Nebizun: Water is Life

Written by Kelly Holt. First published in Art New England Magazine. June 1, 2023.

Nebizun: Water is Life, is a “living, breathing exhibition,” curated by Vera Longtoe Sheehan, founder of the Abenaki Art Association. The exhibition brings together artists from four recognized tribes from the Champlain Valley and the Connecticut River Valley for its fourth stop on a two-year tour. Nebizun (Abenaki for medicine, whose root nebi means water) metamorphosizes in each curatorial iteration. A vital part of Abenaki art and culture is stewardship of the land, N’Dakinna (our homeland). Explains Sheehan, “The Abenaki people know how essential water is to foodways, medicine, and everyday activities that may be taken for granted.”

Many works are influenced by activist elders. Nebizun is inspired by Grandmother Doreen Bernard’s ‘water walk’ from Nova Scotia to Maine to pray for an abundance of water. Another inspiration is the Standing Rock crisis and art activism by Grandmother Willi Nolan: “Our waters are our highways.” Only Native American people were at Standing Rock—the word was spread via social media. No Pipelines, a drawing by artist JES, was created to share through those channels. Francine Poitras Jones’ Water is Life painting is a direct expression of this protest, “…it was my reality…the painting flowed from me, much like the water that sustains life.”

The exhibition takes visitors through several watershed topics while mirroring Abenaki making and way of life. Traversing a long space, each stop works like a tributary. The exhibition is peppered with water facts that will make you pause the next time you make a cup of coffee, and more. Another tributary begins with images of creation and Standing Rock, then flows into the importance of wetlands as protectors highlighting duck-decoys made from cattails, netmaking, fishing implements and birch, a vital material in canoe making and creating “biting patterns” in pieces of art. At one end of the space is an arresting photo of ancestral rock carvings—petroglyphs of the faces in Bellows Falls, VT. The installation continues with beading and pottery, and concludes with detailed maps, calls to activism, and digital paintings Across the River by Hawk Schulmeisters that evoke pollution in water.

Speaker Series Shares Indigenous and Scientific Views of American Abenaki Heritage

In February and March, Vermont Abenaki Artists Association (VAAA) is pleased to present the 2023 Two-Eyed Seeing Speaker Series. The term “Two-Eyed seeing,” coined by Mi’kmaw Nation Elder Albert Marshall, describes the experience of seeing the strength of Indigenous knowledge with one eye and the strength of Western knowledge with the other. Series speakers will share perspectives on community relationships to regional waterways, including archaeology, ecology, advocacy, Western and Indigenous science, and more. Admission is free, and donations are welcome.

Image of Vermont Humanities logo.

All programs in the Two-Eyed Seeing Speaker Series are presented on Zoom, thanks to support from the Vermont Humanities and Vermont Arts Council.

Image of Vermont Arts Council logo.

February 21, 7pm. Frederick M. Wiseman, Ph. D. presented Heritage Forensics: Rethinking Indigenous Ways of Knowing in an Increasingly Dangerous World. Since the 1990s, Indigenous research has moved toward awareness of many different truths, each depending on one’s cultural or political perspective. “Politicized rewriting of Native history poses a distinct threat to such emerging Indigenous ways of exploring the world,” says Dr. Wiseman. “Indigenous and scientific ways of knowing can work together to preserve a legitimate American Abenaki biocultural history and worldview.”
Registration Closed

Image of ancestral American Abenaki beadwork from Waterville, Vermont, created about 1845, was identified by Dr. Wiseman. Vermont Indigenous Heritage Center Collection

Image: This ancestral American Abenaki beadwork from Waterville, Vermont, created about 1845, was identified by Dr. Wiseman. Vermont Indigenous Heritage Center Collection

March 7, 7pm. A Deep Presence and a More Inclusive History. Rep. Sherry Gould (Nulhegan Abenaki), member of the New Hampshire House of Representatives, and Dr. Robert Goodby of Monadnock Archaeological Consulting are long-time friends and collaborators. As charter members of the New Hampshire Commission on Native American Affairs, Sherry served as Chair and Bob was the representative appointed by the New Hampshire Division of Historical Resources. Their work together includes educational projects funded by the New Hampshire Charitable Foundation and the Abenaki Trails Project that seeks to honor and share a more inclusive history of the Abenaki people and to highlight historical Abenaki sites. Registration closed

Image of Sherry Gould.
Rep. Sherry Gould (Nulhegan Abenaki Tribe)  
Image of Dr. Robert Goodby.
Dr. Robert G. Goodby

March 22, 7pm. Kwanitekw (Connecticut River): The Sustainer of Life. In honor of World Water Day, a panel of Indigenous citizens and environmental scientists share multiple perspectives on living in relationship with the Connecticut River watershed. Panelists include Darlene Kascak (Schaghticoke Tribal Nation) Education Director of the Institute for American Indian Studies (IAIS) and Traditional Native American Storyteller; Vera Sheehan (Elnu Abenaki Tribe) and Director of the Vermont Abenaki Artists Association and Abenaki Arts & Education Center; Kathy Urffer, River Steward with the Connecticut River Conservancy; and Matt Devine, Fisheries Biologist with the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection. Gabriel Benjamin, Public Historian and IAIS Museum Educator serves as Moderator. Register in advance for this meeting:

Image of Vera Longtoe Sheehan with denim Tolba jacket.

Most recently, Vera Longtoe Sheehan (Elnu Abenaki Tribe) curated the exhibit Nebizun: Water is Life, which is touring New England 2022-2024.

Image of , Darlene Kascak (Schaghticoke Tribal Nation).

As a traditional Native American storyteller, Darlene Kascak (Schaghticoke Tribal Nation) understands the importance of educating both young and old about the many misconceptions and stereotypes about her ancestors, providing children and adults the opportunity to have a new understanding of Connecticut’s Indigenous Peoples both in the past and in the present.

Image of Matt Devine is a Fisheries Biologist with the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection.

Matt Devine is a Fisheries Biologist with the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection.

As a River Steward, Kathy Urffer works to protect and restore the Connecticut River and its tributaries. She enjoys re-learning about the natural world through the eyes of her two children.

Image of Vermont Humanities logo.

VAAA is grateful for the support for this Speaker Series from the Vermont Humanities. Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed do not necessarily represent those of the Vermont Humanities.

Program partners for the Two-Eyed Seeing Speaker Series include Abenaki Arts and Education Center (AAEC), Abenaki Trails Project, the Connecticut River Conservancy, the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection (CDEEP), Institute for American Indian Studies (IAIS), and Monadnock Archaeological Consulting LLC.

Image of small dark blue AAEC logo.
Image of Abenaki Trails logo.
Image of American Indian Studies logo.
Image of Connecticut River Conservancy logo.
Image of CT Department of Energy and Environmental Protection logo.
Image of Monadnock Archealogical Consulting logo.
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