Two years ago, Vermont got rid of a holiday named after a white man who “discovered” America and replaced it with a holiday honoring the people who were here first.
This year, ahead of the day formerly known as Columbus Day, Stowe Vibrancy will once again hold its celebration of those first nations, with the second annual Indigenous Peoples’ Day Rocks!
The first three words in the event’s title refer to the new holiday, and the cultural, educational and colorful aspects showcased throughout the day by members of the Nulhegan band of the Abenaki tribe, while the Rocks! part refers to the music that will cap off the day.
Top of the musical marquee is blues guitarist Joe Louis Walker, a member of the Blues Hall of Fame. He’ll be preceded by statewide and local musical acts like blues guitarist Dave Keller, the Vermont Jazz Trio and jazz vocalist Bella Sances.
Starting earlier, though, will be music of a different kind, with Nulhegan Chief Don Stevens and friends participating in drumming workshops and numerous other Abenaki cultural mainstays.
Aimee Green, executive director of Stowe Vibrancy, helped organize the event last year during a time when the pandemic had largely erased the town’s events calendar.
“It’s an opportunity to celebrate the harvest, an opportunity to come together and celebrate all the hard work of the season,” she said.
According to Stevens, although the federal government still marks Columbus Day, that second weekend in October comes at a particularly meaningful time of the year for Native Americans.
It’s a time traditionally tied to the start of autumn, when the harvest comes due — the corn, beans and squash and when his ancestors would go to a rendezvous point at a specified time and bring their bounty.
“Somebody might have more beans and the raccoons got all their corn, and we may have more corn and our beans didn’t go so well, so this is the time to get together to say, ‘Hey, how would you like to do a little horse trading, you get a little corn, we get a little beans and now we’ve both got beans and corn for the whole year,’” Stevens said. “So, while you were there preparing these foods and swapping the food, you would all sit down for a feast to honor Mother Earth for the bounty that she gave you. But it was also a time where everybody got together and have a feast, because you’re going into the long winter and this was a time to gather, talk, learn things and celebrate.”
Green said she has been personally involved in Native American culture and current events since spending time on the Hopi reservation in New Mexico when she was in college.
She said cultural education is a key part of Saturday’s event, and it’s especially important, since so much of what is seen as analogous to Native Americans, such as casinos and cheap cigarettes, are white peoples’ constructs.
“We’re the ones responsible for creating that culture, if you will, which is not at all what their culture is. Their culture is extremely rich,” Green said. “How do we hold ourselves accountable to that? How do we help in whatever small way to make a difference?”
Celebrate, but remember
Funds generated from the event will go to Abenaki Helping Abenaki, a nonprofit addressing health care and other human services needs within the tribe, as well as food for people in need.
Stevens said the Nulhegan have a three-pronged food security program — access to land to forage for food and medicine, such as the butternuts that are coming ripe this time of year, but also spring delicacies life ramps and fiddleheads; partnerships with growers that net crops and seeds that can be distributed among those who need it and have seeds for next year; and protein availability in the form of two dozen bison the tribe maintains.
Stevens said it’s great that actual native Vermonters are finally recognized as indigenous to this land, and Saturday’s event will offer plenty of fun. But there’s also much more to it.
“Like with anything, they’re great gestures, but there should be things behind that to really celebrate the culture,” Stevens said. “I mean celebrate like the state working on reducing health disparities, working on food security, working on different programs.”
Abenaki people have a low vaccination rate compared to the rest of Vermonters, so there will be vaccination clinics at the event and education about the other needs Stevens touched on.
He said, in a state that’s 95 percent white, where the Indigenous population is about 2 percent of what remains, it doesn’t make sense that Abenaki people have some of the highest health disparities. He said, despite this, when lawmakers discuss health care, Native Americans aren’t even at the table sometimes.
“You would think it wouldn’t be a real heavy lift, to come out and concentrate on people of color or Indigenous people, to be able to help them out, to reduce those issues of equity and health disparities, because, I mean, you’re only talking 5 percent of the population,” Stevens said. “But it doesn’t seem to happen, right? It doesn’t seem like there’s a direct focus on that.”
Stevens said there is a lot that Indigenous people can teach white people and other groups, and it doesn’t have to be confrontational. It can be done with education, and a celebration of culture and, lest one forgets the name of Saturday’s event, some rockin’ tunes.
“It can be done in a way that everybody is uplifted,” he said. “Music’s universal. I mean, everybody loves music.”