John Fusco was surprised to see signs in Stowe storefronts last year that said businesses would be closed in observance of Columbus Day.
Gov. Phil Scott in May 2019 signed a bill into law officially recognizing Indigenous Peoples’ Day — making Vermont one of the first states in the nation to do so.
Fusco entered businesses with signs about Columbus Day and gently reminded them that the holiday was now recognized as Indigenous Peoples’ Day.
This year members of Vibrancy, a nonprofit dedicated to arts and culture, along with Peter Schmeeckle of the Stowe Music Center and Toni Barr of the Barr Law Group, knew they wanted to include Fusco as they set in motion plans for the town’s first ever Indigenous Peoples’ Day Rocks celebration.
The celebration, set for Oct. 10, will feature a blessing from Chief Don Stevens of the Nulhegan Abenaki and drumming and dance demonstrations also by Nulhegan Abenaki people. The event will also feature storytellers and local musicians all leading up to headliner Joanne Shenandoah — a Grammy winning Iroquois singer.
The event sold out quickly, with all tickets claimed within a few days of the e-box office opening.
Fusco has been an advocate for Native American rights for most of his life. Although Fusco identifies as an Italian-Scottish-American, he has long followed a Native American spiritual path. Fusco was adopted into a Lakota family and learned to speak the language proficiently. This, he said, is why he has been trusted to write and produce Native American-themed movies and TV shows.
Changing the Columbus Day celebration from one that honored a man who had a dark history, to a day that celebrates Native Americans had long been a goal, Fusco said.
For years, he went to the University of Vermont green to speak alongside the late Homer St. Francis, of the St. Francis Sokoki Band of the Abenaki at Missisquoi, about the importance of recognizing and honoring America’s native people.
“I was thrilled we became one of the first six states to recognize Indigenous Peoples’ Day and replace Columbus Day,” he said. “What went on, on Columbus' watch is beyond horrendous. There's no way to even describe how horrible it was, so it's long overdue that we remove the Columbus Day holiday and honor. The first people.”
But despite its place on the state calendar, Fusco believes Indigenous Peoples’ Day hasn’t quite landed yet. That’s why he’s grateful to Stowe Vibrancy for coming forward with a celebration to honor indigenous people and involving him in planning it.
He hopes the celebration will raise awareness of eastern tribes, like the Nulhegan Abenaki who call Vermont home.
The inaugural Indigenous Peoples’ Day Rocks celebration falls during a time when the U.S. is grappling with racism. From Minneapolis, Minn. to Portland, Ore., to Burlington, thousands of Americans have taken to the streets to demonstrate against racism and police brutality against Black people and People of Color.
That discrimination extends to Native Americans, Fusco said.
“In this time of social justice, we're seeing racism raise its ugly head,” he said. “We do have a long way to go and I think Indigenous Peoples’ Day, and saying goodbye to Columbus Day, is such an important, symbolic act.”
Peace, respect for mother earth
Johanne Shenandoah has graced stages the world round, performing during five presidential inaugurations, at the 1994 Woodstock festival and for celebrities like the Dalai Lama and Nelson Mandela.
But on Oct. 10, Shenandoah will take a smaller stage, headlining the “Indigenous Peoples’ Day Rocks” concert at Mayo Fields from 4:30-6:30 p.m. in Stowe.
“I'm very excited to do this show and looking forward to it,” Shenandoah said. “Indigenous day, primarily, this is a day of gratitude, it's a beautiful thing that Vermont is doing.”
Shenandoah’s singing has a deep, soulful quality. Her songs are a mix of English and Iroquois languages and center on themes like the earth, harmony, balance and thanksgiving.
“In our Iroquois way, we have such a blessing that we can still sing our songs, that we still have our language to still have our culture and traditions,” she said.
Shenandoah’s hope is that through music, she can inspire the next generation to care for the earth and each other.
“We can all inspire each other, irrespective of our color, our race, our religion, our age. We have the ability to make a better world,” she said. “My gift is to bring a sense of harmony and balance. Through my voice, and through the songs that are inspired by my ancestors, to pull people together to unify.”
According to Shenandoah, one big challenge Native Americans face is trying to understand their history. She was born to a mother who was a clan leader and a father who served as chief. Shenandoah said her grandfather — seven generations back — helped save George Washington from starvation, bringing him food during the revolutionary war.
“History is so powerful, it's just like, ‘Okay, let's hear the truth stories.’ We don't really have to live in a world of violence or fear, we can actually join together as one and that's, in basis, why I do the work that I do,” she said.
Another reason is caring for the earth. In today’s world, with the challenges of climate change, it’s important to realize that if we don’t care for mother earth, she won’t take care of us, Shenandoah said.
As people leave the Indigenous Peoples’ Day Rocks celebration, she hopes they walk away with gratitude for life.