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Circle of Courage a Circle of Progress
By Michelle Monroe
St. Albans Messenger
Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Cultural center epitomizes Abenaki gains

SWANTON —    The students were rehearsing the snake dance, when the Messenger visited the
Circle of Courage Monday afternoon.

“The snake is used as medicine,” explained Myleah Katen, an MVU student who volunteers with
the program, after being part of it herself when she was younger.

The Circle of Courage, which many see as good medicine for the local Native American
community, started several years ago after federal funds were cut for the Learning Center, an
afterschool tutoring program, Brenda Gagne, the leader of the program explained.

Gagne and other parents involved in the center decided to keep the afterschool program but shift
the focus to learning about Abenaki culture.

Students from the Circle of Courage, a Swanton afterschool program for second through sixth
graders, will bring Abenaki singing, dancing and drumming to Missisquoi Valley Union (MVU) on
Thursday. There will be two daytime performances for MVU students and a free evening
performance for the community.

The Circle of Courage has performed at area schools, the Leahy Echo Center and the Flynn
Center for the Performing Arts.

Attendees at the program are about 80 percent Abenaki, according to Gagne.

“We’re all a family whether we’re blood or not,” said volunteer and MVU student Sarah Young.
Katen agreed, saying, “It’s a place where you feel welcome whether you’re Abenaki or not
Abenaki.”

Two ideas permeated the Messenger’s conversation with the seven volunteers, all MVU students –
respect and giving back to the community.

The Circle of Courage raises money with its performances and the sale of bracelets made by the
students, the volunteers explained. That money is used to buy food for holiday baskets for families
in need. “We have what we need… They need, so we give,” said Young.

Volunteering is another way to give back. “It’s not really a job you get paid for but you get to
something for your community,” said volunteer Tazney Ryea.

“I like spending time with the children and I like teaching the children the things I got taught,” said
Katen.

“One thing we practice here is not using tobacco, drugs or alcohol,” Ryea said. Using those
substances while teaching younger students not to would “feel hypocritical,” Ryea said, so she
doesn’t do it.

The volunteers all had stories of turning down opportunities to cut class, smoke and drink. All
students go through classes at school where they promise not to use drugs and alcohol, said
Ashley Martel. “Coming to the center, I can keep my promise,” she said.

It was clear from the conversation that coming to the center gives the volunteers a place to go
where they feel useful and welcome.

“I don’t know what I’d do without the center,” Ryea said.

“Center’s a place where you feel like you belong,” Young said.

Mitchal Shedrick, a seventh grader who has only been part of the center for two years said he’d be
home alone doing nothing if he wasn’t at the center.

There is also pride in their cultural heritage. “It’s my culture. I’m not afraid to show who I am,” Katen
said.

“No one can say I want to be born this person or I want to be born that person. You should be
proud of who you are,” Young said.

On Mondays nearly all of the volunteers work on a mural of Abenaki history being created at MVU.
Asked about the mural, Ryea said, “It should’ve been there a long time ago. We’ve been here
14,000 years.”

“I’m really excited about it, because half the students in the school don’t know about Abenaki
culture,” Martel said.

There are plenty of misconceptions about Abenaki history and culture among their fellow students,
according to the volunteers. “They all believe every native tribe wore feathers and lived in
teepees,” Ryea said.

“We lived in longhouses and wigwams,” explained Young.

“Missisquoi means ‘land of the flint,’ and that’s our homeland,” Martel said.   

Asked, after the word respect had come up in the conversation repeatedly, if the center had taught
them to respect others or themselves, Young replied, “To have respect for someone else, you
have to respect yourself.”

There is also giving back the respect one has been given. “Brenda has given me so much respect,
that I feel I have to give back respect,” Young said.

“I believe what you give a child you get back,” Gagne said when asked about Young’s statement.

“The little ones look up to them,” Gagne said of the volunteers. But she has another motive in
having the middle and high school students at the center. “It’s to show them what respect they
should have for children,” Gagne said. “Children are the highest honor. We believe it takes a
village to raise a child, not just a mother and father.”

Gagne said she hopes attendees at Thursday’s performances will come away with a greater
understanding of Abenaki culture and the reasons for pow-wows. “What we do is spiritual. When
we dance, we pray,” Gagne said.

“I try to teach the kids about truth. How important it is to live it and breathe it,” Gagne said.    

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