Abenaki Video Brings Native Culture to Classrooms

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(Host) Over the years, to avoid discrimination, many Abenakis in Vermont kept their roots to themselves, quietly maintaining longstanding habits and traditions. But in the past few decades, many Abenakis have been reclaiming their heritage and their place in Vermont’s ongoing story.

A new video, produced by the Vermont Folklife Center and an Abenaki advisory group, aims to help Vermont educators teach about the state’s native culture.

VPR’s Susan Keese reports.

(Keese) The video opens with birdsong, then a drumming, like the sound of a roughed grouse in the woods. In the scenes that follow, modern Abenakis talk about their culture. They engage in customs that have tied them to their roots, even while some kept their identities hidden – families out ice fishing or berry picking. A grandmother teaching her grandsons to hunt.

When the lights come on, half a dozen Abenaki educators take turns speaking. Sitting in a horseshoe around them are teachers from all over the state. They’ve come looking for advice on weaving the native culture into their teachings about Vermont.

Middle school science teacher Lynn Murphy, one of the Abenakis in the video, says she likes the fact that it portrays a living culture:

(Murphy) "What happens in classrooms, what happens in history books… is that we cease to exist after a certain point. We never come into the twenty-first century. And this movie clearly puts us in today’s world. We are real people, we do real things – I wear a dress, I drive a car. I don’t come in regalia. I am an Indian. That doesn’t mean I am not normal."

(Keese) In the video, Murphy’s mother and daughter gather balsam sap for burns. In her classes, Murphy uses ethno-botany to get middle schoolers thinking about her culture and their own. Students start by studying plants used in their own families – garlic, cooking herbs. They learn that almost everyone has a culture that connects in some way to nature:

(Murphy) "If you show them how their culture has these important things in it and my culture has these important things in it and they’re basically the same, that makes a connection for them."

(Keese) Judy Dow is a teacher of Abenaki descent. She teaches nature-based workshops and advises schools on cultural diversity and sensitivity. Dow offers hints on spotting stereotypes in books common in libraries and schools:

(Dow) "Often you’ll see them using things that were pre-contact but the story’s written post-contact. So the illustrations may show a variety of historical inaccuracies, stereotyping, different simplistic lifestyles. So you want to be aware of the illustrations and you want to be aware of the text also. Is there demeaning language or are women portrayed as inferior to men? The vocabulary is another area to be concerned with. Is it written in broken English that portrays someone as being not intelligent?"

(Keese) The teachers are given copies of Oyate, a catalogue of books written and illustrated by native Americans. Dow suggests inviting Abenakis into the classroom to tell their own stories.

Greg Sharrow agrees. He’s the Vermont Folklife center’s director of education, and a co-producer of the video:

(Sharrow) "The video is a snapshot, but the people who can talk most powerfully about what it means to be an Abenaki in today’s world are Abenaki people. And there are plenty of people around who have a lot to say and a lot to share and are eager to have that opportunity."

(Keese) At the workhop’s end Marge Bruchac, an Abenaki anthropologist and author, leads a friendship dance. (Sound of music and dancing.)

For Vermont Public Radio I’m Susan Keese in Montpelier.

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