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.

Water is Life Teach In

Bookmark for Water is Life Teach-in.
Bookmark for Water is Life Teach-in.

The Abenaki Arts & Education Center is excited to announce the Water is Life Abenaki Teach-In on March 25, in Vergennes, VT.

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In this all-day workshop, Abenaki Arts & Education Center educators will inspire teachers with interactive, media-rich content that links 12,000 years of Abenaki history with 21st-century civic engagement. Participants will pursue a deeper understanding of the region’s diversity through the voices of the American Abenaki people.

From Lake Champlain to the Connecticut River Valley, the life-bringing waters of N’Dakinna (Abenaki for “Our Homeland”) were our earliest highways for travel. The water itself is important to the plants, fish, animals, birds, and other wildlife that are necessary to our way of life.

Presenters will illustrate the Abenaki relationship to water, awareness of water as a fundamental element necessary for all life, and concern that pollution of water can change our traditional lifeways and the health of all our relations, human and animal.

Participants will investigate resources, interaction with Abenaki culture bearers, and be introduced to culturally responsive and sustaining teaching strategies to effectively incorporate diverse narratives into their curriculum.

Registered teachers and homeschoolers will also be invited to attend additional virtual sessions, and be given access to additional bonus content.The program is presented in partnership between Abenaki Arts & Education Center, and Vermont Abenaki Artists Association, and supported in part by Vermont Humanities.

Four Abenaki tribes were recognized by the State of Vermont following an arduous process which included proving their ancestry and enduring community presence in Vermont. After reviewing tribal recognition applications and verifying the data, the Vermont state legislature voted unanimously three times to recognize the tribes. Gov. Peter Shumlin codified their legal status as Native American tribes for the Elnu and
Nulhegan Abenaki Tribes in 2011 and the Koasek and Missisquoi Abenaki Tribes in
2012. Their legal status as state recognized tribes is now codified into Vermont law.
The teacher training will be held at The Bixby Memorial Free Library in Vergennes, VT.
“The Bixby follows the Vermont Forward Plan and Vergennes City COVID guidelines.
Masks are welcome but not required. The library has industrial HEPA room air purifiers
installed throughout the building, eliminating unwanted dust particles, germs, and
contaminants” says Amber Lay, Assistant Director of the Bixby Library.

For more information and to register for the teacher training please visit

Abenaki Arts and Education Association logo.

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