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Remembering Bea Nelson, community leader and Abenaki elder

A woman sits in a chair holding a feather
Bea Nelson at her Abenaki Elder ceremony.

When Becky Hardy pictures her mom, Bea Nelson, she sees her in one of three places:

“She’d either be sitting on her porch feeding her birds and her chipmunks, drinking her coffee and having a cigarette. Or she'd be sitting at her table with her easel, painting. Or she'd be typing on her computer, doing research.”

Bea’s friend, Cathie Baker of Orrington, Maine, sees her that way, too. They connected in the 1980s, as two Abenaki women living in rural areas.

“Bea was just a mother on a rural hill road, canning her own vegetables and raising her kids and having a regular life, celebrating, you know, Christmas and birthdays, and all of that kind of stuff," she said. "We forget that it's not just who you have in your immediate; it's who you connect with.”

Born Beatrice Aldrich on a farm in Derby in 1944, Bea was raised primarily by her aunts. She married her late husband, Roger Nelson, in 1969.

Bea and her husband of 50 years, Roger.
Bea and her husband of 50 years, Roger.

Bea’s daughter Becky says her mom was a member of the Holland Historical Society, part of the Lake Memphremagog Steering Committee and part of the Derby Chamber of Commerce. She worked with the Vermont Land Trust, and wrote newsletters and painted and co-authored books.

“She was just one of those go-to people, for, I mean, anything,” Becky said.

Bea loved her family, her garden, and the way the moon came in through the windows.

She was a member of the Nulhegan Band of the Coosuk Abenaki Nation, one of the four state-recognized Abenaki groups in Vermont. She was a ceremonied elder, formally recognized as a holder of knowledge and a keeper of wisdom.

Cathie Baker says Bea was proud of her heritage at a time when not everyone was. The state-sanctioned eugenics movement, which sterilized many Native Vermonters, was still a recent memory.

“She was able to actually open people's eyes, and possibly their hearts a little bit more, to be able to be willing to accept the fact that there were still Abenaki at that time, and that there were still people who weren't ashamed of being Abenaki,” Baker said.

three people stand outside
Bea with her best friends, Roland and Cathie, a few months before her death.

Don Stevens is Chief of the Nulhegan Band.

“[Bea] was very proud of who she was. And I hope that's an example for others to be the same. Because it’s so easy to be integrated and colonized, ignore that," he said. "But then you lose part of who you are, and yourself.”

Bea Nelson died of cancer on Oct. 22, a week before her 77th birthday.

Chief Stevens says Bea isn’t gone — because death is not an ending; it’s a transition.

“For us, people who cross over, they just transfer from the physical world to the spiritual world, where they will still guide us in the future. And as long as we hold her memories and her teachings, then they live on, right? So they're always there to guide; you just have to ask in a different way.”

Bea’s daughter Becky says she’ll think of her mother every time the brook is flowing, and every time she’s out in the garden.

Have questions, comments or tips?Send us a message or tweet us@vprnet.

Anna worked for Vermont Public from 2019 through 2023 as a reporter and co-host of the daily news podcast, The Frequency.
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