Burlington Free Press
Abenaki relive history
By Sara Buscher • Free Press Staff Writer
July 14, 2008
FERRISBURGH -- In a grove of evergreens, a lean-to built of branches covered with a thick layer
of fir boughs sheltered a woman at work weaving Sunday afternoon. She sat on animal skins,
surrounded by baskets and bowls hollowed from gourds.
As she worked, a man dressed in buckskin, his head shaved and face painted half red, half blue
spoke to the crowd that had gathered to watch.
The two are members of the Elnu Abenaki tribe and spent the weekend participating in a living
history exhibit at the Lake Champlain Maritime Museum.
The Elnu Abenaki, based in southern Vermont, are dedicated to taking time to practice traditional
skills in order to pass them to the next generation. Some take days or weeks from their modern
lives to dress in buckskins, sleep in wigwams and cook over a fire -- singing, drumming and telling
the stories their ancestors told.
Many Elnu feel the process brings them closer to their ancestors, tribe member Roger Longtoe
The value of their efforts extends to anyone interested in the history of the Champlain Valley, said
Eloise Beil, communication relations manager for the Lake Champlain Maritime Museum.
"If you're going to talk about life in the Champlain Valley -- we're the newcomers. There have been
10,000 years of Native Americans here beforehand," Beil said.
The museum began hosting the American Indian encampment last year, in anticipation of the
approaching quadricentennial celebration of the arrival of explorer Samuel de Champlain.
For those more familiar with European than American Indian history, the encampment represents a
time when the "playing field was level," Beil said.
In 1609, "the indigenous people understood the resources of the region, and how to survive. The
newcomers needed the understanding the native people could provide," Beil said. "It was a very
Fred Wiseman, tribal historian of the Abenaki nation, is also helping the Elnu learn more about the
history of the period following Champlain's arrival. A member of the Missisquoi-Swanton band,
Wiseman has earned a doctorate in archaeological ecology, and serves as professor of
humanities at Johnson State College.
His academic background allows him to provide some of the history that may not have been
passed through the generations -- including Champlain's relationship with the natives, he said.
Wiseman's son portrayed Champlain from an Abenaki perspective over the weekend: as a
consultant in the tribe's military maneuvers against the Iroquois.
Walker Brook and Dan Swift, among those eager to learn more about their history, say they spend
much of their time participating in encampments and other historical re-enactments.
They say living without modern trappings from time to time can be a spiritual experience and
consider the process of getting in touch with the past a responsibility to future generations. For
Swift, that means teaching the old ways -- such as starting a fire using flint, a skill he's still working
to master -- to his own children.
Contact Sara Buscher at 651-4811 or firstname.lastname@example.org