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The Abenaki name on a new state park sign has a messy backstory

A green sign with yellow lettering reads "Sweet Pond Start Park Amiskwbi Hiking." It  appears along a snowy roadside mounted between wooden posts
Ethan Phelps
Vermont State Parks
The new sign in Guilford includes an Abenaki word that means 'beaver water.' Entrance signs at eight other state parks across the state will include Abenaki names in the next few years, thanks to a 2020 state law.

A new sign in front of Sweet Pond State Park has been years in the making. In yellow, art deco letters is the park name and an Abenaki word: Amiskwbi — it means beaver water.

The sign’s origins date back to a bill that passed in 2020 that stipulated any new state park signs should display both the English name and Abenaki name for a site, if there is one.

“There is such a myth out there that Abenaki didn’t live here, they just moved through as they were hunting and fishing,” said Carol McGranaghan, who helped push for the law and served as the chair of the Vermont Commission on Native American Affairs (VCNAA) at the time. For her, this was a way to make others aware of the existence of Abenaki people and language.

“It sounded great on paper, but what it ended up being was kind of a challenge,” McGranaghan said.

It’s a challenge because not every pond or other feature on the landscape has a unique Abenaki name. Place names that do exist (like Winooski that means "onion field," or Winnipesaukee that means "the land around the lake") often don't translate neatly onto the boundaries of a state park. And the question of who gets to determine what’s an appropriate Abenaki name has a contentious history in Vermont.

"It is hopefully just the start of a much deeper conversation. It causes people to take notice of the words and ask more about Vermont’s first peoples. It also strengthens our ongoing community language reclamation efforts."
Jesse Bruchac, Abenaki language instructor

In this case, Sweet Pond is a dammed, man-made body of water. It didn’t exist before the 1700s, according to research by Rich Holschuh, the current chair of the VCNAA.

“It may have been more of a swamp or, more likely, a beaver pond,” Holschuh wrote in a letter to the VCNAA.

“This is speculation,” Holschuh added in an interview with Vermont Public.

Still, Holschuh is happy with the name. They think it accomplishes the goal of adding deeper cultural context to this place.

"Is it a perfect example? No," Holschuh said. "But we have to start somewhere."

Jesse Bruchac, an Abenaki language instructor, agrees.

"It is hopefully just the start of a much deeper conversation," he wrote in an email to Vermont Public. "It causes people to take notice of the words and ask more about Vermont’s first peoples. It also strengthens our ongoing community language reclamation efforts."

The state park in Guilford was the first to get a sign with an Abenaki name for purely practical reasons.

“That Sweet Pond sign, honestly, had a big hole in it,” said Rebecca Roy, who runs interpretive programs at Vermont State Parks. “It was just kind of rotting away, and we said, ‘We’ve got to replace this thing.’”

More from Brave Little State: Odanak First Nation's Mali Obomsawin tells Indigenous stories through music

In the law’s language, state park officials have to confer with the Vermont Commission on Native American Affairs to decide what would be an appropriate Abenaki name.

But leaders of Odanak First Nation in Quebec have said that Vermont’s state-recognized tribes have not demonstrated Abenaki lineage — and members of those tribes are largely who make up the VCNAA. (Leaders of the state-recognized tribes have rejected the claims about undemonstrated lineage. When one Vermont group applied for federal recognition over a nearly 30-year period, however, the Bureau of Indian Affairs said in 2007 that “less than 1%” of the individuals cited in the application demonstrated Abenaki ancestry. The bid failed.)

“Sadly, we were not part of the consultation process,” said Daniel Nolett, the general manager at Odanak. “If it’s significant, we’re all in favor of that.”

But he says Sweet Pond does not have cultural significance.

“If we were asked, what’s the name of that place? That’s a pond, that’s a marsh: nebes, nebesis. That’s it,” he said. “To us, it’s another way for them to play again, Indians.”

And Nolett thinks the name Amiskwbi isn't the right language to describe the place. "The name that it was given sucks," he said. "Amiskwbi means beaver water. It's not, that doesn't mean beaver pond."

“Sadly, we were not part of the consultation process ... if we were asked, what’s the name of that place? That’s a pond, that’s a marsh: nebis, nebissis. That’s it."
Daniel Nolett, Odanak First Nation general manager

Back in September, Odanak First Nation requested a meeting with Gov. Phil Scott, noting in a letter that its members were excluded from providing input during Vermont's state-recognition process more than a decade ago. (State records show only one Odanak member from Newport was listed to testify back during the 2011 and 2012 legislative hearings on state recognition.)

In an email last week, a spokesperson for Scott said the administration has "not had any recent communication from the Odanak First Nation, but have been in touch with representatives from the VCNAA and are working to identify a date for a meeting."

Vermont Public's Elodie Reed contributed reporting for this story.

Lexi Krupp is a corps member for Report for America, a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on under-covered issues and regions.

Corrected: January 3, 2023 at 11:09 AM EST
The Abenaki words "nebes," for a lake or a large body of water and "nebesis," for a pond, were updated with the correct spelling.
Lexi covers science and health stories for Vermont Public.
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