Film takes multicultural look at Lake Champlain history

VERGENNES — The Vergennes Opera House on Friday will debut a work by filmmaker Caro Thompson — a documentary set for a December premiere on Vermont Public Television — on the century-and-half in Lake Champlain’s history beginning in 1609, when the region’s native population first interacted with the European newcomers to North America.
Thompson, who will discuss the film at a reception following the 7 p.m. screening, said “Champlain: The Lake Between,” is an effort to show history from all points of view, not just those of the English settlers who eventually dominated the Northeastern United States.
Thompson, who has produced five films in collaboration with VPT, first heard in 2003 of the 2009 quadricentennial celebration of Samuel de Champlain becoming the first European to see the lake that now bares his name, and said the idea for the film came quickly.
“I immediately saw it as an opportunity to tell a multicultural story that is often not the approach to colonial history,” Thompson said, adding, “I believe very strongly that history needs to be inclusive. And it’s usually told from the perspective of the folks who won … The story of the Lake Champlain region is a story of the Abenaki perspective, the Mohawk perspective, the French perspective, the English perspective, the American perspective. It’s a multicultural story, and that’s rarely told.”
Thompson also quickly picked up allies in the effort to tell that story. Elsa Gilbertson, who directs the Chimney Point Historic Site in Addison for the Vermont Division of Historic Preservation, and state archaeologist Giovanna Peebles were working on a grant for a major archaeological investigation of former French settlements along Addison County’s lakefront, in tandem with the Bixby Library in Vergennes.
Gilbertson, Peebles and Thompson earned a $250,000 Partnership for a Nation of Learners grant from the Institute for Museum and Library Services and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, about half of which went to Thompson’s movie.
The grant is also funding the archaeological dig; public programs, a computer, books, maps and Web site development devoted to Lake Champlain history for Bixby; and the development of a classroom-friendly packet by the Chimney Point site that will include a DVD of the film, bonus material and a teacher guide and be available by the beginning of the 2009 school year.
Because the funds for the film came from outside VPT, her longtime partner, the project is a little different for Thompson. She was able to do all the filming and editing herself, rather than overseeing the work of others in many phases.
“It’s been a tremendous opportunity for me … It’s my work. It’s my vision,” said the West Danville resident. “It’s been an extraordinary project for me.”
Because of a lack of graphic material dating back to that era, such as paintings and maps, Thompson said she relied on two basic techniques in crafting what she calls “a fairly traditional historical documentary.”
She recruited and filmed re-enactors to serve as Mohawk and Abenaki natives and English and French settlers, and spoke extensively to and filmed historians and Native American culture bearers in Vermont, Quebec and New York.
Contacts made from previous documentaries opened most doors for her, but representatives of the Mohawk people were understandably wary, she said.
“For a filmmaker to come into a native community and say, ‘I want to do a film about your community,’ they have a great number of reasons to believe it will not be done in a responsible and accurate way,” Thompson said.
But she had a contact at Six Nations Museum in Onchiopa, N.Y. Introductions were made, and long conversations held.
“I did a lot of listening to their concerns, building relationships,” Thompson said. “I am humbled by the trust that was placed in me.”
What she learned in her research proved to be surprising, even for someone with an extensive background in area history. Thompson knew of Lake Champlain’s importance as a source of food and transportation, but was not aware of how vital a role it played in a trade network that spread wide long before Europeans arrived.
“Archaeological records show spear points in the Lake Champlain region from as far away as Pennsylvania, the Mohawk Valley and Labrador. There were people traveling long distances to trade,” she said. “Waterways were the main highways, but there were also trails, which many of our highways follow today.”
After Samuel de Champlain stumbled across a body of water called Bitawbakw by the Abenaki and Kaniatarakaronte by the Mohawks, it became the border between English and French territories in the New World and the hub of a new trade network among European and native peoples.
“I didn’t know how crucial Lake Champlain was to colonies in America and Canada. I had no idea. For communication, for economic development, for political diplomacy, and for war,” Thompson said.
What she also learned was that peace ruled much of the first 150 years after de Champlain. Much of Thompson’s film focuses on trade among native and European peoples.
“On a basic material, cultural level, the native people began wearing linen and wool clothing and using some of the metal tools that were brought. On the European side they began to eat corn, beans and squash and use snowshoes. The other great thing … was the Europeans learned about maple syrup,” she said.
The peoples also had to learn about each other.
“In order for the Europeans to trade with native nations, they also had to learn the traditions … and rituals that had to do with relationship between peoples,” Thompson said. “You exchange gifts, you smoked a pipe .. and then maybe you got into a trade. It had to do with more than just an exchange of things, and the Europeans had to learn that.”
Thompson also focuses on the differences among native peoples.
“I was trying to give a sense of the elements of the cultures that made them distinct. The Abenaki lifeways and cultures are very distinct from Mohawk and Iroquois lifeways and cultures,” she said.
Ultimately, she said the lake itself brought all those people together.
“That was the place where all of this was happening,” Thompson said. “Lake Champlain was between the French in the North and the British colonies in the South. So Lake Champlain was a frontier during war and was sometimes a very dangerous place to travel, and sometimes … when native peoples themselves weren’t at war, a peaceful place. But Lake Champlain was always a key to people getting to where they wanted to go to make things happen.”
The Vergennes Opera House seemed like a perfect place to debut the work, Thompson said, because many people living near Lake Champlain may not realize just what an incredible role it has played not just in U.S. history, but also in human history.
“The other thing we’re hoping to accomplish with this film is to inspire people to find out more about the history of their own towns,” she said. “We’re hoping that people will become curious, and have a sense of pride about living in the Champlain Valley.”

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