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 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.

THE HISTORIC INDIGENOUS ARTS OF VERMONT and NEW HAMPSHIRE

Frederick M Wiseman

Introduction

When we think of indigenous American craft arts, we immediately think of Navajo rugs and Tahono o’odam (Papago) basketry.  Or perhaps the woodcarvings of the Northwest Coast of North America.  Possibly one of the least recognized historical Native American crafts regions of North America is the Far Northeast, only a few books will mention baskets made by Maine or Canadian Maritime tribes.  However, Vermont and New Hampshire have a vibrant but little known artistic tradition stretching back over 10,000 years.  The oldest artistic works are made of stone, chipped or ground into beautiful but useful tools such as the clean, almost Art Deco- looking lines of Vermont Middle Archaic Period gouges, the tight design of Late Archaic lapidary jewelry, or the evocative rock-carved human face petroglyphs at Bellows Falls.  However, except for stone, and a few pieces of shell, there is little that remains, underground of this rich artistic tradition.  During the So-Called Colonial Era (1609-ca. 1800) the Indigenous Arts of our region are still little understood and seem to resemble those of neighboring tribes.  There are occasional pieces of 18th century quillwork-decorated leather craft or twined basketry residing in museums and private collections illustrating the precise work and artistic flair of the People.  Unfortunately, they are so similar to items made by our Penobscot, Huron and Iroquois neighbors that there has been little effort by art historians to find out what is specific to our region.

Below, are a few examples of older art traditions that have good ties to the VT/NH region and its immediate environs of southern Quebec.  These show a careful choice of material, excellent plotting out the eventual form, and meticulous care in decoration — evidence of a well developed craft tradition that its practitioners were very comfortable with.  Many of our 19th and early 20th-century craft arts seem to have its closest ties to the great multiethnic Indian Village of Kahnawake, south of Montreal, but other traditions especially basketry shows early artistic similarity to Southern New England, while cloth seems more similar to our Wabanaki brethren, showing that our area was a great crossroads of artistic ideas flowing throughout the region.

 Wood-craft

 Root club, stylistically similar to the Newport, VT example; early 20th century.

Most Indigenous Vermont and New Hampshire wood craft is very utilitarian, and probably would not be classed as fine or decorative art.  However, some particular forms, such as crooked knives and root clubs have become accepted as valuable craft arts by art historians and critics.  We do see nice examples of these tools that have come from our area, but have a distinct stylistic look.  Root clubs, for example, did not seem to be made and sold in Vermont as tourist items, although very similar looking ones were sold for that purpose at Kahnawake.  These root clubs tend to be carved relatively simply with minimal decoration, usually of fine ink or watercolor delineating bird-like beaks and eyes, rather than the fine carved detailing and painted design demanded by tourist buyers. Instead, we have a documented example that seemed to be used in healing, and another that was used to keep order within a family, indicating that they remained, at least in part, internal cultural implements.

Well designed crooked Knife.  Birch Handle, ground-file blade and brass wire wrap. 19th century East side Lake Memphramagog. 

Another well-designed and executed wooden implement is the crooked knife (often called “basket-knife” in VT).  These distinctive native-design tools seem as rare as root clubs and are almost always entirely utilitarian.  However, one crooked knife with a provenance just north of the Canadian Border in the Southern Eastern Townships of Quebec is finely crafted with beautiful incised and filled detail on the obverse and an artistically sweeping rake to the blade; thereby making a classic pieces of Northeastern Native art.  (Photo to the right)

Twig decoy,
Early 20th century, Fitch Bay
(east of Lake Memphremogog), QC.

In the last 50 years or so decoys have emerged as a great vernacular art tradition, with many fetching many thousands of dollars at auction.  Although there are Vermont decoy carvers with Indigenous heritage their creations are not considered “Indian Art.”  However, a composite twig decoy from the same area as the crooked knife is so similar to the Cree “Tamarack Twig” decoys accepted as legitimate Indian Art that we will list it here.  This is a goose “shadow decoy” constructed of black or river birch twigs and bound with cotton twine.  A Nulhegan band elder remembered their use in middle 20th century cornfields around Lake Memphramagog to attract Canada geese to the shotgun.  When viewed from a distance, the decoy has a wonderful flowing stance, and as the elder said “looks like a goose to another goose..  (Photo to the right)

These few items are only an introduction to the richness of historic Indigenous woodcraft of our region.  Old bowls, spoons, wall-hangings, cups, walking staffs and even furniture remain to this day to grace museums and collections.

Fashion design

Woman’s cotton twill dress and red cloth sash. ca. 1900
Connecticut River Valley, VT.

Since the 1970’s, beaded clothing and fashion accessories of our neighbors to the East have become some of the most collected and valuable of any Native American art.  Fortunately, our regional styles have not seen such interest or even study by elite art collectors, and so the materials are still somewhat available and collectable by Indigenous museums and cultural organizations.  I find that some of the late 19th and early 20th century clothing used by basketsellers especially interesting.  It combines European materials such as cloth and ribbons with indigenous motifs to make a distinctive, but underappreciated fashion that I call “cut-cloth Fringe’ style.  We have several examples of this style from the Connecticut River Valley and Lake Champlain which seem to date from the 1890’s to about the beginning of the Great Depression.  The example that I share here is made from a tan twilled cotton with patchwork and ribbon-work detail below the neck and above the hem.  It is sturdy and technically well made, so much so that it is still worn for educational purposes.  (Photo to the right)

Of course everyone wants to know about “Abenaki Beadwork,” and unfortunately, pre-1900 Indigenous Vermont/New Hampshire beaded cloth is the most elusive craft art that remains today.  There is one late 18th/early 19th century beaded moccasin vamp or epaulet that was found in NW Vermont that is in a generalized style that may or may not be Vermont Abenaki, but was at least used here at one point. (Photo below).

Beaded wool panel, Trade wool, silk ribbon, glass beads.Early 19th century, found in Swanton, VT.
Flat Bag with beadwork. Velvet, cotton liner, glass beads. Mid or late 19th century, probably Abenaki.

Probably a more characteristic style is the mid 19th century “flat bag” or reticule described below.  It has a form related to the typical “tulip” or “inverted keyhole” bag sold by the Eastern Wabanaki people of New Brunswick and Nova Scotia.  However, the beadwork itself is distinctive and unlike that of the standard Wabanaki to the East, or the Iroquois styles to the west.  Unfortunately, it has not yet attracted interest of collectors, museums and academics, so it is uncertain exactly whether this is a “Montreal Area,” “Eastern Townships (Quebec) area,” “Vermont area” “or “New Hampshire area” style; or all of the above.  However, I believe that it represents the best candidate style for having been produced here in the mid 19th century. (Photo to the right)

Basketry

Early 19th century ash-splint Basket.  Vernon, VT. 

The one craft art likely to show up in VT/NH antique shops is ash-splint basketry, and there are many styles and types.  I will illustrate two of the older more utilitarian types that were made before the ubiquitous “sweetgrass” and “cowiss” touristic souvenir baskets that are so common today.  Ash splint basket making in VT/NH basically went extinct in the 1930’s.  Baskets after that time seem to be made by expatriate basket sellers from Canada or Maine who sold tourist goods in places such as the White Mountains Intervale or the shores of Lake Champlain. (Photo to the right)

Turn of the 2Oth century ash-splint basket.

The first early type is from the 1830’s and is more closely related to southern New England basketry, in its “varying splint” construction and the use of stamping and or painting on the wide splints as decoration.  it was probably used like a bandbox, for the storage of lightweight household and fashion goods such as yarn or hats.  The second basket, probably from the third quarter of the 19th century, still retains the varying splints, but now shows direct influence of basketry evolution to the East, in its checkerboard (rectangular) base and the treatment of the radiating splints on the lid.  Instead of being stamped, the wider splints are “daub-dyed” or pigment painted only on the outside before weaving the basket.  The later, turn of the 20th century dyed ash splints are dipped in dye and thus show the color both inside and out.  Both of these early basket styles are relatively uncommon in VT/NH and even less common with a good provenance placing them here in the 19th century.  (Photo to the right)

brown horsehair foundation and black hair ties left, and black horsehair and white hair ties, right.
Probably early 20th century. St Albans, VT.

Another important basket type is the coiled basket.  Even more elusive than early beadwork, coiled basketry is only known from two areas in the Northeast, the Passamaquoddies and a single family in Northwestern VT.  These are tiny items, made from carefully selected and prepared horse-hair, similar to the much more well known Thono O’odam tourist wares.  As with most local wares, there is no historical interest in these beautiful tiny baskets, and we await the continuation of this tradition by young members of the VT basket making family.

A note to our visitors

This website has updated its privacy policy in compliance with changes to European Union data protection law, for all members globally. We’ve also updated our Privacy Policy to give you more information about your rights and responsibilities with respect to your privacy and personal information. Please read this to review the updates about which cookies we use and what information we collect on our site. By continuing to use this site, you are agreeing to our updated privacy policy.