It was 2011, and Melody Walker had a car accented with several fresh bullet holes. What she also had: recognition, for the first time, from the State of Vermont for two groups—the Nulhegan Band of the Coosuk Abenaki Nation, and her own tribe, the Elnu Tribe of the Abenaki. Two more Abenaki bands received recognition the following year.
The Abenaki people can trace their history in this region back more than ten thousand years; it’s been fewer than ten years since these four bands have been recognized by the state.
Walker is former chair of the Vermont Commission on Native American affairs, and was vice chair at the time her tribe was recognized, high-pressure positions that earned her scrutiny and, yes, a shot-up car, likely perpetrated by individuals who disliked the state’s decision. “I don’t think that anything I’ve done could be more important than getting recognition,” says Walker, who earned her undergrad degree from UVM in 2005 and her master’s in history in 2011, around the same time the Elnu received recognition. “It’s all about making sure that the people who are coming up can succeed. You struggle to make sure they don’t struggle.”
Her connections to UVM faculty and her research on topics including personhood, cultural revitalization, and first contacts between Abenaki people and settlers helped her assemble a scholar’s panel to appear before the state. “I coordinated the academic piece, finding scholars who would vet our application,” Walker explains.
The recognition isn’t just an identification card. With the title comes real impacts for tribes, including the ability to sell their goods labeled as Indian Arts and Crafts. Today, there are still bands unrecognized in the State of Vermont; none of Vermont’s tribes are federally recognized.
“In the beginning of your life, you don’t understand how to be a mixed person,” says Walker, who is of European and Abenaki descent. She’s traced her family’s roots to the Swanton/Highgate area “as far back as we possibly can,” all the way back to marriages between indigenous and European ancestors. “They were cultural ambassadors,” says Walker. It’s a first contact story devoid of violence, different than those gory clashes commonly taught—and that, says Walker, was a key finding of her master’s work. “I hope people think about the past in a different way. It wasn’t all death and destruction.”
It took decades for Walker’s understanding of how to be an indigenous person to develop, and it’s still evolving today. “John Wayne is saying, ‘this is what an Indian looks like,’” laughs Walker. “But I don’t have to wear buckskin to be part of the community.”
She can remember this understanding first taking shape at the funeral for her brother, who tragically drowned at age four. Surrounded by Abenaki families, she saw what it meant to be supported by a community. Walker became involved with the Abenaki Cultural Center in Swanton, her entry point into cultural work. From there, her identity became centered around practice, learning, and teaching.
Walker, who was born in the Missisquoi tribe, married into the Elnu band. A central tribal tenet: everybody needs to be useful, and to teach other people. Walker learned the art of fingerweaving from an Elnu elder, Rose. “From the one person who taught me, I kept a list of all the people I taught and where they moved to, and how many people have learned from that one lesson.” (Walker estimates it at thirty people.) Today, she makes bags, beaded pieces, and historically informed outfits, like a seventeenth-century piece crafted from leather, paint, and sinew. “When you know your gifts, what your ancestors did, even these small little acts can change communities,” says Walker.
The tension between preserving tradition and reimagining the role of indigenous people in today’s America is something Walker struggles with, a dilemma central to being part of a living culture. “I’m trying to bring back traditions and also help people think in a different way about the everyday world they live in.”
When she entered UVM in 2001, Walker was still wrestling with how to explain her identity. “I can pass. I was too afraid to put anywhere that I was an indigenous person,” says Walker. “I’d always heard, you can’t say this if your tribe’s not recognized.” She found a home in the ALANA Center, now known as the Mosaic Center for Students of Color, where director Bev Colston always made space.
“I was a first-generation student. I should have failed. I was poor as all hell,” says Walker. But her mom prioritized a college education for Walker and her sister. “I wouldn’t be here without the people that helped me succeed.” Over ten years, she earned two degrees and made an impact in offices across campus, working in the registrar’s office and student life, among others. “I was full-blown ‘Groovy UV,’” laughs Walker.
Mentors in the Anthropology Department included professor John Crock and the late professor Jim Petersen. “Jim is probably the most important person,” says Walker through tears. “That’s how you can be an ally. Through friendship.” Petersen played a fundamental role in Vermont’s archaeology community and was a champion for indigenous communities in the state and around the world; his archaeological discoveries demonstrated sophisticated farming practices and long-standing ties to land. Petersen died in 2005 while conducting field research in Brazil, shot and killed during a robbery in a small town near the Amazon River. His legacy is remembered with the Fleming Museum’s James B. Petersen Memorial Gallery.
For her master’s research, “I tried to piece together what we Abenakis believed at the time of contact,” says Walker, including Abenaki concepts of personhood and identity. And these moments of first contact are still happening, right here in Vermont, with the arrival of New Americans in cities and towns every year. “That’s the reason I wanted to study the colonial period and first contact,” explains Walker. “It’s not something that happened centuries ago. There’s a lot of lessons we can learn.”
When asked if this feels like an especially important time to be talking about first contacts given the rhetoric surrounding refugees and immigration, Walker resists. “It’s always an important moment in time to be talking about this,” she says. Her work, she says, isn’t about claiming or taking anything for the Abenaki people. “This isn’t about, ‘we’re the first Vermonters, this is ours.’ We never thought of it that way.” Instead, she says, she hopes others will try to connect to their own past. “We all have a story to tell.”
Oral history is another practice Walker has embraced, telling stories and passing knowledge to the youngest members of her tribe, or anyone who calls on her with specific questions about time periods or traditions. “Our idea of power is that you never keep it for yourself. The only way you retain power is by giving it to people. It all comes back to responsibility and the responsibility you have with ten thousand years of history. I take it seriously.”
Since finishing her master’s, Walker has collaborated with faculty at Northern Vermont University-Johnson to reconstruct lifeways and run educational programs, including an effort to recover and restore crops grown by indigenous communities in Northern New England and parts of Canada. The crops are called the “Seven Sisters,” ancient varieties of corn, beans, squash, and sunflowers.
In Haymarket, Virginia, some six hundred miles south of her native Highgate, Walker is now growing these Seven Sisters. She’s on a farm she calls “Indian Walden,” cultivating several varieties grown by her ancestors thousands of years before. Her move is one way Walker is pushing herself to reimagine identity, sparked by a challenge from Maori friends who asked, “Do you know what you have if you’ve never gone anywhere?”
In quite literally new territory, she is finding new roles. “How do you become an ally to someone else?” asks Walker, who’s working as an adjunct professor and advisor at two local universities. It’s the farthest she’s ever lived from home, and while the daily gardening rituals are peaceful, “you can’t be a solitary native person. The center of our existence is each other.” But, she says, for now it’s a chance to write a new story, to reinvent.
She discusses the Abenaki creation stories that bring her comfort in a faraway place; indigenous people were, at one time, also new. “We’re told that Gluscabi beat back the ice monsters so that we could walk here. We were immigrants in this story. And Corn Mother gave her life so that her children, the People, could survive.” These creation stories recount key moments in time, from the days of ice to the arrival of corn. “We were remade in these times. We have to have a new story, and we have to think about ourselves in new ways. What are we now?”
Which leads to the question, as Walker sits hundreds of miles from her ancestral home: what does it mean to be a Native Vermonter? It is, Walker says, possible to become indigenous to a place. Here, she quotes Dr. Robin Wall Kimmerer, author of Braiding Sweetgrass. “It means ‘living as if your children’s lives matter and as if the place matters.’ We’ve loved this place for ten thousand years and we’ll love it for another ten thousand. The type of people we want to share our homeland with are the people who love it, too.”