A Place of Encounter and Learning
image credit: Rich Holschuh
Just under the water, where the Kwenitekw (Connecticut) meets the Wantastekw (West) River in what we now call Brattleboro (Wantastegok), lie ancient petroglyphs and, nearby, burial sites sacred to the Abenaki. Submerged since 1909 when the Vernon Dam was built, the petroglyphs are a message that remains relevant today, said Rich Holschuh, spokesperson for the Elnu Abenaki and executive director of the Atowi Project, to “stop, pay attention, and recognize that something important is happening here.”
For years, Holschuh and Abenaki descendants have been working to understand the significance of the place and why it remains important to people who have been here for 12,000 years. “This is a place people wanted to be during their lives, and at the end of their lives,” he said. “It’s a place of spiritual exchange.”
When the owners of the land decided to sell in 2022, it was well understood in the community that the Abenaki wanted to protect the land from development and further disturbance. So they gave the tribe an opportunity to make a bid before it went on the market.
“I began to contact everyone,” said Holschuh who launched a public fundraising campaign through the Atowi Project, “including the Vermont Community Foundation. Through all of these concerned community individuals, be they the person next door or somebody far away, or a large nonprofit, philanthropic organization, or a donor advised fund, we were able to raise over $330,000 in six weeks. I was stunned.”
Now under the stewardship of the Elnu Abenaki, Holschuh sees an opportunity for Wantastegok to be a place of encounter and learning. “We don’t, any of us, hold all of the understandings,” he said, “but things are not going well on a grand scale. We’re so used to it, we don’t see it. Patterns of separation and erasure are at the heart of what’s happening all over the planet. It’s incumbent on us to respond locally and choose how we interact with the landscape.”
“We can value traditions and things we have been taught, and we can use those understandings to inform what we do moving forward. We’re not stuck in the past. We’re informed and we’re grounded. Wantastegok is a place where we can be mindful and intentional about doing that.”
Funding to increase public conversation around racial equity is a part of the Community Foundation’s effort to ensure that Vermonters are not held back by their skin color or ethnicity.