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For Abenaki descendants, an ancestral revival

Adding a native focus to Champlain festivites

Roger Longtoe Sheehan and his cousin Vera Longtoe Sheehan perform Abenaki songs at a powwow in Stonington, Conn. Roger Longtoe Sheehan and his cousin Vera Longtoe Sheehan perform Abenaki songs at a powwow in Stonington, Conn. (Husawis 2007)
By Diane E. Foulds
Globe Correspondent / May 3, 2009
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BURLINGTON, Vt. - His face and scalp are the color of tomatoes. You do a double-take, then wonder whether it might be a severe sunburn. But the crimson is body paint, a mixture of red ochre and bear grease rubbed over the skin the way North American natives must have done.

"Red ochre is a power color," says Roger Longtoe Sheehan, a native artisan and performer from the town of Jamaica. "It's a life force color. It's a protective color, too," he adds, and probably where European colonists came up with the term "red man."

Sheehan, 47, is chief of the Elnu tribe of southern Vermont, an Abenaki band of about 50 largely family members who are learning about their long-vanished language and culture. After researching woodland survival skills, they practice them at wigwam encampments where entire families convene to grind corn, cook meals, sing tribal songs, and create tools and clothing from natural materials. It's an attempt to reconstruct how their ancestors lived.

Among other things, Sheehan and his tribe have taught themselves to waterproof canoes, smoke bears out of trees, and mix ceremonial paints. Learning the language has been more difficult, as native speakers are scarce.

The Elnu have studied and reenacted Abenaki life from the 17th century to the Civil War, though lately they have been concentrating on 1609. On July 14 of that year the first French explorer, Samuel de Champlain, paddled south into the island-flecked body of water that would become known as Lake Champlain.

To mark the event, Vermont is throwing a year-long party, the Lake Champlain Quadricentennial. Its culmination, an 11-day waterfront festival in Burlington starting July 2, will include concerts, parades, pageants, and fireworks. Vergennes and St. Albans will hold French heritage days, and performers in a squadron of birch bark canoes will reenact Champlain's landing on the Burlington waterfront.

It will be the third time Vermont has marked the anniversary. Smaller celebrations took place in 1909 and 1959, but this year is different. For the first time, the Abenakis are coming as themselves.

Abenaki culture, long thought lost or nonexistent, is being explored more vigorously than at any time in recent memory. St. Michael's College is hosting a two-day Native American conference. At least three full-length documentary films have been made to coincide with the anniversary, and three Burlington-area museums are mounting exhibits with a distinctly native focus. More than anything recently, the quadricentennial has drawn Vermont's four Abenaki bands together to reflect on their collective past, a process that has resulted in more than a few surprises.

Chief among them was a theory floated by Stephen Loring, an arctic archeologist with the Smithsonian Institution. At a March reception held to inaugurate a photo exhibit of area Abenakis, Loring offered persuasive evidence that Vermont's Paleoindians were advanced marine navigators who regularly sailed thousands of miles to the northern tip of Labrador. Their incentive was a coveted stone, Ramah chert, obtainable only at Ramah Bay, a glacier-covered area accessible only by boat. The glassy, avidly traded substance was considered sacred and prized for its use as projectile points.

"The fact of the matter is," Loring said, "that this dramatically demonstrates that we just have to think of these people as a lot more clever and a lot more navigationally involved than we thought."

For Frederick Wiseman, an Abenaki historian who teaches in the humanities department at Johnson State College, the findings were a revelation.

"It's really convinced me that almost everything we think we know [about Abenaki history] is actually only partially correct," he said.

Wiseman, 61, himself an Abenaki, has written three books for the Champlain celebration. He also has produced films, borrowed from his own artifact collection to create museum exhibits, and perhaps most important, rallied the state's disparate indigenous groups.

"I am the gadfly that keeps telling everybody that we've got to have a native voice in it," he said, an undertaking that admittedly has turned out to be "a long, involved, and sometimes painful process."

A few tribal members, he explained, are disinclined to celebrate a European "conquerer" whose arrival irrevocably disrupted native life, though most agree with more recent interpretations that depict Champlain as more tolerant and respectful of the tribes than his English counterparts. As Wiseman sees it, what's more important is what the quadricentennial offers: a rare opportunity to tell the lake's history from a native perspective. By contrast, during the 1909 celebrations, actors dressed up in Indian costumes and performed "Hiawatha."

This time the pretense is gone. When the Elnu set up camp on the lake, they strive to re-create the kind of indigenous village that Champlain might have happened upon in 1609.

For tribe member Vera Longtoe Sheehan, 41, a graphic artist, that means tanning deer hides, decorating buckskin leggings with porcupine quills, finger-weaving quivers and sandals from strands of Indian hemp and dogbane, and daubing her own and her children's skin with ceremonial paint, not to scare off intruders, but "to bring the creator's attention to ourselves, and for spiritual protection."

Such survival skills began to vanish, as her cousin, Roger Sheehan, explains, "when the first European showed up here and handed us an axe. Because the day we got an axe, we stopped using the stone axe."

Diane Foulds can be reached at dianefoulds@burlingtontelecom.net.

If You Go

Tribe encampments

The Elnu tribe will hold two waterfront encampments, June 12-13 in Vergennes (outside the Lake Champlain Maritime Museum, 4472 Basin Harbor Road, 802-475-2022, www.lcmm.org) and July 9-12 in Burlington (outside the ECHO Lake Aquarium and Science Center, 1 College St., 802-864-1848, www.echovermont.org). Activities will include singing, dancing, storytelling, genealogy, gourd art, and traditional crafts. Free. www.elnuabenakitribe.org or vtindigenous.com.