The story of the First Nation people is often one left largely untold, especially for Abenaki tribe members alive today. But the local Nulhegan, Abenaki hope to change that with a new exhibit in the Burlington International Airport.

“We want people to know we’re still here,” Abenaki Chief Don Stevens said.

The exhibit opened on Saturday, Nov. 9, helping kick off Native American Month, according to Stevens. It was a yearlong effort by Abenaki members, the airport – which donated the space – and local sponsors who helped fund the glass display case and other associated costs. The exhibit will be on display on the second floor of the airport for five years, and the Abenaki Nation can renew the lease thereafter.  

On Saturday, Nulhegan, Abenaki members, legislators, the public and airport staff were present to mark the occasion. While Sen. Patrick Leahy, Congressman Peter Welch and Gov. Phil Scott were unable to attend the event, each sent his regards and congratulations to the Abenaki Nation. 

“This is a substantial accomplishment for the Abenaki people as so many are not aware of the long, rich history of the Abenaki in Vermont,” Leahy wrote. “The display will have a major impact in the airport as a gateway through which hundreds of thousands of people annually enter our state.”

Scott and Welch expressed similar sentiments and congratulatory remarks. 

Martha A. Penzer, a member of the Religious Society of Friends – which helped sponsor the exhibit – attended the event for a myriad of reasons. One, being her status as first generation after the Holocaust genocide in Europe. 

“Genocide of the local people is in many ways abstract for people,” Penzer said. “Remembering … seems so deeply critical; this was a way to do that.”

She added that today, the First Nation presence is largely invisible, and that’s why it’s important to increase its visibility wherever possible. Christopher McCandless, another member of the Society of Friends, stood by Penzer’s side. He concurred with her remarks.

“I’m just so aware when I walk in [the airport] the murals on the wall really start with European history,” Christopher McCandless said. “That’s just not true.”

He and Penzer were pleased that their society helped sponsor the exhibit and hope to see it grow soon. 

“Part of the strength of this exhibit is it speaks to the vitality of this nation,” Penzer said, “finding a way to flourish in spite of obstacles.”

According to Stevens, the exhibit won’t go “stale.” The organizers intend to change its contents in six months and thereafter, possibly with the seasons. Stevens is hopeful it will not only be an educational opportunity for tourists at the airport, but for school groups and locals alike.

The current exhibit boasts pieces more than 20 Abenaki artists. 

“All of it in there represents the people that are still standing here, not people who have passed,” Stevens said. 

The airport display joins other Abenaki collections around the state, including exhibits at the ECHO, Leahy Center, Lake Champlain Maritime Museum and the Vermont Historical Society Museum. 

“We need to have visibility to continue making it easier for our children, especially when society nowadays is full of hate,” Stevens said, “to help uplift people not suppress them.”

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