My Early Experience as a Student of the Western Abenaki Dialect

I began my language studies of Western Abenaki (one of the many Algonkian dialects native to the Northeastern part of Turtle Island) in late 2019. I live in the homelands of the Mohican people (Muhheconneok), but at that time all Mahican classes were being conducted in Wisconsin.

I had met Jesse Bruchac at a story-telling event in Turners Falls on November 6. I was enchanted with his stories and songs, and bought several books and CDs from him in order to learn more about his work. I signed up for a weekend seminar, billed as an introduction to the Abenaki language. The Ndakinna Center in Greenfield Center, New York is only a bit more than an hour’s drive from my house in Alford. When I got there, I discovered that many of the students were not exactly beginners, and I felt like a fish out of water. Still, everyone was welcoming, and I enjoyed the experience enough to come back two more times before the pandemic hit and closed down in-person classes.

Since then, all learning has been via Zoom. Like everyone else on the planet who has an internet connection, I have become a Zoom expert, from being a student, a consumer of presentations, and an instructor for OLLI.

I have been more interested, quite frankly, in learning about the language than I have been in learning the language itself. It has been a wonderful window into a culture and peaceful way of thinking that is hard to imagine in today’s frenetic world. Still, despite the Colonists efforts to wipe it out, that culture persists and is being reinvigorated at a time when we desperately need its wisdom.

As an aside,  during my years as a disability rights advocate,
I became acutely aware of the power of language to shape and reflect our values .
I have written elsewhere about those experiences;
by studying the history of the mistreatment of Native Americans,
I had the feeling I had seen this movie before.

Recently, I have become more serious about acquiring language skills. For most of last year (2020) my learning had been confined to what I could pick up during the class time. I did not do much studying outside of that narrow framework, but my focus has now broadened.

One of the resources that Jesse has recommended (and has had a hand in constructing) is the memrise website. I’ve found this to be lots of fun. It also has a competitive element, which appeals to me. My general approach to competitive events (such as running races) and websites is to try to better myself. Many years ago, I ran quite a few half-marathons, and my goal was never to win, but to do better than I ever done before.

When I saw that memrise has rankings for the week, month, and “all time” I started to keep track of where I rank, not with the idea of ever becoming #1, but of improving my standing. When I started, in the middle of January, I found that, after a few online sessions, I was in 6th place for the week, out of 34 participants, and, for the month, I was 14th out of 62. All time found me at #88 out of 294. After not quite a week on the job, I move up to 5 out of 37, 8 of 63, and 63 of 295.

Lord Alford

When I created a memrise account, I chose a handle that I have often used in the past, without giving it too much thought. I later realized it might seem out of place in my pursuit of Native American knowledge and wisdom. So let me explain.

Lord Alford is an honorific bestowed upon me about 30 years ago by my German friend, Ralf Conen. In those days, I was working in Boston, but when Ralf and I first met, he was a newly-minted PhD, and I was working on Wall Street, helping him, as a client of mine, get his career off the ground. He was very appreciative of my efforts, and we became good friends. I spent a lot of time in Europe, often staying at his home near Frankfurt rather than use my expense account to stay in some posh but impersonal hotel.

Not very long after I met him, Ralf and his wife Mary produced a baby boy. One summer, after I had moved from New York to Boston, Ralf asked me if the three of them could come and stay at my weekend house in Alford for a week or two. Of course I was delighted to have them as guests, although I had to spend most of the week in Boston.

On the Friday after they settled in, I told Ralf I’d be arriving for the weekend around six o’clock. When I pulled into the driveway, the clock in my car said 5:58. Ralf came strolling toward my car, making a big show of looking at his watch. “You could be German!” he proclaimed (a high compliment, coming from him).

During the time he knew me on Wall Street, Ralf was aware that folks (mostly men, in the sexist culture of the day, which probably hasn’t changed much) who were part of my speciality (quantitative analysis) were being labeled as the “Lords and Masters of the Universe.” After seeing my place in Alford, Ralf decided he would call me “Lord Alford” and that label stuck.

When I use the alias “Lord Alford” I do it with a bit of a smirk, but also with affection, as a tribute to a wonderful friendship. It is not, as some might suspect, an affirmation of my Colonial heritage, though there is that. I am actually quite proud of my forebears, many of whom were on the correct side of the social issues of their day. All of that is ASFAT, as I like to say (a story for another time).

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