National Day of Mourning

As many Americans celebrate Thanksgiving this week, indigenous peoples from across the country and their allies will gather at Cole’s Hill near Plymouth Rock for a National Day of Mourning. The first gathering was organized by Wamsutta (Frank James) in 1970 on the 350th anniversary of the Mayflower’s landing and continues to this day. From this year’s flyer: “many Native people do not celebrate the arrival of the Pilgrims & other European settlers. Thanksgiving Day is a reminder of the genocide of millions of Native people, the theft of Native lands and the erasure of Native cultures” (link). And it is the last point that has been gnawing at me as I wrap up my unit on natural communities in my natural history class.

The National Day of Mourning plaque on Cole's Hill in Plymouth, Massachusetts (Wikimedia)

Natural Communities

In Wetland Woodland Wildland, our state’s handbook on natural communities (published in part by Vermont Fish & Wildlife), the authors define a natural community as “an interacting assemblage of organisms, their physical environment, and the natural processes that affect them.” These natural communities stand at the confluence of a matrix of abiotic factors, always in the absence of major disturbances (see diagram below). When a natural disturbance (fire, flooding, ice storm, etc.) topples a forest, the natural community retains the designation of natural community, albeit one in an early successional stage. However, if a human disturbance is the culprit (like widespread land clearing by European Americans in the 18th and 19th centuries), the natural community falls from grace to an anthropogenic habitat. In either case, given enough time free of disturbance, the land recovers by a predictable process of succession ultimately producing a predictable assemblage of plants and animals.

It is not that these vegetative patterns do not exist (they do) or that the identification of these plant communities is without value (they are an incredibly handy tool for conservationists, land planners, etc.), but calling these communities “natural” obscures Indigenous rights to this land and hides the prominent ecological role that Indigenous people played in shaping pre-colonization forest communities.

Figure 1 (from Wetland Woodland Wildland): A representation of Important Ecological Influences on Natural Communities
The Frozen Moment

In Where Do Camels Belong?, Ken Thompson writes that the frozen moment, “when there was a place for everything, and everything knew its place, is set not quite now but at some point in the pre-human, pre-industrial past.” This frozen moment is the land just prior to European colonization, as it was meant to be, natural, and is the standard for ecological restoration and conservation (source). The “natural” part of natural community is akin to wild or pristine and used with intention. It suggests that there is a natural state to Vermont’s forests, a world, presumably just prior to European colonization, that was wild, where nature was rich in biodiversity, in balance with itself because human disturbance was absent from the land. If only we as ecologists, conservationists, land stewards might remove the domineering role of humans, we might return these despoiled wetlands, woodlands, and wildlands to their natural, wild state. But as Luther Standing Bear, chief of the Oglala Sioux said, “Only to the white man was nature a ‘wilderness’,” and to suggest that a natural community is one free of human influence is to perpetuate the myth that Indigenous peoples did not have a prominent ecological presence.

An erasure of the Abenaki

In the framing of the natural, in both the natural community concept broadly and Wetland, Woodland, Wildland specifically, there is a near total erasure of the Indigenous influence, past or present, on the land. Throughout Wetland, Woodland, Wildland, the authors repeatedly use the generic epithets “Native American” or “humans” to refer to the people who lived on this land prior to European colonization. In both editions of the book, you will not find a single use of “Abenaki,” the actual name for the indigenous people who have occupied this land, N’dakina (map), continuously as a keystone species for 11,000 years.

Under a dark Hemlock Forest, there's little understory growth except for more hemlocks (Centennial Woods, Burlington)
The Pristine Myth

he downplay of the ecological impact of the Abenaki is a continuance of the pristine myth, a pervasive narrative in colonial descriptions of the North American landscape which largely served to justify the ransacking and stealing of land from Indigenous people. The natural community concept perpetuates this myth, again by asserting that the natural state of Vermont’s wetlands, woodlands, and wildlands is one that is free of human influence. As William Deneven wrote “The myth persists that in 1492 the Americas were a sparsely populated wilderness, “a world of barely perceptible human disturbance.’” (source). 

We see this pristine myth reiterated nearly verbatim in Wetland, Woodland, Wildland, where the only indirect mentions of the Abenaki seem to be to downplay any significant role they may have had on the land prior to the genocidal conquests of Europeans. From one passage, “populations of Native Americans in the region prior to European settlement were small and their use of the land was dispersed, resulting in few permanent changes in the landscape or in ecological processes, except in relatively small areas where populations were concentrated.” This contrasts sharply with the archaeological record in Vermont and New England, which demonstrate quite clearly that the Abenaki played a vital role in shaping pre-European ecological communities (see, for example, A Deep Presence). But even if their ecological influence was inconsequentially small, which it wasn’t (source), it certainly wouldn’t follow that the Abenaki were not present, that they were not a part of these “natural” communities, or that they should not continue to steward and inhabit their unceded lands.

Contradicting the assertion that the Indigenous influence on the land was small, the authors write: “Humans have been present in Vermont and the surrounding region since the retreat of the glaciers. We have had a dramatic effect on the environment” (emphasis added). But here it is “humans,” indistinguishable by race, that have been present on and dramatically impacting this land for millennia. This almost implicitly links the Abenaki with the devastating impact European Americans have had on Vermont’s landscape for the past four centuries or Europeans with a much longer tenure on the land.

Alternative Approaches

I find much of the conservation work in the 20th century admirable, and a critical step towards preserving the biodiversity that was threatened by widespread habitat loss, bounties, overhunting, overexploitation of the 17th, 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries. But there is a need to rethink how this conservation work happens and who leads the charge. The Nature Conservancy, the largest conservation nonprofit in the world, has set aside millions of acres of land free from the destructive forces of industrialization. But the focus has always to been to set aside land, to protect and isolate the natural world from ourselves, often at the exclusion of the local Indigenous people (link). There is a new wave of conservation taking hold, spearheaded by Indigenous communities that have been historically disenfranchised and excluded from conversations about land management. Imagine how different a book Wetland, Woodland, Wildland, which offers a tool and framework for the state to use in conservation and land management decisions, would be had it been co-authored by representatives from the Abenaki community. How might the hunting policies and conservation programs of the VT Fish & Wildlife would be if it were under the auspices of the Abenaki (here’s a sample)?

One of the most difficult things about confronting Indigenous rights to land is that a natural consequence of recognizing that this land is stolen land and does not belong to European Americans to conserve, protect, or manage (see, for example, Four Denials in Decolonization). The good news is that there is some great work being done to repatriate lands and stewardship to the Abenaki:

  • Bomazeen Land Trust are rematriating ancestral lands to their rightful Indigenous stewards. Their mission is to “enables Abenaki/ Wabanaki peoples to renew and resume their land caretaking and stewardship roles for lands and waters with historical, spiritual, and ecological significance to the Abenaki/Wabanaki people” (link).
  • The Abenaki Land Link Project (link) a partnership between the Nulhegan Band of the Coosuk Abenaki Nation, Rooted in Vermont, and NOFA-VT that encourages farmers across Vermont to plant traditional Abenaki crops (largely using seeds collected by the Seeds of Renewal Project). Much of this food is then returned back to the Abenaki community, particularly those with food insecurities.
  • Middlebury, which has worked to repatriate stolen art to their rightful territories in Africa (link), have opened access to their college’s organic farm to Abenaki growers. They also collaborate to created the Abenaki Language School (there is also student driven support to repatriate lands to the Abenaki link).

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