Abenaki buy forest and farmland in Barton

by Tena Starr

copyright the Chronicle 12-19-2012

BARTON — For the first time in two centuries, an Abenaki tribe in Vermont can claim tribal forestland.  As of Monday, the roughly 1,000-member Nulhegan Abenaki own 65 acres in Barton on the May Farm Road.  Title is held by Abenaki Helping Abenaki, a nonprofit created several years ago to preserve the culture of the Nulhegan Abenaki.

The tribe, which the state of Vermont officially recognized in 2011, has been working on the purchase for more than a year.  The Vermont Land Trust holds a conservation easement on the property to make sure it remains undeveloped.

Tribe members will continue, and ultimately expand, an existing sugaring operation on the land.  It will also be used for a tribal community garden, said Luke Willard of Brownington, former tribe chief and a current trustee who was pivotal in organizing the purchase.

“All Nulhegan Abenaki land has been gone for a long, long time,” Mr. Willard said. “This is the first community-owned piece of land for the tribe in literally over 200 years.  We’ve got a lot of celebrating to do.  This is a really big thing for the leadership and the citizens of the tribe.

“It’s also a big thing for the town of Barton and surrounding communities,” Mr. Willard added.  “The way we’ve set it up the land will be conserved forever.  We’re allowing public access.  We’re not allowing motor vehicles, but foot travel, horseback riding, cross country skiing, bird watching, hiking within reason.  We’re willing to share the woods with folks.”

The land was paid for largely through fund-raising and grants.  Prior owner Eric Lanou sold the development rights to the Vermont Land Trust.

“We worked hard to raise this money,” Mr. Willard said.   “But everybody loved this project.  People wanted this to happen.”

Tribe members plan to sugar on the land this spring, gradually increasing the size of the operation as time goes on, Mr. Willard said.  They’ll do it the old-fashioned way, with buckets rather than tubing.

Eventually, the Nulhegan hope to tap as many as 3,000 or 4,000 trees and to develop their own brand of syrup — not just pure Vermont syrup, which has its own fame, but the first brand of Vermont Abenaki-made syrup.  “This is going to be the first maple syrup produced by an Abenaki tribe in centuries,” Mr. Willard  said.

The sugaring operation will be labor intensive.  “Our intention is to take folks who are unemployed or underemployed and put them to work for the season,” Mr. Willard said.  “It’s going to be done fairly old school.”

Also, he said the tribe will invite schoolchildren to come see how sugaring is done the old-fashioned way.

“And we want to have a small exhibit where folks can actually see how maple sugar was produced prior to Colonialism,” he said.  “It’s very laborious compared to contemporary sugaring.”

Money from the sugaring operation will go to support the tribe’s programs, such as Nulheganaki Youth Outreach, which does presentations about Abenaki history and culture.  When that program first started audiences were tiny, sometimes no more than a half dozen people, Mr. Willard said.  These days presentations are made to much bigger groups of 50 or more people.

“It’s grown incredibly with zero funding,” he said.  “So can you imagine what they could accomplish in that program with $4,000 or $5,000 in revenue generated from sugaring?”

The Nulhegan also operate a program called The Seventh Harvest, which is basically a community garden.

Mr. Willard said it started years ago, largely as a typical food shelf to help the needy.  “We realized we were helping people who were down and out, but we weren’t really empowering them to help themselves,” he said.

By coincidence, a Johnson State College professor took an interest in the Abenaki gardening practices, which were still being used by some.

“He was under the impression that these practices were pretty much extinct,” Mr. Willard said.  “When we realized that was the common belief, we worked with JSC and got a grant from the Lake Champlain Basin Program to study these agricultural technologies.  It became apparent to us that these ancient practices could be extinct in as little as a generation.”

The study, combined with a desire to provide healthier food, led to a community garden at Mr. Willard’s home in Brownington.

That garden will move to a clearing on the Barton land.  It could provide food for 15 or 20 families.

The rules for its use are that growers must learn traditional Abenaki growing practices, if they don’t already know them, and they must agree to pass that knowledge on to someone else in order to keep traditions alive.

The little clearing with its rich soil was one of the reasons the Barton land was so appealing, Mr. Willard said.  “I looked at it, and I saw mound gardens.”

Although the land has practical uses, it also has more symbolic ones as well.

A tribe is not an organization; it’s a body politic, just like a town, Mr. Willard said.  But the Nulhegan have not had a communal meeting place.

“There are Abenakis who own their own land,” he said.  “But we didn’t have a community place to meet like towns do.  We were always borrowing places to meet.  It’s difficult to maintain a government when you don’t have a central place.”

The tribe will use the land to hold meetings, events and celebrations.

“Part of our creation story is that the creator wanted us to be the stewards of the land,” said current chief of the Nulhegan Abenaki, Don Stevens, who takes a more spiritual view of the acquisition.  “After the land was taken from our ancestors, we were no longer able to be the stewards we were asked to be.  Our hearts are heavy with that burden.  With our own forest, we can pick up the soil, feel it, smell it, and know that our ancestors walked on this land and it is ours to protect.  For this land, we’re able to fulfill our promise.”

Gaining official recognition for the tribe, as well as others in Vermont, was a long and contentious process.  Mr. Willard said that was, at least in part, because some believed the tribes would make land claims or try to establish casinos.

Nothing could be further from the truth, he said.  The tribe paid for the Barton property, which it intends to share with everyone.  “Our intentions were always positive.”

contact Tena Starr at tena@bartonchronicle.com

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