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“These are powerful ways of engaging with the Vermont community”
Participants in the “Presenting Abenaki Culture in the Classroom” seminar held at the Lake Champlain Maritime Museum. Vera Longtoe Sheehan, the Director of the Vermont Abenaki Artists Association, is at the center in a black-and-white top.
“Alnobak: Wearing Our Heritage” is a groundbreaking exhibit that shows how traditional clothing and accessories have expressed—and continue to express—cultural identity for Vermont’s original inhabitants, the Abenaki. A $2,000 grant from the Vermont Humanities Council helped the Vermont Abenaki Artists Association and the Lake Champlain Maritime Museum offer programs related to the exhibit in 2017, including a summer seminar for educators and several panel discussions at Vermont libraries.
“We have been leading lectures about Abenaki culture in schools for many years,” said Vera Longtoe Sheehan, the Director of the Vermont Abenaki Artists Association. “But being able to offer an all-day educator training was a pretty amazing opportunity.”
The summer seminar, “Presenting Abenaki Culture in the Classroom,” was held at the Lake Champlain Maritime Museum in August 2017. It included presentations from multiple tribal experts about Abenaki history, spirituality, foods, and other topics, and concluded with a guided tour through the “Wearing Our Heritage” exhibit.
Vera noted that attendees came from across New England and included classroom teachers as well as library and museum staffers.
“These 38 educators engaged with Native American culture, and they’re going to bring that knowledge back to 25 or 30 kids in their classrooms year after year,” she said. “That’s a pretty big deal.”
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A series of panel discussions featuring Abenaki artists were held at the Bixby Library in Vergennes, the Pierson Library in Shelburne, and the Brooks Memorial Library in Brattleboro. The free events allowed attendees to interact with and learn from Abenaki musicians, basket makers, carvers, storytellers, and canoe makers. Similar panel discussions will be held at the Charlotte Library on March 8, and the Fletcher Free Library in Burlington on May 7.
“With the exhibit, people can look at the art, they can look at pictures, they may read the labels,” said Vera. “But it doesn’t substitute for talking to people who can answer their questions one-on-one.”
Eloise Beil, Director of Collections and Exhibits at the Lake Champlain Maritime Museum, noted that the panel discussions stimulated conversation between the Abenaki artists and the audience, and between audience members themselves, some of whom identified as Abenaki. “This dialogue lasted at least as long as the formal presentations,” she said. “The events really served the purpose we had intended.”
The traveling Alnobak exhibition was first presented at the Amy E. Tarrant Gallery at the Flynn Center in Burlington. It’s currently installed at the Institute for American Indian Studies in Connecticut. The annual Abenaki Heritage Weekend will be held on June 23-24, at the Lake Champlain Maritime Museum.
“These exhibits, teacher trainings, and panel discussions are powerful ways of engaging with the Vermont community,” says Vera. “We have been pretty much overlooked in Vermont’s history, so these events have brought us a lot of self-esteem and pride.”
Abenaki artists gathered in front of photographs of their ancestors in the Alnobak: Wearing Our Heritage exhibit at the Amy Tarrant Gallery in Burlington.