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An Airport Exhibition Honors the History of Vermont's Abenaki Tribes 

click to enlarge Colorful finger-weave twined bag made by Vera Sheehan of the Elnu Tribe. This is an ancient, traditional way of making bags from milkweed or other fiber material. - COURTESTY OF DIANE STEVENS
  • Courtesty Of Diane Stevens
  • Colorful finger-weave twined bag made by Vera Sheehan of the Elnu Tribe. This is an ancient, traditional way of making bags from milkweed or other fiber material.

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Modern air travel is a hurry-up-and-wait situation: You dutifully show up two hours early to allow for check-in and getting through security. Then you plop down in a chair with a coffee and a smartphone until your plane begins to board. But here's a tip: At the Burlington International Airport, you could spend your wait time walking around to look, listen and learn.

click to enlarge Original 1700s Hudson Bay Company gorgett and skunk bean necklace. These were given by the French to leaders during the French and Indian War, as a way for French troops to recognize status within a tribe. The French beads represented skunk beans that were worn by warriors in case they needed to make a soup in a hurry. - COURTESTY OF DIANE STEVENS
  • Courtesty Of Diane Stevens
  • Original 1700s Hudson Bay Company gorgett and skunk bean necklace. These were given by the French to leaders during the French and Indian War, as a way for French troops to recognize status within a tribe. The French beads represented skunk beans that were worn by warriors in case they needed to make a soup in a hurry.

Contemporary paintings by local artists adorn many of the airport's walkways. Larger-than-life murals of vintage photos — and a half-scale replica of a 1911 Burgess-Wright Model F aircraft — help convey the history of the 100-year-old airport itself. And now, passengers awaiting their flights can engage with a much older story: that of the area's original human inhabitants.

On the second floor, adjacent to a sunny atrium, a recently installed gallery holds artifacts representing the four recognized Abenaki tribes in Vermont: the Nulhegan, Missisquoi, Koasek and Elnu. The clothing, jewelry, baskets, gourd bowls, pipes and other objects are beautifully, expertly made. But take a close look and you'll likely sense a long, proud tradition of craft, sacred ritual and self-sufficiency.

click to enlarge Traditional beaded buckskin dress made by Lori Lambert. Beaded hood and moccasins made by Francine Jones. Both are Nulhegan Citizens. - COURTESTY OF DIANE STEVENS
  • Courtesty Of Diane Stevens
  • Traditional beaded buckskin dress made by Lori Lambert. Beaded hood and moccasins made by Francine Jones. Both are Nulhegan Citizens.

Inside the narrow, glass-walled space, six mannequins are dressed in resplendent Abenaki regalia, including a woman's beaded buckskin ensemble of cap, shirt, slim skirt and moccasins; and a thick, colorful bear medicine coat made of blankets from French trading posts. (The coat's red capelet depicts other medicinal motifs of sage, sweet gum, tobacco and cedar.)

Two outfits from the late 19th century, made of sturdy cotton with patchwork trim and elaborate headgear, are described in accompanying signage as the costumes of "roadside sellers" and were not customary Native wear in the Northeast. In particular, that cumbersome headdress of red feathers, more typical of Plains Indians, would not be practical in the woods, pointed out Don Stevens.

click to enlarge Birch bark moose call made by Aaron York of the Nulhegan Tribe. These were used to call in moose during the hunt. - COURTESTY OF DIANE STEVENS
  • Courtesty Of Diane Stevens
  • Birch bark moose call made by Aaron York of the Nulhegan Tribe. These were used to call in moose during the hunt.

The curator of the airport exhibit, Stevens has been the chief of the Nulhegan Band of the Coosuk Abenaki Nation since 2010 — alongside being a counselor, businessman, teacher, environmentalist and artist. His mission is essentially "to keep our culture alive," he said. That began even before he was elected chief, when then-governor Jim Douglas appointed Stevens to the Vermont Commission on Native American Affairs in 2006; Stevens led the fight to gain official state recognition for the Abenaki people in Vermont.

Not the least of Stevens' skills is storytelling, which airport visitors can witness on a fixed-frame TV next to the exhibit. He narrates the legend of Odziozo — a giant who was credited with creating Lake Champlain and its adjacent mountains and rivers. Along with this animated myth, a documentary explains that water is the lifeblood of nature-focused Native culture.

click to enlarge Beaded bear medicine coat made by Michael Descoteaux of Nulhegan Tribe. - COURTESTY OF DIANE STEVENS
  • Courtesty Of Diane Stevens
  • Beaded bear medicine coat made by Michael Descoteaux of Nulhegan Tribe.

Stevens and others in the video speak eloquently about the human connection to and responsibility for protecting water. In a time when the Earth's natural resources are at risk, their commentary has particular resonance. The documentary's essential message — "Everything in life has to be respected" — is a thread that ties past and present together in the Abenaki exhibit.

"It's important to show people we're still here," Stevens said in an interview. "I want people to see the vibrant culture. We want [Native] kids to be proud that our culture is on display."

When your flight takes off over Lake Champlain, look down, recall the story of Odziozo and see if you can spot his spiritual resting place — the tiny island called Rock Dunder. Impressed with his own creation, the story goes, Odziozo decided to turn himself into stone and remain forever to enjoy the views. The rock is on the state's register of historic places; in Abenaki lore, it is sacred.


click to enlarge Colorful finger-weave twined bag made by Vera Sheehan of the Elnu Tribe. This is an ancient, traditional way of making bags from milkweed or other fiber material. - COURTESTY OF DIANE STEVENS
  • Courtesty Of Diane Stevens
  • Colorful finger-weave twined bag made by Vera Sheehan of the Elnu Tribe. This is an ancient, traditional way of making bags from milkweed or other fiber material.

« Se dépêcher et attendre », voilà comment on pourrait résumer les déplacements aériens modernes. On se présente à l'aéroport deux heures à l'avance, comme un bon élève, pour s'enregistrer et passer la sécurité. Puis, on s'affale dans un fauteuil avec un café, téléphone intelligent à la main, jusqu'à ce que l'avion soit prêt pour l'embarquement. Mais voici un conseil : à l'Aéroport international de Burlington, on peut profiter du temps d'attente pour observer, écouter et apprendre.

click to enlarge Original 1700s Hudson Bay Company gorgett and skunk bean necklace. These were given by the French to leaders during the French and Indian War, as a way for French troops to recognize status within a tribe. The French beads represented skunk beans that were worn by warriors in case they needed to make a soup in a hurry. - COURTESTY OF DIANE STEVENS
  • Courtesty Of Diane Stevens
  • Original 1700s Hudson Bay Company gorgett and skunk bean necklace. These were given by the French to leaders during the French and Indian War, as a way for French troops to recognize status within a tribe. The French beads represented skunk beans that were worn by warriors in case they needed to make a soup in a hurry.

De nombreux couloirs de l'aéroport sont ornés d'œuvres contemporaines réalisées par des artistes locaux. Des murales plus grandes que nature composées de photos d'époque – ainsi qu'une reproduction à demi-échelle d'un aéronef Burgess-Wright modèle F de 1911 – illustrent l'histoire de l'aéroport centenaire. Et maintenant, les passagers qui attendent leur vol peuvent découvrir une histoire beaucoup plus ancienne : celle des premiers habitants de la région.

Au deuxième étage, près d'un atrium baigné de lumière, une galerie récemment installée présente des objets représentant les quatre communautés abénaquises reconnues du Vermont : les Nulhegan, les Missisquoi, les Koasek et les Elnu. Vêtements, bijoux, paniers, calebasses, pipes et autres objets sont tous admirablement confectionnés. En y regardant de plus près, on peut réellement sentir une longue et fière tradition fondée sur l'artisanat, les rituels sacrés et l'autosuffisance.

click to enlarge Traditional beaded buckskin dress made by Lori Lambert. Beaded hood and moccasins made by Francine Jones. Both are Nulhegan Citizens. - COURTESTY OF DIANE STEVENS
  • Courtesty Of Diane Stevens
  • Traditional beaded buckskin dress made by Lori Lambert. Beaded hood and moccasins made by Francine Jones. Both are Nulhegan Citizens.

À l'intérieur de cet espace étroit aux murs de verre, six mannequins sont vêtus de resplendissantes tenues abénaquises, notamment un ensemble féminin en peau de daim comprenant coiffe, chemise, jupe étroite et mocassins ornés de perles, ainsi qu'un manteau coloré, composé de couvertures issues du commerce avec les Français, évoquant la médecine de l'Ours. (La petite cape du manteau est décorée d'autres motifs médicinaux comme la sauge, la résine, le tabac et le cèdre.)

Deux tenues datant de la fin du 19e siècle, fabriquées en coton robuste avec garniture en patchwork et assorties d'une coiffure élaborée, sont décrites dans les explications connexes comme étant les costumes de « vendeurs ambulants » et n'étaient pas courantes chez les Autochtones du Nord-Est. L'encombrante coiffure de plumes rouges, davantage caractéristique des Indiens des Plaines, n'aurait pas été très pratique dans les bois, comme l'explique Don Stevens.

click to enlarge Birch bark moose call made by Aaron York of the Nulhegan Tribe. These were used to call in moose during the hunt. - COURTESTY OF DIANE STEVENS
  • Courtesty Of Diane Stevens
  • Birch bark moose call made by Aaron York of the Nulhegan Tribe. These were used to call in moose during the hunt.

Commissaire de l'exposition à l'aéroport, Don est chef de la communauté Nulhegan de la Nation Coosuk-Abénaquis depuis 2010 – en plus d'être conseiller, homme d'affaires, enseignant, environnementaliste et artiste. Sa mission consiste essentiellement, dit-il, à « garder notre culture vivante ». Et ses efforts ont commencé avant même qu'il devienne chef, lorsque le gouverneur de l'époque, Jim Douglas, l'a nommé président de la Commission du Vermont sur les Affaires autochtones en 2006, afin de mener la lutte visant à faire reconnaître officiellement les peuples abénaquis du Vermont par l'État.

Entre autres talents, Don est un conteur hors pair, comme en témoigne la vidéo en plan fixe que les visiteurs de l'aéroport peuvent regarder sur un écran situé près de la salle d'exposition. Don y raconte la légende d'Odziozo, un géant à qui on attribue la création du lac Champlain ainsi que des montagnes et rivières environnantes. En plus de ce mythe animé, un documentaire explique que l'eau est l'âme de la culture autochtone, centrée sur la nature.

click to enlarge Beaded bear medicine coat made by Michael Descoteaux of Nulhegan Tribe. - COURTESTY OF DIANE STEVENS
  • Courtesty Of Diane Stevens
  • Beaded bear medicine coat made by Michael Descoteaux of Nulhegan Tribe.

Don et les autres intervenants dans la vidéo parlent avec éloquence du lien qu'entretiennent les humains avec l'eau et de leur responsabilité à l'égard de sa protection. En cette époque où les ressources naturelles de la Terre sont en péril, ces propos ont une résonnance particulière. Le message essentiel du documentaire – « Tout dans la vie mérite le respect » – tisse un lien entre le passé et le présent dans l'exposition sur les Abénaquis.

« Il est important de montrer aux gens que nous sommes toujours là, affirme Don dans une entrevue. Je veux qu'on voie notre culture dynamique, et que nos enfants [autochtones] en soient fiers. »

Lorsque votre avion survolera le lac Champlain, regardez en bas, rappelez-vous l'histoire d'Odziozo et essayez de repérer son lieu de repos spirituel : une toute petite île appelée Rock Dunder. L'histoire raconte qu'Odziozo, impressionné par sa propre création, décida de se transformer en pierre et de contempler la vue pour l'éternité. Ce rocher est inscrit au registre des lieux historiques de l'État; pour les Abénaquis, il est sacré.

The original print version of this article was headlined "Art at the Airport | A new exhibition honors the history of Vermont's Abenaki tribes | Une nouvelle exposition retrace l'histoire des communautés abénaquises du Vermont"

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Pamela Polston

Pamela Polston

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Pamela Polston is the cofounder, coeditor and associate publisher of Seven Days. In 2015, she was inducted into the New England Newspaper Hall of Fame.

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