Elnu Abenaki Tribe: Native Americans present local history on Sunday

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NORTHFIELD, MASS. — The Abenaki are here. They exist. And yet, they still live in a reality where not everyone is aware of that. But that is changing, slowly, but it is changing, said Joe Graveline, a member of the Northfield Historical Commission.

"They are having a renaissance, a rebirth in understanding their heritage," he said. "They are finding their voice."

A better understanding not only of the history of the Abenaki people but their place in the here and now — is just one of the many reasons why living history events like the one the Northfield Historical Commission is sponsoring this weekend are so important, Graveline said.

On Sunday, from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. visitors can speak with and learn from members of the Elnu Abenaki Tribe as they breathe life into their mid-17th century ancestors by telling their stories, demonstrating tools they used and answering questions from the public.

"People expect to see a John Wayne Indian, with a war bonnet," said Roger Longtoe Sheehan, chief of the Elnu Abenaki Tribe, who will lead the living history event Sunday. "I have blue eyes, and fairly light skin, and don't look like my ancestors. People tend to look at Native Americans as always being in the past. ... While it's important to give people a sense of how we dressed and how we lived then, it's also important to give them a sense of who we are now"

Abenaki history is long, storied and something historians and archeologists believe began in this region some 9,000 to 10,000 years ago.

Among the Abenaki people, who made their homes in the Connecticut River Valley of what is now New Hampshire, Vermont and Massachusetts, were the Sokoki and a smaller, related band called the Squakheags — both members of the larger Abenaki nation. Today, the Elnu are one of four Abenaki tribes based in Vermont.

"They weren't a marginal people," Graveline said. "They thrived. They were very successful."

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During Sunday's living history event, visitors will learn about the customs and ways of life of these earliest inhabitants of New England. Lebo said this event will also serve to generally improve knowledge and understanding about pre-colonial and colonial history in the region. Further, the event which is part of Its "Day of History" program, is one of the ways the Commission carries out its mission to preserve, protect, develop and educate the public about the town's considerable colonial and indigenous historical assets, commission officials said.

At the event, Longtoe Sheehan, who in addition to being chief is an artist, musician and educator and other members of the tribe will demonstrate cooking, hunting, trade, drumming, music, storytelling and craftmaking around a traditional campfire.

Longtoe Sheehan is a member of both the Elnu tribe of Abenaki as well as a member of Woodland Confederacy, a native living history organization. According to his artist statement on the Vermont Abenaki Artist Association web site, he has been participating in Native Living History for more than 30 years, researching and practicing his culture since he was young.

"I did my first talk/lecture when I was in 7th grade and was asked to come back and lecture for several years after," He writes in his statement.

On hand at the event will be replicas of tools and weapons the Abenaki would have used in trade and warfare, most of which Longtoe Sheehan makes himself.

While these objects are demonstrations of the craftsmanship and culture of the Abenaki, they will also be used to explain how the Abenaki traded these goods and how trade ultimately was at the root of infighting and at least one war.

Longtoe Sheehan said though he will be dressed in period garb, singing traditional songs and demonstrating tradition dance, if someone asks him a modern question, they will get a modern answer. In that way, he said, he will be able to educate people about the growing role and impact the local Abenaki are having on community decisions.

Lebo said visitors can bring a picnic lunch "and their curiosity" to the encampment, which will be located near the Visitors Center at First Light Power's Northfield Mountain recreational facility at 99 Millers Falls Road.

The event is free and open to the public.


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