Visitors join the Round Dance at the Abenaki Heritage Weekend. Courtesy of Lake Champlain Maritime Museum

Vergennes, VT

Contact Name
Vera Longtoe Sheehan
Project Dates
Annually, third weekend of June
Workshop Leader
Creative Communities Exchange (CCX) 2019
Tags
Social action and justice, Placemaking/placekeeping, Networking, Marketing, Event, Entrepreneurship, Cultural Heritage
Presented annually by Vermont Abenaki Artists Association at Lake Champlain Maritime Museum, Abenaki Heritage Weekend gives visitors an Indigenous perspective on life in the Champlain Valley from past centuries to the present day through dancing, singing, drumming, storytelling, wampum readings, craft, and cooking demonstrations, and illustrated presentations on Abenaki history and culture. The Native Arts Marketplace features beadwork, quillwork, basketry, pottery, woodworking, and other skills.
Project Goals
What were the specific goals of this creative economy project? Describe the community development challenge or opportunity that your project was designed to address:
Our project goals have evolved over the past 12 years since the event began. Today our goals are to increase the visibility of the Abenaki community, educate the public about Abenaki history and culture, to promote Abenaki art and artists.

For LCMM, the goal from the outset was to ensure that the Museum’s programming and exhibitions would reflect the enduring presence of Lake Champlain’s first navigators
If the goals change over time, please describe how:
From the beginning, VAAA wanted to increase the visibility of the Abenaki community and quickly understood the need for educational programming. Each year we evaluate internal needs and future growth opportunities. Significant growth occurred when Abenaki tribes received state recognition. Both LCMM and the Abenaki community made a strong case that they could not effectively interpret Abenaki culture for the public until the Abenaki had legal sanction through state recognition. Understanding recognition issues remains central to public interpretation at the event.
Who was involved in this project and what did they do? (be sure to include the partners from outside of the creative sector and how local voices were included):
In 2007, as the Champlain Valley began to anticipate the 2009 Quadricennial celebration of Samuel de Champlain, LCMM worked with the Abenaki community to present the contributions and culture of the lake’s First Navigators. In 2008 & 2009 a wide array of commemorative events were organized by civic groups, academic, cultural, and arts organizations, with business sponsorships. The francophone community was very involved. Regional marketing ensured public awareness. After the “Quad,” in 2010 we faced pivotal decisions – would the event continue, and how?
In 2010 – 2012 the event was primarily organized by Abenaki scholar Fred Wiseman, working with individual artists and members of the Elnu Abenaki Tribe.
• In 2011 and 2012 four Abenaki tribes were recognized and the event was renamed Abenaki Heritage Weekend (previously, we could not legally refer to the Abenaki so it was called the Native American Encampment).
• In 2013 the intertribal VAAA organization was developed as a creative hub of Abenaki artists carrying traditions into the future. VAAA became lead partner with LCMM to develop an annual exhibit featuring the work of contemporary Abenaki artists, and to organize and present the Native Arts Marketplace.
• In 2014 we previewed and evaluated the exhibit “Parley and Protocol: Abenaki Diplomacy Past and Present” being developed for the National Park Service at Fort Necessity
• In 2014 the Vermont Commission on Native American Affairs (VCNAA) approached LCMM/VAAA and offered to partner and co-host the event at LCMM; while unable to provide direct financial support VCNAA participated for three years, helping to publicize the event, and recommending sources to which LCMM could apply for support.
• In 2015, Flynn Center for the Performing Arts, Burlington’s lead performing arts venue, invited LCMM and VAAA to present a traveling exhibit in their fine art gallery and offer related educational programs and performances– intended to promote the Abenaki Heritage Weekend. The opportunity allowed us to expand the exhibit then under development. Alnobak: Wearing Our Heritage opened at the Flynn in 2017 and took on a life of its own, leading to widespread media coverage, production of curriculum materials, exhibit venues in three states, and new connections for future events and partnerships.
• In 2017 and 2018 VAAA was awarded grant support from the Haymarket People’s Fund to work towards anti-racism and social justice. This grant support helped underwrite some of the presentations at Abenaki Heritage Weekend, working toward the goals “to make our vibrant culture visible and to help Abenaki people and communities to overcome the damage sustained by centuries of institutional racism and social injustice. Ignorance of our existence and culture is the root cause of these problems. We are working towards a time when museums, galleries, and schools interpret and/or acknowledge our people, arts and culture. Our educational programs can reach into the non-Native community of New England to bring together people of diverse racial, economic, religious and social backgrounds. The Alnobak: Wearing Our Heritage Project will bring attention to these social justice issues and begin a dialog for systemic change on a larger scale throughout New England.”
How does this project relate to a larger community development strategy?
At Abenaki Heritage Weekend, Abenaki individuals and groups of visual and performing artists showcase their creative works within a wider cultural context provided by Abenaki scholars, cultural historians, and leaders. Visitors of varied ages and backgrounds make deeper connections and gain more nuanced understanding of Abenaki culture through dialogue and observation. Abenaki presenters are able to test strategies for both creative work and public presentation, and this regular collaboration among Abenaki tribes has led to further partnerships.
What projects or places, if any, inspired your approach to this creative economy project?
This project was originally inspired by the approaching anniversary of the 1609 encounter on Lake Champlain between French explorers and the Abenaki and other indigenous people who were the first navigators of bitawbagw (Lake Champlain). Initially, the event was very focused on this specific encounter, and now the event has grown into a celebration of enduring regional culture.
Project Specifics
Please list the steps taken to implement the project:
• Every year we evaluate the event to see how we can improve it in the future
• We confirm a schedule that includes both consistent core activities and innovations proposed by participants and in response to community feedback
• Transparent process and consensus-based decision making reflect Abenaki values
• Checks and balances ensure that the event is enjoyable and meaningful to the culture bearers who participate as well as to the public
If the project steps changed over time, please describe how:
In 2007 the event was organized by LCMM with input from a small number of Abenaki advisors. The first Heritage Weekend was the culmination of a month-long live demonstration of bark canoe construction by Abenaki participants hired for their expertise. Over time, the relationships shifted. For several years Abenaki scholar Frederick M. Wiseman, PhD was the lead organizer, with Museum staff providing facilities, marketing and logistical support. Following VT State recognition of four Abenaki tribes in 2011/2012, the Vermont Abenaki Artists Association was formed and LCMM and VAAA became equal partners. Today we work together to develop the annual theme of the weekend and museum exhibition.
Obstacles
What were your major obstacles for the completion of the project?
Obstacles, too, have changed over the years. Initially, the event was publicized as part of the regional Champlain Quadricentennial.
• After the Quad, we had to decide whether to continue the event, what the focus would be, and how responsibilities would be shared. Until VT recognized the Abenaki tribes we could not present the contemporary artists as Abenaki, so the event was called “Native American Encampment.” Communicating to the public that this Native American cultural event is not a Pow-wow continues to be a challenge.
• Neither the Museum nor the Abenaki community could afford to provide transportation across the state for presenters; participants couldn’t afford to attend without compensation.
• Museum admission is an economic barrier, both for the general public and for many Abenaki people who are not program presenters. Even with paid admission, event revenue isn’t sufficient to provide stipends and honoraria. The Museum has sought partial or full admission subsidies to eliminate this barrier, with limited success.
• A limited number of Abenaki artists are available to do programs, and there is no backup or substitute for many unique culture bearers. This makes it difficult to publish the program schedule in advance; which weakens advance publicity and lowers attendance.
• Event logistics: finding a balance between sticking to the published schedule or being flexible to allow impromptu talks/performances to continue when visitors are engaged.

Today our largest obstacle is finding funding to pay culture bearers for the time they dedicate to providing these specialized programs and to find economic support to make the event accessible to the entire community
Who or what was instrumental in overcoming these obstacles?
Our success in overcoming a variety of obstacles over the years has been our commitment to a mutually supportive partnership. The following elements are instrumental to this work:
• Open communication
• Finding new funding sources
• Evaluation; gathering feedback from presenters and members of the public; comparing notes on the concerns; being open to ideas from various sources
• Balancing VAAA, LCMM, and visitor needs
What top three suggestions would you give to others attempting a similar project?
1. If you would like to work with the Abenaki community, invite them to the planning table as soon as possible.
2. Treat community culture bearers as the experts they are and pay them for their time.
3. Develop a transparent process.

Project Impact
How has this project strategically connected arts and cultural activities to social, economic, and cultural issues in your community? What is different in your community as a result of this project?
From the outset, this event has provided a forum for Abenaki people to present their history and culture to a wide public in their own words, through visual and performing arts, scholarly presentations, and curated exhibitions. Both the Museum and VAAA have gained valuable experience and insight through more than a decade of consistent and creative partnership. The wider community served by the Museum has benefitted through the availability of Abenaki-led cultural activities, teacher training programs, Abenaki-authored curriculum materials, community discussions of the Abenaki experience in libraries, traveling exhibits that have carried the insights of our shared learning to venues in Vermont, New Hampshire, and Connecticut. While this event does not claim to take credit for all the changes in the past decade, we have contributed to the positive momentum. In the economic realm, in addition to the direct benefit to individual artists who sell work in the Native Arts Marketplace, we hope that the demonstrated value offered by this event helps to make the case for appropriate compensation for Abenaki culture bearers who provide educational and cultural services to students and the public. As for change in our community, in the past decade we have seen elders able to emerge from racist imposed silence to openly celebrate their heritage, and a generation of young people growing up with a richer experience and understanding of the Abenaki contribution to life in the Champlain Valley.
Why do you consider the project successful, as related to your project goals above?
The Abenaki Heritage Weekend has been very successful in helping us to achieve our project goals. For the VAAA, to increase the visibility of the Abenaki community, educate the public about Abenaki history and culture, to promote Abenaki art and artists. For LCMM, to ensure that the Museum’s programming and exhibitions would reflect the enduring presence of Lake Champlain’s first navigators.
How did you measure this success or progress?
Some benchmarks for measuring the success of Abenaki Heritage Weekend include the increasing participation by members of Vermont’s four recognized Abenaki tribes; attendance by members of Abenaki families who now live beyond the homeland and return for this event; increasing range of tools for teaching Abenaki culture such as discussion groups, curriculum materials, workshops, and traveling exhibitions that have grown out of the Abenaki Heritage Weekend; new invitations for partnerships from community organizations in Vermont and beyond; invitations to apply for support to continue and expand the work of the VAAA “to make our vibrant culture visible and to help Abenaki people and communities to overcome the damage sustained by centuries of institutional racism and social injustice.”
Please describe any unexpected impacts:
The shift from presenting a successful event on LCMM’s campus to helping to make the vibrant Abenaki culture visible throughout the region came to us suddenly although it was the result of more than a decade of collaborative work. Truth and reconciliation are important tools for teaching the public. Each year at the event there are unanticipated moments that show how one-to-one exchanges have great impact. After one panel discussion, the Abenaki presenter was approached by a woman who took her hand, with tears in her eyes, and said, “I’m sorry. I lived in Vermont my entire life and I didn’t know. How could I help if I didn’t know?” These personal interactions show that the work we do is vital. By sharing Abenaki culture, we contribute to the cultural diversity of this nation, we expand opportunities for Abenaki people while teaching the dominant culture that Abenakis have a beautiful and resilient community, and are still very much alive.
CCX Workshop Handout