Vermont Abenaki celebrate heritage at annual gathering

Published: Aug. 27, 2023 at 10:14 PM EDT
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EDEN MILLS, Vt. (WCAX) - The Abenaki Heritage Gathering returned to the Mount Norris Scout Reservation in Eden Mills over the weekend. The gathering was a two-day event starting at 10 a.m. until the early evening. The weekend consisted of singing, storytelling, drumming and dancing. Abenaki vendors were also in attendance showcasing cultural art pieces.

“It’s important to us to be able to have, not only our people but also the public, to come in and learn about Abenaki culture,” event organizer Dan Coutu said.

Abenaki leaders say it’s more important now than ever to continue to stay culturally active as they continue to push back against sentiments that Vermont tribes are engaged in “race shifting” or playing “pretendian.” The claims have mainly stemmed from members of the Odanak First Nation in Quebec. The group has previously stated that the Vermont state-recognized tribes have been unable to prove they are truly indigenous and the state should reconsider the official recognition of them. The Odanak believe if not truly indigenous, the Vermont Abenaki might be perpetrators of cultural appropriation.

“We just need to be who we are, and we need to work together and it’s not about us versus them, it should be as people how do we survive. We don’t need someone to tell who we are, we know who we are, and nobody has authority over us to try to dictate who we are as people,” Abenaki Tribe Chief Donald Stevens said.

Coutu says despite the controversy, remaining proud of their culture is what’s most important. He says it took roughly five to six months to plan the gathering, and Stevens says he enjoys celebrating with others.

“It’s important to us that we recover and retain our culture. It’s all about the culture -- it’s not about property or location or ‘ownership’ or any of that,” said Coutu.

“We’re just here to celebrate our culture, it’s not a pow-wow. It’s just a gathering that we come and celebrate each other and learn different things from each other, there’s workshops,” said Stevens.

Abenaki Tribe Health Equity Coordinator Lucy Cannon-Kneel says she wants to continue to learn more about her history and culture without anything getting in the way.

“And we’re allowed to practice our ceremonies, we’re allowed to say who we are and that shouldn’t be taken away from us,” said Cannon-Kneel.

Roughly 200 people attended the gathering and organizers say they hope to hold more cultural events to teach Vermonters about Abenaki traditions.