Breanna Sheehan, Bonita Langle, Abenaki

Presenters Breanna Sheehan, left, and Bonita Langle, right, hold traditional beadwork clothing as part of a lecture on Vermont Abenaki culture and lifestyles. Photo by John Custodio

BURLINGTON — With representatives from the Missisquoi, Elnu and Nulhegan bands, the Vermont Abenaki hosted a small press conference on May 16 in Burlington.

The goal of the meeting was to “collectively share [Abenaki] historical and contemporary stories with the Vermont media,” according to an invitation distributed to Vermont press groups including the Messenger, VTDigger and NBC5. 

Abenaki Burlington press conference

Fred Wiseman, Abenaki of Missisquoi citizen, told tales and traditions from his youth and Vermont Abenaki culture. Photo by John Custodio. 

Rich Holschuh, chair of the Vermont Commission on Native American Affairs, said the groups wanted to provide historical context to the media in a non-political environment. He’s referring to recent problems between the Vermont Abenaki and tribes like the Odanak, a Canadian Indigenous group that has said the Vermont groups cannot prove they are Abenaki.

“We’re trying to prove that this is who we are, and that we’re still here without being political,” said Chris LaFrance, an Abenaki of Missisquoi citizen.

At the press conference, speakers lectured about traditional Abenaki art, farming and fishing techniques, and their family histories to preserve  their traditions.

LaFrance spoke about quietly learning about his family’s culture, as his parents were afraid of the social repercussions of being too vocally Indigenous.

“My uncle told us terrible stories about he and his brothers being bullied in the 1950s at the old Highgate Springs school for being Abenaki,” LaFrance said. “So I understand wanting to get rid of an Indian identity, baskets and tools.”

LaFrance’s presentation included clippings from Vermont publications mentioning Indigenous basketmakers, including one from the Messenger from 1874 that read “Last Saturday, Josh Spooner saw a man in the woods who proved to be an old Indian quietly pursuing his application of making baskets.” 

LaFrance said that these accounts, along with spoken-word stories and family traditions, show that the local Abenaki groups have been in Vermont continuously.

“I first learned about my family’s basketmaking connection through my dad’s brother,” LaFrance said. “There are many written mentions of local Vermont basketmaking traditions.”

Vermont Abenaki cultural artifacts

Items from Vermont Abenaki culture include fishing tools, beaded clothing and hand-woven baskets. Photo by John Custdio.

Swanton local Fred Wiseman, an Abenaki of Missisquoi citizen, spoke about his traditions fishing on the Missisquoi River and on the ponds of Highgate, and the Indigenous techniques that his family used.

“There’s a lot of written material on the history of [Abenaki] fishing in Vermont,” Wiseman said. 

Wiseman told attendees about local Abenaki traditional fishing methods like fish drives to corral and catch walleye, or the tradition of putting a caught fish’s eye under the fisherman’s tongue while ice fishing to use as bait later.

“It seems to be almost a perfect distinguisher, when you go out on the ice fishing fields,” Wiseman said. “You ask ‘do you do fish eyes?’”

He said local Abenaki will respond with a resounding “oh yeah!” while non-Indigenous fishermen will recoil at the idea of putting a raw fish’s eye in their mouth. 

Other lectures included a talk about gardening traditions and native crop uses, like using suckerfish taken from the Missisquoi River as fertilizer, and a display of beadwork clothing and art. 

Presenters agreed that they would be interested in putting together a larger presentation to educate and connect with more people, but none are in the works quite yet.

“I think there might be another version of this, on a more public scale,” Holschuh said.

Written By

He/Him | John is a staff reporter covering Enosburg, Montgomery and northern Franklin County, along with the Missisquoi Valley and Franklin Northeast school districts.


(0) comments

Welcome to the discussion.

Thank you for taking part in our commenting section. We want this platform to be a safe and inclusive community where you can freely share ideas and opinions. Comments that are racist, hateful, sexist or attack others won’t be allowed. Just keep it clean. Do these things or you could be banned:

• Don’t name-call and attack other commenters. If you’d be in hot water for saying it in public, then don’t say it here.

• Don’t spam us.

• Don’t attack our journalists.

Let’s make this a platform that is educational, enjoyable and insightful.

Email questions to

Share your opinion


Join the conversation