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.
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.