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Unerasing Abenaki history in what is now called New Hampshire

Sherry Gould and Baskets.JPG
Peter Biello
Sherry Gould, professional basket maker and tribal geneaologist for the Nulhegan Band of the Coosuk Abenaki stands next to two baskets at the Hopkinton Historical Society, one from the 1700s and one that she wove.

Stories of Native American history are often told from the point of view of European settlers and consist of narratives of violence, captivity, and the disappearance of Indigenous peoples. Or, they’re not told at all.

But Abenaki tribal members and community partners curating an art exhibit at the Hopkinton Historical Society, hope to change those narratives.

The exhibit showcases historic and contemporary works of Abenaki art that curators hope will correct misconceptions about and raise awareness of Abenaki culture, past and present.

Walking up the stairs to the second floor of the Hopkinton Historical Society, the first things that catch the eye are two large canoes, one ensconced in glass, the other displayed beside it. The canoe in the case is over 100 years old. It’s imposing, made of a log that was burned and then dug out, and is juxtaposed with a smaller, ten-foot hunter’s canoe made of woven birch bark, cedar and spruce.

Abenaki Canoes at Hopkinton Exhibit.JPG
Peter Biello
Two canoes on display at the Hopkinton Historical Society. The encased canoe is over 100 years old and the smaller boat was recently made by Bill Gould and Reid Schwartz.

Bill Gould and Reid Schwartz crafted the hunter’s canoe together, doing everything from collecting the materials outdoors to molding them together.

Bill is a citizen of the Nulhegan Band of the Coosuk Abenaki, and spoke with seasoned builders to make the canoe. Rivers, like the Connecticut, which divides the land now called New Hampshire and Vermont, weren’t borders, but highways for the Abenaki. Canoes were necessary for hunting, collecting goods and transportation.

“What I try to bring to this is the Abenaki perspective, the importance that these have for our culture and that they did have to our culture,” Bill said. “That it was quite an innovation that is still used today, quite an engineering feat.”

The exhibit is as much about the present and the future as it is about the past. It’s part of the Abenaki Trails Project, the brainchild of Darryl Peasley, an effort to showcase an “inclusive history” and the continuing traditions of Abenaki people in New Hampshire and N’dakinna, the homeland of the Abenaki, which includes what is now called New Hampshire, Vermont, and parts of Canada, Massachusetts and Maine.

Among the curators are Madeleine Wright and Rob Wright, citizens of the Nulhegan Band of the Coosuk Abenaki. She’s a former teacher who, along with Rob, put together an educational curriculum about Abenaki people in New Hampshire. She now gives talks about her culture at schools and says she often has to correct stereotypes about Abenaki culture – and counter the idea that Abenaki people should be spoken about in the past tense.

“You still have the idea that we’re here living in teepees. That’s not true. They also had no idea that there were people, villages, here on this land,” Madeleine said.

Rob and Madeleine Wright.JPG
Peter Biello
Rob Wright and Madeleine Wright, citizens of the Nulhegan Band of the Coosuk Abenaki, stand in front of a bundle of sweetgrass at the Hopkinton Historical Society. They've put together educational curriculum about the Abenaki to bring to schools.

Rob is also a former teacher and said school curriculum about Native Americans in New Hampshire has long fallen short. He and Madeleine hope to bridge that gap.

“It’s important for [students] to learn about the people who lived here thousands of years before the settlers came because it’s an important part of the history of the land, of the area they come from,” Rob said. “And it’s a gap that desperately needs to be filled because it hasn’t adequately been addressed here in New Hampshire.”

For Sherry Gould, the past and the present converge in the art of basket weaving. She’s the tribal genealogist for and citizen of the Nulhegan Band of the Coosuk Abenaki and a professional basket weaver.

“We want to fill up what was erased, we want to unerase. We want to expose just a much fuller story,” Sherry said.

A few feet away from the two canoes, a pair of Abenaki baskets sit under glass. One was made in the mid-1700s. Encircling the top is the friendship pattern, common in Abenaki baskets, a checkered band likely darkened with walnut.

“We don’t know who made the basket for sure, we just know it was in the Hanson family since 1760 and came to Hopkinton with the family and was donated here,” Sherry said.

Abenaki Baskets at Hopkinton Exhibit.JPG
Peter Biello
Two baskets are on display at the Hopkinton Historical Society. The one on the left dates to the 1700s, and the basket on the right was woven by Sherry Gould, a basket weaver and tribal genealogist for the Nulhegan Band of the Coosuk Abenaki.

The origin of the other basket is clear, though. It was woven by Sherry during 2020. She made her basket using a similar friendship pattern used in the older basket. At one point, she realized she had broken the friendship pattern, but kept weaving. . It was a representation of what she saw around her – the divisiveness of the presidential election and COVID-19. Eventually, the basket came together.

“By the time we got to the top of the basket, we were through the election process and rocky relationships that were heated through that heat of the moment were healing and the friendship pattern was intact, and that was the basket,” Sherry said.

The exhibit goes beyond comparing historic and contemporary elements of Abenaki culture. There are paintings, poetry displays, maps, an Abenaki-English dictionary, and a video showing Abenaki language scholar Jesse Bruchac speaking in Abenaki.

Nancy Jo Chabot, an administrator at the Hopkinton Historical Society helped bring the exhibit to the town. In an effort to immerse children in the exhibit, she encourages kids who visit to learn Abenaki words.

“I ask them to take the dictionary, find the word that connects to something in the exhibit, write that word in Abenaki, write that word in English, and take the tape and post it somewhere around the room where it connects,” Chabot said.

She’s done some of this work herself, learning and highlighting the word Wliwni, pronounced oh-lee oh-nee, which means “thank you” in Abenaki. Chabot says every New Hampshire community has stories like the ones found in the exhibit.

“It’s just looking in a collaborative way to see how things got to where we are now and how things will proceed in the future, walking a path together of reimagining how history and the present are,” Chabot said.

The exhibit is open through the end of January. The Hopkinton Historical Society is open on Thursdays and Fridays from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. and Saturdays from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m.

Peter Biello is the host of All Things Considered and Writers on a New England Stage at New Hampshire Public Radio. He has served as a producer/announcer/host of Weekend Edition Saturday at Vermont Public Radio and as a reporter/host of Morning Edition at WHQR in Wilmington, North Carolina.
Julia Furukawa is the host of All Things Considered at NHPR. She joined the NHPR team in 2021 as a fellow producing ATC after working as a reporter and editor for The Paris News in Texas and a freelancer for KNKX Public Radio in Seattle.

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