An Evening of Abenaki Stories, Music, Language

Thanks to a heads-up from BEAT, I was able to enjoy a session of Abenaki culture, with well over 100 people in attendance. Jesse Bruchac put on quite a show, and I learned many things. I also came away with 4 books and 4 CDs, so I expect to learn even more as I have time to study them, as part of my preparation for my next OLLI course, to be offered in the Spring of 2020, on indigenous culture.

Some of the things I learned are:

  • The “3-2-1” rule of pronunciation, which says that the 3rd syllable from the end of a word receives the emphasis. A good example is the very word Abenaki, which in English is generally pronounced “Ah-ben-AH-key” but in the original is pronounced “Ah-BEN-ah-key”
  • I asked Jesse if this applies to all Algonkian languages, and he said yes. Not having any training in linguistics, I’m not sure if these tongues (such as Mohican, Munsee, and so on) are considered languages (part of the Algonkian group) or dialects.
  • He told a story about the origin of the traditional design of the hat he was wearing, with large turkey feathers in the front, and smaller (split) feathers in the back.
  • He told many other stories, including creation stories and trickster stories. These stories reminded me of the Uncle Remus stories, which I think had African origins. They seem to me to be attempts to understand the world, and also to impart social values to young listeners. Many of them are quite fantastical, and obviously (to me) not to be taken literally. The English colonists, however, often derided the indigenous stories as evidence that the people were “primitive” and needed to be “saved” by the Christian religion. Of course, they also believed that Eve was created out of Adam’s rib, but that was the Word of the Lord.
  • “OLLI” in the Abenaki language means “good” (although I think the pronunciation is more like “oo-lee”).
  • People’s names were fluid, and could change over time. If they did something valiant (or foolish), they could be renamed for their deeds.
  • “Abenaki” means a person (human being) from the East. Literally, from the land (aki) of the dawn (wôban).

I have much more to learn, and I’m very excited to be off to such a good start!

Here is the write-up that attracted my attention, as linked to at the beginning of this post:

For over 10,000 years, Native Americans tribes maintained an ecologically vibrant settlement on the banks of the Connecticut River in Greenfield near the Great Falls. As our present-day culture faces climate catastrophe, we ask: “How did they manage that?”
The Pollinator Protection Program of The Nolumbeka Project is bringing Native storytellers, the traditional Native American “teachers,” to Franklin County schools. The Bruchac family of storytellers are among the best, and the public is invited to hear Jesse Bruchac share Abenaki stories and music on Wed, Nov. 6 from 6:30 to 8:00 pm at an event sponsored by The Nolumbeka Project and The Great Falls Discovery Center. A Nulhegan Abenaki Citizen, Jesse’s performance art weaves the telling of traditional stories with flute music, drums, and playful language games to share a glimpse of Northeastern Native American culture with audiences of all ages. The event is free; family friendly; and books, CD’s and crafts will be offered for sale.
According to Jesse, “Native languages offer speakers a window into an indigenous worldview.” He is one of the last fluent speakers of Western Abenaki and works vigorously to revitalize the language. His efforts have led to the creation of a website for Western Abenaki language study, a YouTube channel, a Facebook group, and a number of bilingual publications.
Following in the footsteps of his father, Joseph Bruchac, Jesse has been visiting schools and universities to share Northeastern Native American traditional stories, music, language, history and culture for over two decades.
As a musician, Jesse has produced several albums of Abenaki music. These include collections of traditional songs of drum and rattle and Native American flute music. He has opened for such notable acts as The Grateful Dead, Bob Dylan, and at Woodstock ’94.
He won the Best Storyteller Competition at Indian Summer in Milwaukee in 1995. In 1996 he toured Europe as a member of the Abenaki Drum from the Odanak reservation in Quebec. Jesse has also acted as consultant, translator, composer, and language coach for programs on AMC, National Geographic, and PBS.
For more information: see or call 413-475-3605

They also have a Facebook page:

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