Arts & Leisure

Abenaki art exhibit flows through the Maritime Museum

“WATER IS LIFE” was painted by Francine Poitras Jones, who was inspired by the Dakota Access Pipeline crisis.

Summer is waning, but it’s not over yet! Sure, school’s back in session, but you can still pack in a few more seasonal sensations… like visiting the Lake Champlain Maritime Museum in Ferrisburgh. 

LCMM has had a special exhibit on view in the Schoolhouse Gallery, which features work by Abenaki artists together with photographs and commentaries that illustrate the dynamic relationship between the people and water in the Abenaki homeland, past and present. This exhibit, “Nebizun: Water is Life,” will be on view through Oct. 16, when the museum closes for the season.

“‘Nebizun: Water is Life’ draws visitors into the Native American worldview of water from the very first word,” explained Vera Longtoe Sheehan, who curated the exhibit and is the director of the Vermont Abenaki Artists Association. “The exhibition title ‘Nebizun’ or ‘Nebizon’ means medicine, from the root word Nebi, the Abenaki word for water. As stewards of the environment, Native American people know the importance of clean water. The Abenaki people know how essential water is to foodways, medicine and many everyday activities that often are taken for granted.”

The original idea for this exhibit cropped up pre-pandemic, so Sheehan had extra time to prepare when everything was paused due to COVID.

“My style of curating is very different from some other museum curators, in that I do a lot of consultation with the community,” said Sheehan, who prefers to use the Abenaki pronoun “awani,” which means “someone.” “In regards to the artwork, I will very often reach out to artists with a piece I think this will be great for the exhibit, but then they’ll tell me, ‘Oh I have a better piece!’ Being flexible has always been my style; I like to uplift the voices of our community as much as possible.”

As businesses and events began opening back up, Sheehan and the exhibit were ready to go. 

The exhibit opened at LCMM and the Brattleboro Museum this summer and has interest from a few other venues, tbd.

“Other people who aren’t Abenaki are showing interest in this,” awani said. “Water is something we have in common and it’s in danger.

VERA SHEEHAN KNOTTING fishnet, an ancient technique passed down in her family.

“Some people may be afraid of Champ — sea monsters that live in the lake — we know these monsters as sea panthers and they are there for our protection… There is something much darker that lurks in the waters… pollution.”

Sheehan elaborated in a curator’s statement: 

“The phrase “Water is Life,” makes a conscious connection to the Lakota phrase “Mní wičhóni” (“Water is life”), the watchword of Native American Water Protectors during the controversial construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) through the homelands of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe (in the upper Midwest). During this crisis, the hashtag #NoDAPL was born, and allies from around the world brought awareness to the issue through protest and in social media, as seen in the “No Pipelines” marker on paper drawing by JES. Protest art can be as simple as quick sketches or can include keywords. In this piece, a long yellow menacing snake can be seen winding its way around the mountains. The word oil signifies the threat of possible oil line ruptures. 

The Dakota Access Pipeline crisis also inspired Francine Poitras Jones to create her acrylic painting “Water is Life,” reflecting awareness of both traditional values and contemporary issues. “Naturally, my first thought was a baby within its mother’s womb… the image was strong and could even be upsetting to some. However, it was my reality… the painting flowed from me, much like the water that sustains life.”

As fellow Native Americans, Abenaki artists share their concerns for the life-bringing waters of N’Dakinna (Abenaki for “Our Homeland), which can be seen in the flowing blue hues of waterways which share equal importance with green land forms in Amy Hook Therrien’s watercolor painting “Aerial View of N’Dakinna.” Throughout deep time, the rivers and tributaries of N’Dakinna were our earliest highways for traveling, and the water itself is important to the plants, fish, animals, birds, and other wildlife that are necessary to our way of life.

Inspired by a group of Wabanaki (Native American) Grandmothers who undertook an 857 km spiritual journey to walk from Sipekne’katik River in Nova Scotia to the Penobscot River at Nebezin, in Passadumkeag, Maine, this exhibit hopes to encourage everyone to be a Water Protector.”

NULHEGAN FORESTER AND basketmaker Bill Gould begins construction of a birchbark canoe in 2021.

The close of this exhibit at LCMM coincides with the 50th anniversary of the nation’s Clean Water Act (1972).

“We need to raise awareness for Abenaki culture and environment,” Sheehan encouraged. “My hope is that visitors to this exhibit begin to understand our relationship with water and everything — ‘all my relations’: the two-legged, the finned, the winged, the earth, the water — and we can rally to clean up our waterways.”

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Editor’s Note: Visit LCMM now through Oct. 16 on Basin Harbor Road west of Vergennes. For info visit lcmm.org or call 802-475-2022. To learn more about the Vermont Abenaki Artists Association visit abenakiart.org and follow them on social media.

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