Abenaki educator, activist talks indigenous history to SVC students

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BENNINGTON — Native American stories about giant beavers were long scoffed at by scientists — until the fossils of the animals, called Castoroides, were discovered. It was then, Melody Walker Brook told a history class at Southern Vermont College, that the stories turned to something more than lore.

In a similar way, Brook said, Native history tells of a being named Gluscabi fighting ice monsters. Few tend to realize that this oral history was passed down from 10,000 years ago, when glaciers started to recede in North America.

"It's not a myth and legend; don't ever say that," she said. "It's a story."

Brook, an Abenaki teacher and activist, was visiting Professor Tom Reddent's U.S. History Part 1 class Thursday as part of his curriculum to view history from multiple perspectives. "There is no such thing as American history," Reddent said to his class. "The question is not whether we tell a story about ourselves, but what is the story we tell and whose story is it?"

He explained that patriotic history may not be the reality; history is comprised of countless stories from winners, losers, and everyone in between. Brook's purpose of speaking to the class was to bring an awareness to the Native American side of the story and how these stories are told.

Brook, the former chair of the Vermont Commission of Native American Affairs, grew up in the northwestern corner of Vermont, close to the border with Canada. While she was raised Catholic, she rediscovered the stories her Abenaki ancestors told and found her Abenaki heritage to be the center of her identity.

While attending the University of Vermont, Brook dedicated much of her time to studying Abenaki and Native American history, which solidified her dedication to learning about her ancestors and carrying out their wishes.

"I'm an Abenaki," she said. "I'm not an Indian person, because Columbus got lost. Let's be real."

She began the discussion by briefly breaking down the various native groups in Vermont. There are four state recognized bands, including the Elnu Abenaki, which she belongs to. She warned that the different groups cannot be compared despite often being lumped together in history, because they are all so different.

"Our culture is very beautiful," she said.

She described how much of the written history was lost over the centuries, but oral history lived on for thousands of years.

"People are just figuring out what we've known for a long time," she said.

Academia is not congruent with Native ways of knowing, she said. "Why even tell stories?" Brook asked. "[Because] It's our connection to a place. Stories, for me, they are my moral guidepost. My ancestors know exactly what they were doing."

This connection to place is important in all indigenous cultures and varies by community, Brook said. For example, Lake Champlain is very sacred to the Abenaki people.

"We are a place-based religion," she said. "My god is sitting there in Bitawbagok (the Abenaki name for Lake Champlain) right now."

Abenaki history says Gluscabi rests in Lake Champlain in the form of a small island called Rock Dunder. Brook and other members of the Abenaki people bring him gifts throughout the year.

"If you take me out of this place, I don't think I make sense," she said. "That's a whole part of my identity. My people are here."

Brook views her ancestry as a way to shape her actions toward others. In Native culture, those who may be cast aside by modern society are embraced, sometimes even revered as a special contribution to society.

"People who may have a mental disability...those people [in Abenaki culture] are medicine people," she said. "My best friend in the whole world, [others] keep telling me he's not capable. To me, he's the smartest person in the world. He has been touched by Creator and he knows something others don't."

Recently, Brook left her comfort zone and moved to Virginia.

"It was the hardest thing I've ever done," she said, explaining that while it was difficult, she knew she had to explore more than what she was used to. She found comfort in one of her elders telling her: "You can always go home to a place you've never been."

"Mother Earth is your home," she said. "You just have to treat it like it matters."

Christie Wisniewski can be reached at cwisniewski@benningtonbanner.com and at 802-447-7567, ext. 111.

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