I began to be interested in this topic a few years ago when I spent a year living in Burlington, Vermont. I started hiking while there, and I don’t think I can overstate its transformative affect on my life. Beyond becoming, possibly, my most passionate hobby, many of my spiritual beliefs have evolved from time spent amidst the wilderness and above the tree-line. I’ve always been a spiritual person, but it was the landscape of the Lake Champlain area that most inspired my sense of the mystical, the interconnectedness of all life, and a deep interest in studying the world’s wisdom traditions. It was while hiking the wintry trails of Mt Mansfield, outside of Burlington, and looking out over the Champlain Valley, that I began to consider the timelessness of our environment.
Surely we’ve developed new ways of living within that environment and with each other, but it’s those same waterways that the Vermonters see and rely on today that the Native Americans did for centuries. The mountains of Vermont rose up over the landscape of Burlington ten thousand years ago, just as they do today. I became fascinated with the mythology of the local Native Americans-the Abenaki- that sought to explain the things they saw and experienced, that sought to pass down through oral legacy the place of the Abenaki in the history of that landscape, and how that affected what they felt when they saw a birch tree, or a bear, or a wind storm. Originally I was going to study the Lake Champlain monster-Champy, as he’s lovingly referred to by today’s Vermonters. I was going to study the relationship between the Champy myth and the cultures that have inhabited Lake Champlain’s coast. In my research, though, I became more interested in Abenaki animism and mysticism, in their understandings of the spiritual power of the natural world, and the ways it influenced not just their lifestyle, but their interactions with the environment and neighbors as well. Conversely, it became apparent to me just how different the French explorers who first explored the Champlain valley were from the natives they encountered-physically, economically, technologically, socially, politically, but perhaps most importantly, spiritually. So I decided to write a piece which explored the cultural dynamics of those first years of interaction, and how the environmental histories of the new world and the old world had shaped such vastly different cultures. Also, how those differences in their spiritual perceptions of the landscape manifested themselves in judgments that would determine relationships, actions, and consequences.
The distinction ‘Abenaki’ is a cultural title that describes the autonomous tribes and peoples that inhabited the area immediately east of Lake Champlain. Their culture proceeded three earlier cultures-the Paleo-Indian, Archaic, and Woodland Periods-spanning tens of thousands of years, that had evolved free of influence and interference, developing as the landscape did, and as resources were either newly available to them, or taken away by the changing wildlife, forests, and waterways.
The Abenaki viewed the land as the center of life, cultural activities, and their understanding of their origin. They passed down to proceeding generations, through oral legacy, some of the history of the evolving landscape, their nomadic beginnings as big game hunters, their eventual transformation to hunter-gatherers who supplemented their food stores with agriculture, and the feeling that they had been around for thousands upon thousands of years of the land’s shaping. They attributed creation stories and supernatural powers to certain animals, spirits, and physical sites-often when they witnessed things that they couldn’t understand or explain. The most significant character in Abenaki mythology is Gluskabi, the supernatural grandfather of the Abenaki and historical guardian of the nation. His stories, among others, served to instruct, educate, entertain, inspire, and define for members of the tribe moral standards. The Abenaki may or may not have believed the exact transgressions in their legends, but the stories serve to symbolically reflect their foundational understanding that the world was a construct built by the interrelated actions of all life, and mankind, as part of the natural world, had contributed, and been subject to, its development.
For the purpose of saving time, I’ve chosen a myth that I feel illustrates the power of their mythological narrative. The Abenaki believed that the Great Spirit created the world, and summoned a giant turtle from the sea. He piled mud atop its shell, and planted the great tree of life-a pine. The excess creative dust was sprinkled around, and from it, Gluskabi created himself. Gluskabi was the Abenakis great supernatural protector being, and there are Gluskabi stories for how the Earth’s landscape was shaped-he did it for the Abenaki, to make the world easier for them but not too easy, for why animals are difficult to hunt-because it being difficult allows the animals and the humans to grow stronger and wiser, for why the seasons change, and many others.
In the story I’ve chosen, Gluskabi gets in a canoe and goes out on a lake, but his attempt to hunt ducks is thwarted when high winds continued to topple his canoe. He asked his Grandmother where the wind came from, and she grudgingly informs him that all wind was caused by Grandfather Wind Eagle, high atop his perch. Climbing to the top of the Giant Eagle’s mountain, Gluskabi tricked him into being tied up for the sake of being moved to a better position, where his winds could greater sweep the land, and then dropped him into a deep crevasse. With the wind stopped, Gluskabi went back to hunting ducks, but as he grew hot and tired, he soon noticed how beneficial the wind was. His Grandmother scolded him, “Gluskabi, will you never learn? The Great Spirit, the Owner, set the Wind Eagle on that mountain to make the wind because we need the wind. The wind keeps the area cool and clean. The wind brings the clouds which give us rain to wash the earth. The wind moves the waters and keeps them fresh and sweet. Without the wind, life will not be good for us or for our children or our children’s children” (Bruchac). Understanding the wind’s place in the natural harmony of the world, he restored Grandfather Wind Eagle to his perch-with the instruction that he needed to moderate his winds, and only occasionally, for the beneficial sake of clearing the trees of dead branches, produce his powerful wind storms.
One, that Gluskabi had a Grandmother Woodchuck is an indication of the Abenaki sense that they, the supernatural beings, and the animals were once sharing a realm of existence. Two, the story imparts the wisdom that the ways of nature are difficult, but perfect. Humans were not above the natural world; even if not easily understood, or if their benefits were not readily apparent, it was all part of the perfect harmony in nature. Humans were but one feature of that texture. Three, it’s also insightful that Gluskabi, a supernatural being, needed the guiding wisdom of an animal, his Grandmother Woodchuck, to temper some of his faults. And four, in a chain of causation, the forces of nature, conditions on Earth, and characteristics of the life forms, were refined throughout history-a history that the Abenaki felt they experienced firsthand.
When the French arrived in the 16th and 17th centuries, the 4000 to 4200 estimated Abenakis who inhabited much of Vermont followed a cyclical, reciprocal pattern of life where they considered all animals and life to be interrelated and co-dependent upon one another; each with the potential to significantly affect the others prosperity and health. They traveled primarily by river. Families held the rights to hunting lands. These territories were distinct and well established by accepted boundaries. Families had strong connections to their traditional territories, but wouldn’t have related that sense of place to the modern concept of ownership. The collective society of the Native American had a different idea of material wealth. Their distinguishing of familial lands was a means by which they were able to moderate consumption of the land’s limited resources, and live in accordance with the delicate balance of a natural world they were entirely vulnerable to and solely dependent upon for survival
Additionally, and more tangibly, relationships with neighbors had grown strained. The Iroquois confederacy had been launching brutal attacks from their homeland on the western shore of Lake Champlain. The natives called the lake Bitawbag, or lake ‘in between’ because of its placement between the Abenaki and the fiercely aggressive Iroquois. The tribes of New England, in an effort to counter Iroquois terrorism, had collected into a military alliance for common defense. That alliance, and its appeal to the French for assistance in their first counter-offensive, would provide a context for protracted interaction between the French and the Abenaki.
We can, perhaps, relate more easily to the French disposition than we can to the mysticism of the Native American. And so I’ve chosen to orient this piece more towards illustrating the Abenaki’s deep spiritual identity. I hope it suffices enough to posit that the Europeans who came to the New World did so with a very different attitude towards the landscape- largely because the geological circumstances were very different. The Old World’s early transformation to agriculture and population density didn’t come by a long process of one group evolving with the land’s changing resources, as the Abenakis had. From the beginning, the continuous flow of populations and ideas from disparate environments and climates, easily overcoming the land gaps and seas between them, brought agriculture and domestication of animals from an arid Mesopotamia, livestock from Eastern European Grasslands, and some of the sciences from Ancient Egypt and Sumer. With the rise of dense settlements, society would naturally develop the means and technology for efficiency, safety, prosperity, and, importantly, the ability to change the landscape to match their needs. What was always a far more dense European continent became more so by roads, trade, war, and religion. The Europeans had a broad amalgamation of perspectives from which they could define a worldview, and less emotional concern and spiritual connection to the land. Faith in the sciences and the Christian God had attenuated or replaced faith in the mystical senses. As the Abrahamic faiths developed, many Christians came more to see themselves as the beneficiaries of the bounty of the land, with dominion over it as granted by God in the Book of Genesis, “fill the Earth and subdue it. Have dominion over the fish of the sea, the birds of the air, and all the living things that move on the Earth…See, I give you every seed-bearing plant all over the Earth and every tree that has seed-bearing fruit on it to be your food” (New Testament).
By the time of contact, France was, economically, politically, religiously, and socially, in a fierce competition against their European rivals over wealth, influence, resources, and geopolitical power. Samuel de Champlain was the navigator for France’s early 17th century exploration of the New World and establishment of settlements. Much of the prelude to his adventure at Lake Champlain with the Abenaki was spent in fervent search of natural harbors and ports, but he also spent considerable time detailing those navigable waterways which penetrated into the interior-eventually leading him to Lake Champlain. He sought to find locations of military value, as well as those with the ingredients to help ensure continuous self-sufficiency. Champlain made particular note of regions rich with oaks, a strong building material, but didn’t find much value in birches and pines. When he dismissed the value of the Birch, he was dismissing not just the tree which supplied the Abenaki with the materials for basket making, containers, canoes, musical instruments, hunting and fishing equipment, and wigwam coverings, but its spiritual association as well. To the Abenaki, it wasn’t just a Birch, and the Birch trees didn’t have blackened spots by accident. They had blackened spots because of the time when Gluskabi had grown angry with them and bruised them all in a fit of rage. It was a warning to all others not to infuriate him. And the Pine tree wasn’t just a Pine, it was the tree of life from one of their creation stories, and the source of much medical and utilitarian value.
Champlain understood the importance of constructive relationships with the native populations, and one of his tactics for ensuring their loyalty was to help them dispatch of an enemy tribe. When he met the Abenaki at the Great Council Fire in 1609, after years of traveling the North East, he met an alliance of tribes who, despite significant differences in language, military tactics, and religious practice, had collected for battle. That war would shape the interactions between New France and the natives, and provide the context by which some of the manifestations of Abenaki spirituality would give Champlain insights into native culture.
The Great Council Fire and subsequent trip down the St. Lawrence, into Lake ‘in between’, and the battle against an Iroquois force, included many of the native spiritual rituals for diplomacy and war, including: dancing, the exchange of gifts, singing, games, and a culturally insightful process called the ‘wigwam of silence’. In this meditative period, “not a word was spoken or even whispered, but they (the participating members) formed their ideas in their hearts” (Wiseman). Champlain describes the ritual in his journal, “the next day, the two chiefs came to see me, when they remained some time without saying a word, meditating and smoking a while” (Champlain), but he didn’t recognize the deeper insights into native perceptions. The Indian’s notion of a spiritual inter-connectedness, that they believed hearts could be supernaturally bonded towards a cause and each other by silent, shared introspection of all variables, was suggestive of the same spiritual power behind their belief in a similarly insightful ritual-dancing. Champlain makes note, seemingly each and every time, of when the natives danced. He implied at their savagery, simpler existence, and baser emotional depth by superficially dismissing their dancing as a party, of sorts. The truth was more profound. The Abenaki danced and sang to create and/or enhance the bonds between them. A dance after a hunt, for example, would have honored the spirits of the dead animals. A dance at a multi-cultural military council (Champlain), for another, more specific example, would have been meant to bring the sentiments of the disparate tribes together by constructing bonds through emotion and the exuberance of the spirit.
At points in his journal he talks about their inventiveness in developing snow-shoes that would allow them to hunt and move swiftly in the winter, but by this point in his voyage, exposure to certain less developed tribes, and his cultural bias, had imprinted a perception of the native savage that no observation could undo. Native Americans in New England were not a homogenous people, all possessing the same culture, a fact which probably didn’t allude him, but wasn’t enough to sway his blanket dismissal of native culture. Ultimately, that was because, as he wrote, “ I asked them with what ceremonies they were accustomed to pray to their God, when they replied that they had none, but that each prayed to him in his heart, as he wished. That is why there is no law among them, and they do not know what it is to worship and pray to God, living as they do like brute beasts” (Champlain).
As they got closer to the battle, the Alliance members constantly asked Champlain if he had experienced any dreams, as they were another important indicator which they trusted to reveal success or failure. Finally, he did experience a dream wherein he saw the Iroquois enemies drowning in a lake, but his Alliance allies wouldn’t allow him to save the dying enemies. When the Alliance warriors heard of his vision, it, “gave them so much confidence that they did not doubt any longer that good was to happen to them” (Champlain). In another Abenaki creation story, the Great Spirit, seeing the world devoid of all things, decided to fill it with light, life, and beauty. After creating the Earth, he thought for a long time about what the creatures of Earth should look like. He wanted things to be perfect, and he thought for such a long time, and with such focus, that he fell asleep and dreamed of his creation:
“he saw animals crawling on four legs, some on two. Some creatures flew with wings, some swam with fins. There were plants of all colors, covering the ground everywhere. Insects buzzed around, dogs barked, birds sang, and human beings called to each other. Everything seemed out of place. The Great Spirit thought he was having a bad dream. He thought, nothing could be this imperfect” (firstpeople.us)
When he awoke, he saw the world of his dreams. A Beaver was constructing a dam next to him while it’s family swam in the pond it had created, and he realized that the creation was perfect-everything had its rightful place and purpose. The legacy of the story had been passed on to proceeding generations, even into modern times, imparting for the Abenaki that “we must not question our dreams. They are our creation” (firstpeople.us). When Champlain referred to their focus on dreams as one of their “accustomed superstitions” (Champlain), it was representative of a cultural disconnect that prevented him from recognizing the deeply heartfelt and trusted significance of their belief-that as their Great creator himself experienced when creating all that there was, dreams were a supreme spiritual force.
Their finally arriving at Lake Champlain was a significant reflection of their different dispositions. Champlain saw it as a great discovery for France and for himself, and as an invaluable asset for trade and resources against competing European States. But for the Abenaki, it wasn’t just a lake, it was cherished land that they had had to cede as a military buffer zone between themselves and the Iroquois, it was the creation of Odzihozo, the supernatural being who created the lake, then, loving his masterwork so much, entrenched himself as a large stone upon a small island in Burlington Bay so as to look upon the lake for all time. It was a lake that they not only depended upon for survival, but for which they felt a tremendous spiritual connection. It’s a poignant demonstration of how deeply their sense of self and their hearts were not only invested in the Champlain Valley and its surrounding territory, but derived from it, and what was at stake for the Abenaki in their interactions with enemy tribes, the French, and the more general European presence.
Champlain and his Roman Catholic fellows often missed the spiritual significance of those native superstitions and rituals, or dismissed them as a sort of savage evil. As he did when he witnessed them preparing their weaponry, which they decorated in such a way so as to channel the power of specific animal spirits and imbibe it with their strength. It’s important to understand that, “Northeastern native people’s underlying spirituality was based on animism, the belief that everything was alive and therefore deserved respect. Indeed, the spirit in objects could be communicated with and if properly respected and used, would become allies to the user” (Wiseman).The overarching lesson from the journey to the battle should have been that the land and its creatures were as inseparable from war as it was from all other elements of native life. Though the Europeans had long since abandoned such feelings about the natural world, they should have been able to understand, at least, the practices of those who wished to seek some insulation and health amidst a wild world wherein they were exposed to all of the dangerous variables of nature. The French and other sea-faring cultures had similarly inspired rituals and superstitions at sea to protect them from its disastrous powers. Their most recent cultural history had predisposed them, however, to see the natives as impossibly athletic (Champlain) savages, who had more in common with the beasts of the new world than they did with the enlightened Europeans who had washed up on their shores. Champlain didn’t dismiss them outright, but saw them the way that he saw the land, as resources that could be cultivated for the benefit of France. He understood relations with them to be essential, if the French were to discover a path to the orient, create economically profitable settlements, acquire resources, secure their safety, and conquer the landscape. His great passion was sea-faring adventure, and the opportunity to join the Alliance in battle against a vicious enemy at a place like Lake Champlain would have satisfied his cherished ideal of new world discovery. Even his presentation of the battle itself, after the small armies had squared off, celebrates himself as the hero, “Our men began to call me with loud cries; and, in order to give me a passage-way, they opened in two parts, and put me at their head, where I marched some twenty paces ahead of the rest” (Champlain)-where he then shot down the chiefs of the opposing army in but a few shots. Though its true that the technological advantage of French guns was a psychological blow which scared the Iroquois army off and won the day, it was a small feat relative to the larger war being waged. But, his description of his role established him as the conqueror of the land, and by that conquering, the privilege of naming it after himself was won. And, in perhaps the most comprehensive single gesture of dismissal of native held land, their spiritual association with it, and the French taking it as a resource in their quest for accumulation against rivals, he re-renamed it after himself.
It would be difficult, and perhaps unwise, to assert conclusions as to what the net effect was of their divergent relationships with the landscape, without respecting the full measure of variables that influenced such a dynamic meeting of cultures. It would be fair, however, to contend that, as all aspects of Abenaki life were indelibly saturated with spiritual mysticism; all judgments made against the Native Americans by Champlain were affected by his dismissal of their spiritual perception. Where Champlain was relatively reasonable and emotionally intelligent, the same did not always hold true for those who followed. Though individuals can often be enlightened, society can become corrupted by the worst of us. His reports to the French and European world may have impacted the disposition of others towards the Abenaki. At the very least, his economic and personal reasons for engaging the Iroquois at Lake Champlain, alongside his Abenaki and alliance fellows, set off a contest that would cost lives and resources. He continued down the river towards that first battle with the Iroquois, despite severe misgivings over his sacrilegious company, and that was because the French were taking actions that benefit the utility of their settlements, relationships, and the maximizing of profit. But, his first trip to the New World would be followed by black robes and larger colonizing ventures. Those cultural dynamics-the spiritual differences- that affected that first joint adventure would continue as the French sought to balance their economic mission with the conversion of souls and the dismissal of native claims to territory. It was an un-reconcilable difference in fundamental perceptions: It was the Abenaki relationship with the landscape-spiritual and with the people living as part of the land vs. the French relationship with the landscape-science, secularism, mercantilism, an interpretation of Christianity that granted dominion over that land, and using that landscape to amass more than others. It would give the French a sense that they could infuse themselves into the conflicts of the natives with relative impunity, but would ultimately embroil them in a war which, though not devastating to the French, effected not just their short term status in the New World, but the relationships that would shape the future of their New World involvement-and, in a grander sense, the future of the continent.
-Bruchac, Joseph. The Wind Eagle and Other Abenaki Stories. Greenfield Center, NY: Bowman, 1985.
-Champlain, S. D. (1959). W. Grant (Ed.), Voyages of Samuel de Champlain New York: Barnes and Noble.
-“Native American Indian Legends – Creation Story and The Importance Of Dreaming – Abenaki.” First
People of America and Canada – Native American Indians. Turtle Island. Legends, Treaties, Clipart.
Web. 02 Dec. 2011. <http://www.firstpeople.us/FP-Html-
-New Testament: with Psalms and Proverbs. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1989. Print.
-Wiseman, Frederick Matthew. At Lake Between: the Great Council Fire and the European Discovery of
Lake Champlain. Vergennes, VT: Lake Champlain Maritime Museum, 2009. Print.