Reconnecting to Land and Water Through Indigenous Traditional Knowledge

By Shari Halik
December 01, 2021

Lake Champlain Sea Grant partners with Shelburne Farms and the Abenaki People to support Indigenous education in the Lake Champlain basin.

“There are currently very few Abenaki resources in the Lake Champlain basin for cultural education and competency,” said Chief Don Stevens of the Nulhegan Abenaki Tribe. “The Abenaki have a rich oral culture, traditionally passed down from generation to generation. We don’t have a lot of written cultural history in our own words but we hope to change that moving forward.”

To help spread the stories and knowledge of Indigenous People, Lake Champlain Sea Grant has partnered with Shelburne Farms, a Vermont educational nonprofit, to enhance Chief Stevens’ role as educator. The collaboration will provide Chief Stevens with the resources to coordinate greater access to Indigenous educational programming throughout the basin. The three partners share common missions to promote environmental literacy, protect natural resources for a sustainable future, and build awareness and understanding of Abenaki traditional ways of knowing.

“Our partnership with the Lake Champlain Sea Grant creates opportunities for educational programming throughout the Champlain basin that will build a better understanding of Abenaki history and culture,” said Megan Camp, Shelburne Farms Executive Vice President and Program Director. 

Chief Stevens, who is a member of the Lake Champlain Sea Grant Program Advisory Committee, sees Lake Champlain Sea Grant’s goals to protect, enhance, and restore the basin’s habitat, ecosystems, and services they provide as a reflection of Abenaki core values.

“As the original stewards of the land, we view water as the glue that holds the web of life together,” said Chief Stevens, who worked with Lake Champlain Sea Grant and other partners to produce short films, including “Nebi: Abenaki Ways of Knowing Water,” to help others understand the Abenaki cultural connections to Lake Champlain through their stories of creation.

“If we reconnect people to the environment through stories and education,” he added, “they can become better stewards who want to sustain the land and water for future generations.”

Chief Stevens is well-known throughout the basin and receives frequent invitations to participate at events where he shares his inspiring Abenaki stories and knowledge with school children and other groups. For many years, he has demonstrated Abenaki traditions and told campfire stories at festivals and family programs at Shelburne Farms. The 1,400-acre working farm and wooded campus, along the shore of Lake Champlain, is located on historical and contemporary homelands of the Western Abenaki People.

“Shelburne Farms and the greater Lake Champlain basin is an important place for the Abenaki People both past and present,” said Chief Stevens. “Odzihozo, who created the lake, continues to watch over us as he sits off Shelburne Point as Rock Dunder. Since we now share these special places with Europeans and others, it underscores the necessity to partner, steward, and educate about this beautiful place together.”

Through this new partnership with Lake Champlain Sea Grant and Shelburne Farms, Chief Stevens and other educators will convey their Indigenous knowledge and cultural history of the basin with learning activities and events at Shelburne Farms and at area K-12 schools, colleges, nonprofit organizations, and other public venues. Chief Stevens will collaborate with other Indigenous educators to provide learning opportunities including the development of videos, books, and teaching materials and lessons to share Abenaki cultural history.

Indigenous educators will consult with and provide professional development to Lake Champlain Sea Grant and Shelburne Farms staff and area teachers as they design their own curricula and outreach programs to include Indigenous culture and to impart a balanced historical and contemporary perspective.

“Lake Champlain Sea Grant aims to share the full history of the basin, which includes Indigenous knowledge and ways of knowing,” said Kris Stepenuck, Associate Director of Lake Champlain Sea Grant. “We are proud to support Chief Don in this endeavor with Shelburne Farms.”