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Abenaki tribe members speak at Indigenous People's Day event


October 13, 2021
BETHLEHEM — To celebrate Indigenous People's Day, the Ammonoosuc Conservation Trust partnered with Bethlehem's Colonial Theater and the Nulhegan Band of the Abenaki Nation for a one-night screening of Gather, a documentary about the growing movement among Native Americans to reclaim cultural identity through food.

While most of the film focused on Western tribes, guest speakers Sherry Gould and Darryl Peasley from the Nulhegan Band of the Coosuck in southern NH discussed regional food sovereignty efforts within the New Hampshire, Vermont and southern Quebec.

Gould noted that European contact happened several hundred years earlier for the eastern tribes, and the impact was vastly different. For generations, the USDA has doled out low-nutrition commodity foods to the western tribes, which has led to systemic levels of diabetes and other health complications on the reservations.

"I grew up gathering and not understanding that other people didn't live like me until I was a young adult. I soon realized that other people didn't even know that cranberries grow here in New Hampshire. As I got older and more into our traditional foods, I realized that we weren't poor. We were fortunate," said Gould.

The Abenaki Nation has successfully gained sovereign food gathering rights on Vermont land reserves and trusts in recent years, thanks mainly to the efforts of Vermont-based tribal chief and political leader Don Stevens.

However, NH tribal members have met resistance. Gould, the Tribal Genealogist, said they continue to work with various land stewardship organizations statewide to establish memorandums of understanding and food-gathering rights on sacred tribal lands.

"This is a new concept in New Hampshire. The pristine wilderness that people think they found when they came here 500 years ago wasn't wild. It was managed for 13,000 years by the Algonquin people. The burns and other things that we did to manage the land helped bring the Atlantic White Cedar into Bradford. It is the northernmost Atlantic White Cedar swamp in the country," stated Gould.

The Atlantic White Cedar has long been a critical sacred medicine for the Abenaki. Gould said that 95 percent of the swamps had disappeared nationwide, and rising sea levels were about to kill the remaining 5 percent. She also noted that the State of New Hampshire has yet to provide any pathways for tribal recognition, despite efforts dating back to 2010. However, Vermont state officials established such a pathway in 2012.

Peasley discussed a newly-established Abenaki food pantry that he oversees and operates from his Contoocook home. University partnerships have yielded large quantities of food for tribal members, but he said that anyone in need would be helped, regardless of tribal status.

"Once the native people in the area found out there was a place to get what they call 'real food' like moose and vegetables, word of mouth started spreading. In Vermont, our tribe partners with three colleges and numerous farmers and growers, and I bring much of that food back to the pantry," noted Peasley.

The New Hampshire tribe partners with the Bradford-based Kearsarge Food Hub and several NH-based organic farmers to deliver fresh local foods to tribal members. Peasley said community and local college support was integral to the food pantry's success. Recent grant funding also allowed the tribe to purchase a herd of buffalo for a continual supply of fresh meat.

An integral theme of the documentary film was that native tribes across the country are actively reclaiming their political, cultural and spiritual identities through food sovereignty after centuries of genocide. As Gould noted, the Abenaki tribe didn't view the northern New England landscape by towns but rather regional landscapes.

When asked how the partnership came about, ACT Outreach Director Gal Potashnick said the organization realized it was missing an indigenous voice as it continued outreach efforts within the community.

"We know there are indigenous people here in the North Country, but they're very hard to find. There is so much work that needs to be done within the nations themselves, especially because of COVID. Sherry and Darryl were willing to travel north and give us bandwidth for education, which seems to be part of the Abenaki mission," said Potashnick.

On Oct. 8, the same day of the screening at the Colonial Theater, President Joe Biden signed a presidential proclamation declaring Oct. 11 as Indigenous People's Day, making it a national holiday. The movement first began in 1990 when the International Conference on Discrimination Against Indigenous Populations in America began discussions while sponsored by the United Nations in Switzerland. The first counter-celebration to Columbus Day was held two years later in 1992 in San Francisco and has since gained momentum nationwide.

Salmon Press
Martin Lord Osman
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