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‘One by One, I Kept Meeting People’: Hartford Celebrates Indigenous Culture

  • Martha Knapp, one of the founders of the annual Abenaki and Indigenous People's Honoring Day in White River Junction, Vt., thanks Emily Boles, of Sharon, Vt., for the dream catcher made by Boles and her sister, Valerie Boles (not pictured), during the 8th annual event in White River Junction, Vt., on Aug. 11, 2018. Knapp is relocating from the Upper Valley to Florida. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • The group Blackhawk Singers, from left, George Michaud, of Hollis, N.H., Bryan Blanchette, of Graniteville, Vt., and Skip Cady, of Lyme, N.H., perform at the 8th Annual Abenaki and Indigenous People's Honoring Day at Lyman Point Park in White River Junction, Vt., on Aug. 11, 2018. The event featured musical performances, crafts demonstrations, talks and native food. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Don Hilts, of South Royalton, Vt., dances to the music by the group Blackhawk Singers at the 8th Annual Abenaki and Indigenous People's Honoring Day at Lyman Point Park in White River Junction, Vt., on Aug. 11, 2018. Hilts said he travels to various powwows and was visiting the White River Junction event for the first time. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.



For the Valley News
Sunday, August 12, 2018

Hartford — The town held its eighth-annual Abenaki and Indigenous Peoples Honoring Day on Saturday at Lyman Point Park, where an Abenaki canoeing village stood into the 18th century.

The day began early for Nate Pero. By the announced 11 a.m. start time, he had already grilled and cut 16 pounds of bison and moved on to cooking dozens of ears of corn. In years past, Pero got his meat from Vermont game wardens, sometimes coming away with a moose or bear that had been killed by a car or put down.

“They haven’t given us any turkey yet,” he said. “I’d cook turkey.”

Pero is chief of the Koasek, an Abenaki band of some 300 members, most of whom live in Windsor and Orange Counties.

As he tended his massive grill near the junction of the Connecticut and White Rivers, Pero reflected on the waterways’ former fish bounties.

“Of course we had the salmon coming by, Atlantic shad, sturgeon, trout,” he said, “but the dams put a stop to all that.” He predicted the upriver dams, including the Moore and Wilder Dams, would eventually be removed, allowing the Connecticut to “flow freely again.”

Ryan Pero, Nate’s nephew, said he appreciated the opportunity on Saturday to share his culture with non-native neighbors.

“It’s always great to kind of, in a way, teach the public about the way we do things,” he said, describing how he was raised to live off the land and respect his fellow creatures. After killing an animal, he said, “the first thing we always do ... is say a prayer for it and thank it for its sacrifice.”

The first Honoring Day was held in 2011 to mark Hartford’s 250th anniversary, but its seeds were planted decades before, in the seventh-grade classroom of former Hartford Historical Society board president Martha Knapp.

“We were told there were never any Indians in Vermont,” Knapp said Saturday. She felt indignant when she discovered there had in fact been indigenous people in Vermont, and still were. “I realized, oh my goodness, they lied to me.”

In the years since, Knapp has worked to raise awareness of the Upper Valley’s indigenous legacy. Working with Donna and John Moody, of the Hanover-based Winter Center for Indigenous Traditions, she added to her rolodex and the Honoring Day grew a little bit each year.

“One by one, I kept meeting the people,” she said.

She’s also visited Hartford schools to discuss town history and discovered many of the students have indigenous ancestry.

“They’re everywhere, that’s what I found out,” she said. “Five little kids got up and whispered to me, ‘I’m Abenaki.’ ”

Fred Bradley, founder of the Hartford Historical Society, was as well. Yet Knapp feels the tribe is still not getting its due.

“I am upset with every historical society in Vermont,” she said, arguing the organizations should be doing more to uncover and promote the histories of indigenous people in their towns.

For many, Saturday’s event was a family affair.

Michael and Valerie Boles and their daughters, Emily and Megan, all of Sharon, occupied a tent beside the park’s bandstand where they displayed some of the traditional baskets they’d made.

“Our ancestors were all basket makers, and we wanted to carry on the tradition,” said Emily, who studied the craft during a three-year apprenticeship. She is interested in attaining “master basket-maker” status, which would allow her to take on apprentices herself.

“Each form of basketry is unique to each tribe,” she said, explaining that the tradition is passed down within her Abenaki community.

The biggest threat to basketry’s survival may be the emerald ash borer, an invasive insect that kills nearly every tree it infests. It was discovered for the first time in Vermont in February.

Black ash logs, the primary material with which the Boles’ make baskets, “are becoming a lot harder to find,” Megan said.

During an afternoon log-pounding demonstration, basket maker Jesse Larocque drove apart a tree’s growth rings into splints. He described how Abenaki families traditionally created baskets together — the men and boys harvesting and prepping the wood, the women and girls weaving it.

“Those baskets were the original Visa and Mastercard, because they could get credit at the store for these baskets,” he said.

Larocque likewise expressed alarm over the arrival of the ash borer.

“It’s destroying stands of ash trees,” he said. “Once they’re gone, they’re gone, and that’s an important part of our culture.”

He noted that Dutch elm disease spared some elm trees, and perhaps that was cause for optimism. “Some of those trees survived, and that’s what we’re hoping will happen with the black ash.”

Correction

Martha Knapp is a former president and board member  of the Hartford Historical Society but remains a member of the group itself. An earlier version of this story inaccurately described her continuing ties to the historical society.