Odanak First Nation's Mali Obomsawin tells Indigenous stories through music
Question-asker David Hess was curious about Native stories that speak to the Vermont landscape. Enter Mali Obomsawin’s new album, Sweet Tooth. Across three movements, she blends Wabanaki music with free jazz, and ancient stories with new ones, all of which offers a unique look at the land called Vermont.
Brave Little State is Vermont Public's show that answers questions about Vermont that have been asked and voted on by you, our audience, because we think our journalism is better when you're a part of it.
In this episode, reporter Josh Crane talks with songwriter Mali Obomsawin about Indigenous stories that speak to the landscape we now know as Vermont. Mali tells her stories with songs that honor both the past and present.
Note: Our show is produced for the ear. We recommend listening to the audio; for accessibility, we also provide a written version of the episode below.
Subscribe to Brave Little State for free, so you never miss an episode:
Vermont is 'all through this album' — but never named
For as long as Mali Obomsawin can remember, music has been part of her life.
As a kid, she went to fiddle camp in Maine and learned folk music. Then she attended Dartmouth College, where she studied jazz. “Especially creative music, Black creative music, and improvised music,” Mali says.
Mali's also a citizen of Wabanaki First Nation at Odanak, also known as Odanak First Nation — her Native community. And they have a long tradition of music-making as well. “The way that our drum rhythms have always been, with the hand drum: That swings!” Mali says.
All of these musical influences can be heard on her forthcoming album, Sweet Tooth.
“I think Sweet Tooth is kind of like the accumulation of my entire musical journey thus far,” Mali says, adding that she would prefer that the inspiration behind the album’s title be left up to interpretation.
Mali grew up in Maine and still lives there when she’s not touring (most recently, she toured with the acclaimed folk-rock band, Lula Wiles). Meanwhile, much of her family and greater community lives in central Québec at Odanak First Nation.
“If we're talking numbers, the majority of my relatives are there,” Mali says. “Every time I go there, it feels like home, although I've never actually permanently lived there.”
The term "Wabanaki" generally refers to the same people as the word more commonly used in Vermont, "Abenaki." Both describe people indigenous to this region, and both words describe Mali’s ancestors.
Up until the early 1600s, they lived everywhere from the Champlain Valley in New York and Vermont all the way east to Maine. Then, Indigenous people experienced disease, genocide and slavery at the hands of European colonizers, which researchers estimate to have wiped out 90% of the Indigenous population across the continent.
In the Northeast, some of those who survived sought refuge across the border in places like Odanak (a name meaning "in the village"). It’s a chapter of history that comes through in Mali’s album, Sweet Tooth, along with other stories connected to this region.
“We never stopped coming back to Vermont. And so some of the stories on the album are stories that our people told, ancient stories and newer stories that talk about places in what is now called Vermont,” Mali says. “So Vermont is all through this album."
While the album is about the land known as Vermont, it’s not quite about "Vermont," specifically. “I never say the word Vermont on the album, because for us, there's no distinction," Mali says. "It's just our territory.”
Meet our question-asker
Here on Brave Little State, we answer questions submitted and voted on by you, the audience. And the question that inspired this episode came from David Hess. “The genesis of the question is more of a curve than a straight line,” David says.
David lives in southern Oregon and dreams of one day moving to Vermont. He loves nature and being outside. And, so, in the interest of better appreciating his dream state, he asked this:
“Are there Native American legends and mythologies that speak to a deeper time relationship with the landscape of Vermont?”
David isn’t Native American, and neither am I. When I followed up with him to learn more about his curiosity, he cited a deep respect for what he described as a “Native American worldview.”
“I just think, in this time, it's important for everyone to maybe look at the landscape, the ecology, wherever you are, with a little bit more reverence,” David says.
It turned out, though, that answering David’s question about Native American legends was anything but straightforward. I started by calling up a number of representatives for tribes across the Northeast who declined to participate. Some were hesitant to share sacred stories with a mostly white audience. Others told me it was simply not the right time of year for them — storytelling in their communities occurs mainly during the winter months.
Some people did agree to talk to me — like Mali Obomsawin. I put David’s question to her, and asked if she had any reactions to it:
“Makes sense people are curious about that,” Mali says. “I wouldn't go into detail telling a really sacred story about it. But I will say that we do have stories that definitely placed us here during the Ice Age, which is cool. There's some stories about hunting mammoths, you know. And so, that's dope.”
I also spoke to a number of Native reporters and educators, and a common thread emerged: White people are often only interested in Native stories that are non-threatening, comfortable to listen to — and also really, really old.
At this point, Mali’s just kinda tired of only being asked about her people’s distant past.
“There's this idea that Indigenous people will never leave the 16th or 17th or 18th century, right?" Mali says. "They see us in regalia, they see us living in wigwams, or tepees, which is inaccurate.
“There's this idea that we can't adapt or, you know, this, like, denial of modernity to Indigenous people. And that's what I really wanted to showcase with this album. The whole album, the message really is, like, that we're adaptive. And we're faced with this challenge where we don't want to deny ourselves the pleasure of engaging with beautiful things that are around us, like jazz or French chanson, or like — whatever, right?”
But, in addition to all of this adaptation, Mali still acknowledges how important the past is.
“We also have to do our best to preserve what is sacred and what we inherit from our ancestors,” she says.
To answer David’s question about Native American legends and deep time, we’re going to focus on something that’s happening right now: one story connected to Vermont that’s being told in modern times but that’s also deeply intertwined with things that happened a long time ago. That story is Mali Obomsawin’s Sweet Tooth.
“We're saying things now. We're telling powerful stories now. And you would benefit by engaging with them now,” Mali says.
Breaking down the album
Sweet Tooth is made up of three movements. The first movement includes the opening two tracks, “Odana” and “Lineage,” and it focuses on the past.
“‘Odana,’ the forming of our nation and our satellite village, Mazipskoik,” Mali says. “‘Lineage’ goes back even further, and it's the story of, the timeless story of the Abenaki. And, conceptually, that composition has no lyrics. But that's what's happening in the first movement.”
The next two tracks form the second movement, which is all about spirituality. “Which transcends all time, of course. But the first song is [a] religious Catholic hymn translated into Abenaki by a priest, possibly as early as the 1690s, as a means to colonize us and Christianize us,” Mali says. “And then the counterpart of that is ‘Pedegwajois,’ which is the ancient spiritual story.”
This is my favorite part of the album: Movement Two, Track Four. It opens with a voice that isn't Mali’s.
“His name is Theophile Panadis, from the Panadis family,” Mali says. “And they reserved land in their homeland for their relatives or their descendants in Vermont. He's telling the story of our spirit journeys to what's called Lake Champlain in that recording.”
“It's all in the Wabanaki language. So that is a bit limiting — even for our own community, to be perfectly honest. There's not as many speakers as we would like, and we're working on that,” Mali says. “But I hope that non-Native audiences will feel drawn in by it, just by the music itself.”
Listen to "Odana" and pre-order Sweet Tooth below (full album available October 28th, 2022)
Mali found this recording in the archives at Dartmouth College. It was made in the mid-1900s by an ethnologist named Gordon Day. The person he recorded, Theophile Panadis, was a traditional teacher from Odanak First Nation. I asked Mali how she came to include Day’s recording so prominently in the first two minutes of the track.
“I just felt that it was so beautiful, the cadence of our language — and to have an actual first language speaker featured on the album felt really important too. Because, you know, I tried my best, right? And I think the ancestors will be able to understand me. I might be a little accented or whatnot. But, for him to have the space to tell so much of that story, it felt important,” Mali says.
“And as an improviser, as well, I just think our language is so melodic and rhythmic. And it was really fascinating to me to try to improvise to that, and be in conversation with that on my instrument.”
For nearly two minutes at the opening of this track, one of Mali’s predecessors at Odanak First Nation tells his story while Mali accompanies him on the bass. It’s like a reunion across generations, made possible by the power of recording technology.
And then, all of a sudden, one of Mali’s accompanying musicians comes in with some guitar. Soon after, others come in on the horns.
I’ve listened to this track over and over again. There’s something about the cross-generational accompaniment — the old and the new existing on top of one another, in parallel — that really grabbed me. The dissonance is striking and beautiful.
“I wanted the overlap, because I feel like that melody goes so well with the story and the content of the story itself,” Mali says. “Like, it's a journey, it has ups and downs. It feels very much like water to me.”
Defining and protecting community
Mali describes Sweet Tooth as a “suite for Indigenous resistance.”
“The album and the compositions tell certain stories. It's all in the Abenaki language. So you'll have to learn that in order to fully understand it. But, ultimately, the suite asks the listener to consider what we're facing today,” Mali says.
“You know, we've been facing colonization and all kinds of challenges for the last several hundred years. But today's challenges, a lot of those, specifically, are based around how we recognize and define our own communities, and keep our own communities, and what those practices are. And so it's an opportunity to consider that protecting the community is a form of resistance.”
“We're saying things now. We're telling powerful stories now. And you would benefit by engaging with them now."Mali Obomsawin
Defining community, and protecting it, are top of mind for Mali right now. In fact, the first time I became aware of Mali, it wasn’t through her music. It was through community organizing. Mali’s the executive director of the Bomazeen Land Trust, which works to reclaim land of “historical, spiritual and ecological significance” for the Wabanaki people.
She and others from Odanak First Nation have also questioned the legitimacy of Vermont’s four Abenaki-identifying tribes. Those groups received state recognition back in 2011 and 2012, but aren’t recognized federally.
Mali helped present the case at a talk at the University of Vermont this past spring. Our newsroom covered the event:
“There has been a rising movement of race-shifting or 'Pretendians,'" Mali said during the presentation, "groups of white people that may have a Native ancestor from long ago deciding to form communities around this hobby."
The Abenaki ancestry of Vermont groups has been called into question before. When one Vermont group applied for federal recognition in 2007, the Bureau of Indian Affairs noted that “less than 1%” of the individuals cited in the application demonstrated Abenaki ancestry. The bid failed.
In May of this year, Mali discussed the ancestry of Vermont’s state-recognized tribes with Vermont Public:
“Indigenous nations determine who is part of the community. The line that the people in Vermont are trying to walk is, they're asserting themselves as sovereign nations, when for hundreds of years, they were just not known as Indigenous,” Mali said. “And so in the last 20 to 40 years, they're coming forward and saying: ‘We're sovereign nations, we get to define who we are.‘"
Members and allies of Vermont’s state-recognized tribes have rejected claims that they’re “Pretendian.” They point to the long process they went through in the 2000s as evidence of their legitimacy. That’s the process that ultimately led to their state recognition in 2011 and 2012. They’ve also said that Abenaki people were targets of the Vermont Eugenics Survey, and hid their identities because of it, though a 2002 report by the state attorney general's office found little evidence for this claim.
"[The album] is an opportunity to consider that protecting the community is a form of resistance.”Mali Obomsawin
The dispute between Abenaki-identifying groups in Vermont and Odanak First Nation is still ongoing. It’s a deeply personal matter for all of the people involved. But, it’s not what this story is about. And Mali says it’s not what her album, Sweet Tooth, is about either. It’s really about "the conditions that caused Odanak’s expulsion from the land of 'Vermont' and the rest of their homelands in the first place." It's a sadly familiar story for Indigenous communities around the continent.
Mali was thinking about this history when she first started composing Sweet Tooth towards the end of her time at Dartmouth College in 2018. And she was thinking about how, not only were communities like Odanak forced to leave their ancestral territory, but then they were subjected to policies designed to further marginalize them.
“The colonial, patriarchal policies that have been imposed on Indigenous people through the Allotment Act, through the Indian Act in Canada, that limits our ability to marry and be in love with people that we choose, right? And put kind of pressure on Indigenous people in one sense or another,” Mali says.
Mali just mentioned two different policies: The Allotment Act of 1887 made it possible for the U.S. president to break up communally-held tribal land, and convert it to private property. It also made it possible for the U.S. government to determine which community members had enough “Native blood” to inherit the land.
Meanwhile, the Indian Act of 1876 allowed the Canadian government to strip many Indigenous people of citizenship in their tribal nations. For instance, if a Native woman married a man who wasn’t Native, she lost her status. But, if a white woman married a Native man, she actually gained Native status.
“And the ultimate goal of these policies, right, are to alienate Indigenous people from ourselves, first of all. And second, ensure that there are no more ‘Indians’ left, right?” Mali says. “It makes us breed ourselves out of existence. And it's a way for the government to no longer have obligations to tribes. If there are fewer and fewer people, there's less and less money that they're required to present to us, because they took our land. So they owe us, right? That's the underlying truth of that.”
Mali says the lasting effects of these acts were to chip away at tribes’ ability to define their own citizenship as sovereign nations do. And they gave colonial governments say over who counts as Native, instead of leaving this to Native nations themselves.
These issues are highlighted in the third and final movement on Sweet Tooth. If the first movement is about the past, and the second movement is about spirituality … “The final movement is for the living,” Mali says. “It's the issues of community-keeping and community definition and community preservation that we're facing going forward."
Look no further than the titles of the last two tracks: “Fractions” and “Blood Quantum,” both of which speak to the legacy of efforts to divide and even erase Native nations. “Blood quantum” laws were created by the U.S. government to measure the amount of someone’s “Indian blood.” These laws were used to control and minimize the population of certain tribes.
“So, I was thinking a lot about this, you know, the kind of stress that comes with Indigenous love. And how angry that makes me,” Mali says. “And at the time, you know, it was really weighing on me. And so I wanted to put out an album that, not necessarily in words, but in spirit and instrumentally, addressed these concepts.”
The closing song on the album, “Blood Quantum,” also has a Wabanaki subtitle.
“Nəwewəčəskawikαpáwihtawα, which means, ‘I stand to face him’ or ‘I stand ready to fight him,’” Mali says.
I asked her: Who she was standing ready to fight?
“Well, speaking, I guess, of the last movement, you know, I’m ready to fight against anything that is trying to diminish our communities and the health of our communities,” Mali says.
“And, you know, the other lyrics of that chant are, ‘We honor our matriarchs, we honor our grandmothers.’ And so I'm fighting for them. You know, I'm fighting for the women in the community and our role in leading our communities. I wasn't going to say ‘fight the patriarchy,’ you know, but … We got there.”
'Where freedom and resistance meets the tradition of improvising'
Listening through Sweet Tooth is a journey. The first time I heard it, I didn’t have any of the context that Mali later provided when I spoke to her. And yet, there’s just something about it.
The album’s power comes through even if you don’t understand the Wabanaki language. There’s a marriage between the lyrics and the ideas behind the music with the musical style itself. Sweet Tooth is filled with improvisation and free jazz. Musically liberated from some of the rules that structure other genres.
“The era of jazz that always called to me most was sort of the, people call it free jazz or avant garde, or that kind of corner of the music where they said, ‘We don't want to be enslaved to’ — these are Ornette Coleman's words — ‘enslaved to meter or enslaved to changes, harmony,’ right?” Mali says. “We're dealing with sound and we want to be able to be free with the sound. And there's all these artists that kind of follow in that tradition.”
One of those artists was Don Cherry, a trumpeter active in the second half of the 20th century who played with famous jazz musicians like John Coltrane and Ornette Coleman. Don Cherry, by the way, was both Black and Native American.
“Indigenous people have always been a part of shaping jazz. And this is often overlooked, you know, but a lot of the jazz innovators at big turning points in the music have been Indigenous, often Indigenous and Black, within one identity,” Mali says.
“That's the ideology that I'm engaging with, and the spaces that I wanted to open up for Wabanaki music, because I think that our music, it is improvised music. With these compositions, they sound to me like Wabanaki music really leaning into that pocket and that fold, where freedom and resistance meets the tradition of improvising.”
Sweet Tooth is the first time Mali’s putting out music under her own name, as a composer and bandleader.
“It feels like the first authentic statement in my creative journey that comes, like, purely from me, you know, and draws from sort of all the facets of who I am. And, secondly, I guess, you know, to tell the story of my community in a broader way,” Mali says. “Our people are still adapting and our cultures are growing and developing in beautiful ways. And that's not a loss ... And I just encourage people not to think of Indigenous people doing modern forms of art or existing in a modern way as a loss, you know? There's no loss in that if we're true to who we are.”
"I just encourage people not to think of Indigenous people doing modern forms of art or existing in a modern way as a loss, you know? There's no loss in that if we're true to who we are.”Mali Obomsawin
Sweet Tooth will be available everywhere on Oct. 28. You can pre-order it here. Mali says she’s also working on a visual component to the album, so stay tuned for that as well.
“I'm nervous to bring it to the communities for all kinds of reasons. You know, for people who understand the language, I hope that they're not like, ‘Oh, she's totally butchering it,’” Mali says. “And for the community that is not like, jazz listeners, right? I hope that they are not offended by the harsher sound, some of the, you know, more improvised textures that we go for, you know, and there's a lot of considerations. But I'd have to just remember too, that, like, it's me. So, you know, I made it because it's me.”
Thanks so much for listening to the show, and thanks to David Hess for the great question.
Josh Crane reported this episode and did the mix and sound design. Editing and additional production from Angela Evancie, Myra Flynn, Elodie Reed and Mark Davis. Ty Gibbons composed our theme music; other music by Mali Obomsawin.
Special thanks to Savannah Maher, Gregory Cajete, Seth Bedard, Melody Mackin, and to Mali Obomsawin for her input and help with this episode.
As always, our journalism is better when you’re a part of it.
- Ask a question about Vermont
- Sign up for the BLS newsletter
- Say hi on Twitter, Instagram and Reddit @bravestatevt
- Drop us an email: firstname.lastname@example.org
- Make a gift to support people-powered journalism
- Tell your friends about the show!
Brave Little State is a production of Vermont Public.