Stowe’s inaugural Indigenous Peoples’ Day Rocks! event took place Sunday, featuring Chief Don Stevens, Abenaki drummers, Native American singers, authors, storytellers and more.
Dave Keller, John Fusco and friends performed.
Chief Stevens asked, before a separate Indigenous Peoples’ Day flag raising ceremony in Shelburne, “How many other people have to submit everything to independent scholars to say, ‘Yes you’re really who you are,’ and then have the House and Senate hold hearings and determine your worth and your existence and then the governor sign a bill saying that you actually exist?”
While Columbus Day is recognized federally, Indigenous Peoples’ Day was made official in Vermont last year, when Gov. Phil Scott signed the holiday name change into law.
Columbus, Stevens said, was a colonizer. Like others, the man tried to take territory for his homeland. It just so happened to be land that the Abenaki had always stewarded. Problems began when colonizers took native peoples back to their homelands to enslave them, or when they killed them, he said.
“That’s just a dark history,” Stevens added. “What we’re trying to do is instead of focusing on the negative is taking opportunities to educate people about our rich culture and the people that are still here.”
The more people who learn about the Abenaki, and their vibrant culture, the easier it will be for their children and grandchildren to be accepted, he said.
The May killing of George Floyd, a Black man, under the knee of Minnesota Police Officer Derek Chauvin, has come a “social awakening” around racism, Stevens said. Coupled with COVID-19, people have more time to sit down and think about their connection to others and the land, Stevens added.
“Before people were so busy with their lives, if it didn’t directly affect them then they didn’t pay much attention to it,” he said.
For Native American people, it’s gone beyond racism to dehumanizing behavior, Stevens said.
“Throughout history we have been systematically removed or tried to be removed, whether it be through tainted disease blankets when Europeans first arrived, to taking our kids into boarding schools and trying to remove the Indian,” he said.
The dehumanization continues with mascots and fans decked in headdresses, red face and mimicking tomahawk chops, he said.
But instead of pointing the finger and telling people how they’ve mistreated others — even if it is true — it’s more productive to approach it like a conversation, Stevens said. That involves acknowledging history more than talking about how to move forward, he added.
“If you’re a minority population you have to live within the confines of what’s been given to you. We have to convince people to do it because it’s the right thing to do,” he said. “Whoever’s in power makes the rules. So, we’re not in power, we have to live within the confines of the constructs.”
Educating others can remove fear and ignorance. When people understand others, they become less afraid and can learn a lot about how they live their lives, Stevens said.
That’s part of why the Nulhegan Abenaki participated in Stowe’s celebration, and the flag raising in Shelburne.
“My thought is if you’re doing indigenous celebrations, on our homeland then we should be having a voice in that,” Stevens said. “Nulhegan is very active in the community and anytime we can showcase our people, and other Abenaki people, then that’s a good thing.”