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).

A Tribute to (my cat) Barack

Barack has been diagnosed with terminal lymphoma. The story of how he came to me, and how he received his name, is for another time. For now, I have been reflecting on our friendship of more than 12 years. As I write this, he is still vibrant, active, and loving. I know his days are numbered. Here are some reflections I wrote a couple of weeks ago, and two photos of him from earlier this month, not too long after his diagnosis.

Barack purrs on the edge of sadness,
His swelling illness cannot dim His regal bearing.
Miss Fortune has stalked and found him,
Emaciating his body but not his soul.

He came to me in sadness, after we lost Lori;
He has lived with me in splendor, never losing his feral self.
I’m told I have given him a good life. I have tried,
and he has returned my affection 100 times over.
It has been a wonderful friendship.

It is said that all good things must end.
However true that may be, it is never easy.

Barack lived long enough to bridge the gap
between the promise of Obama and the new promise of Biden.

Barack’s time will come to an end soon.
I hold on to a wish that he die naturally, without a struggle
but I know that I may be called upon to be God
and be the one to determine when his life must end.
Being God is not for wimps.

As I contemplate his burial site and shroud
I am reminded of how he came to me, and how he huddled
under the bed in the guestroom, not emerging except at night
for six months or more, sleeping on the bathrobe of Lori’s on which he arrived.
He will go out in the same way, in a spot along my fence
where I can see him and Topaz, reunited in my mind and affection.

We have had some time to share some sadness
but he is not doing his part; he purrs and I cry.
I would not be so sad except for the joy I have known.
Barack has been a special kind of companion for all these years.

Joy and Sorrow have been my constant companions throughout my life.
And the words of The Prophet echo in my mind

Your joy is your sorrow unmasked.
And the selfsame well from which your laughter rises was oftentimes filled with your tears.
And how else can it be?
The deeper that sorrow carves into your being, the more joy you can contain.

Or the other way around: the depth of my sorrow is a reflection of the joy I have known.

As Barack grows weaker by the day, I come more and more to realize how much I will miss him.

Abenaki Language: My Presentation

During August, I took a fairly intensive beginner course on the Abenaki language. For the last class, our instructor, Jesse Bruchac, at the urging of some of his TAs, requested that all the students perform a one-minute recitation, in Abenaki, of a poem or story of their own choosing.

I composed a short introduction to an aspect of life in my paddock; the interaction of the horses and turkeys. It’s all in very basic (“baby talk”) language; present tense, singular — which is all we’ve learned so far. I plan to continue my studies; partly because it’s just plain fun, and also because it gives me insight into Native American culture.

Here is what I said, in Abenaki. The pictures shown here were screen-shared in our Zoom session from this file as I told the story. In another file, I have shown the English translation, if you are interested in knowing the meaning of the Abenaki words.

Awani na?
Stewart na, na ases.
Awani nihi wd’asesoma, Stewart?
Stewart nihi nd’asesoma.
Stewart nidômba.

Awani na?
Spot na, na ases.
Awani nihi wd’asesoma, Spot?
Alice nihi wd’asesoma, Spot.

Stewart ta Spot wli widôba.
Stewart idam, “Spot, nolidahôzi aian.”
Spot idam, “Wliwni, nolidahôzi aian, achi.”

Nôneweji nahamak miji malomenal.

Awani na namihok?
Nahama nihi w’migwenoma.
Nahama idam wliwni, ta adio.

Page 2 of a letter

I found this page floating around. I think I must have pulled it from a file to share a copy with someone about my time in Japan. Now I don’t remember if the “2” at the bottom of the page is really an indication of this being the second page of a letter from my father, but maybe someday I’ll find the rest of the letter, if there is more. The paper itself is European-size, not US letter size. So he probably just yanked page 2 of a handout I had sent him, and filled in the blank space with his own commentary.

In any case, it’s a good example of the correspondence we carried on for many years. By this time (late 1980s) he must have been living with my sister Terry, and before I gave him my old typewriter (which had a different font). As you can see, his notes are full of sarcasm and humor. Tidbits of this and that, with a couple of clippings pasted on the sheet. All of this seems to run in the family; his mother was a clip artist, too. As am I; though in recent years that activity has become digitized.

To answer his question (Who is Val?): VAL was my valuation trademark, back in the day. I invented a measure of stock valuation and named it VAL because catchy; I think it stood for Valuation Attractiveness Level or something like that — after all these years, I’d have to look at some of my old work to see if I’m remembering correctly.

Dad was a huge jazz fan — many stories go with that (going with Barbara to the Blue Note in the Village and having him connect with the cat who was playing there; his record collection that I gave to the Trinity College library; and so on). Jimmy Guiffre was a good friend of his; they used to play together at the Stockbridge Inn, long before it became Michael’s Restaurant. Dad was a talented keyboard player (and composer), but with Jimmy he mostly played the sax and clarinet.

Alford 2020 Annual Town Meeting

Commonwealth of Massachusetts
Town of Alford
Town Moderator
Michael F. Wilcox
mfw {at} mfw(.)us

Alford Town Meeting 2020 Advisory Committee

In Formation as of May 8, 2020

I have begun the process of forming an advisory committee to assist me in my role as Town Moderator. I will need the help of many people to plan for and then to execute our Annual Town Meeting (ATM), which, as we all know, will be held under unusual circumstances.

Our Select Board has postponed our 2020 ATM from its originally scheduled date of May 12th to June 23rd.

There are several scenarios as to how the ATM might be conducted, and these will be discussed at the Select Board meeting of May 11th. I expect that the first meeting of this ad hoc Advisory Committee will be held via the Zoom platform sometime later in that week.

I welcome the participation of community members. Anyone interested in helping out can contact me at the email address given above. As of this date, the following people are among the folks who I think would be helpful. Some of these people have already accepted my invitation to join this effort, others I have not yet heard back from, and still others I have not yet been able to contact.

  • Charlie Ketchen, Chair, Select Board
  • Peggy Henden-Wilson, Town Clerk
  • Roxanne Germain, Treasurer and Tax Collector
  • Monty Green and/or TJ Horrigan, Highway Department
  • Tim Roy, Alford Police
  • Joan Rogers, Chair, Finance Committee
  • Jayne Smith, Public Heath Agent
  • Steve Berkel and/or Joe Morandi, Fire Department
  • Tim Ortwein and Jim Hall, AlfordLink Commission
  • Jeff Blaugrund, School Committee Representative
  • Shirley Mueller, Community Volunteer

Any other suggestions or volunteers are welcome.

Protected: A Moral Dilemma

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Resources for OLLI Course: “A Walk Through Berkshire History” Spring 2019

Here is a list of links to the slides I used in my classes, as well as various blog posts, articles, and other resources that have been referenced during my lectures, or mentioned in my emails to the OLLI students, or that came to mind as I was preparing this list.


Here is a brief introduction to the course.

Please note that nearly all of the material here is copyrighted, either by me or by my sources, and is intended to be used solely for educational purposes. I have tried to acknowledge all the help I received, from my students and others. Apologies to anyone I may have inadvertently failed to thank. The course turned into a larger undertaking than I had originally envisioned, and I probably learned more than my students did, since I sorted through an enormous amount of material before deciding how to condense it into class presentations.


  • Session One [Mahican-Mohawk Trail]
  • Session Two [Ice Glen and Laura’s Tower] (some overlap with Session One, since the discussion of the Mahican-Mohawk Trail continued in Session Two, before taking on the Laurel Hill Association properties in Stockbridge)
  • Session Three [segue from Stockbridge to Monterey] (again, some overlap and review, since the discussions of properties didn’t fall neatly one into each session, and there was more interest in the Mohicans than I had anticipated)
  • Session Four [Bidwell House]
  • Session Five [Alford Springs and Parsons Marsh]
  • Session Six [Keystone Arch Bridges] plus some review, additional information, and answers to questions raised in prior sessions

Articles mentioned and Other Resources that might be of interest

Other related (and somewhat more personal) information:

  • Land Acknowledgement: the idea for this came from Simon Winchester, who did a similar thing in Sandisfield, where he is the Town Moderator. My specific application to Alford was informed by the research I had done for the OLLI course.
  • A little humor to avow My Disqualifications: I wanted to be sure my students knew I didn’t take myself too seriously. I’m not an historian, and I relied on the work of others to provide the information I conveyed.
  • And just in case you think I’m being too modest and don’t know how to brag, this (partial) list of my accomplishments should disabuse you of that notion!
  • My rather verbose introduction to myself and the course.
  • Edwin Curtis Bidwell, my grandmother’s grandfather.

I’m sure there are more items, so I’ll add to this list from time to time, as I notice them. If you have any questions about anything here (or that I omitted) feel free to contact me. Those in my course know my email address, others can leave a note here.

Wealth Inequality: Causes and Cures

… only a carefully designed mechanism for redistribution can compensate for the natural tendency of wealth to flow from the poor to the rich in a market economy.

Is Inequality Inevitable?

The “natural tendency” mentioned here ^ is the hypothetical outcome of a random process. It is remarkable that, in a market economy, although there are structural barriers to randomness, the end result of wealth distribution seems to follow a “power law” in which very few people end up with most of the wealth.

Only by conscious action can a society choose to counteract this tendency for wealth to be concentrated within a small minority of people. One solution, as mentioned, is to have a method to redistribute wealth before it becomes too lopsided. Another approach is to rely less on a market economy. Examples abound of failures of command economies, but there are success stories as well. Native American cultures may have much to teach us in that regard.

I became aware of power laws † (although I don’t recall that term being used) back in the early 1970s, when I was doing research on security prices.

Stevens’s power law is … named after psychophysicist Stanley Smith Stevens (1906–1973). Although the idea of a power law had been suggested by 19th-century researchers, Stevens is credited with reviving the law and publishing a body of psychophysical data to support it in 1957.

It seems that the concepts of power laws have been known and studied for centuries, but that term came into common use only in the past few decades, often in connection with what has come to be called the science of complexity. But I digress…

In my research in the security markets, in the early days of the Efficient Market Hypothesis, I became aware of differing attempts to explain and describe movements in stock prices. In my industry (security analysis), it came to be generally accepted among us academic-types (quants, short for quantitative analysts), that stock prices followed a random walk, and changes in stock prices could be modeled with formulae from physics, including Brownian motion and heat-diffusion (the latter being the basis of the highly influential Black-Scholes option-pricing model).

The emphasis then shifted to analysis of risk, rather than the prediction of stock prices. In an efficient marker, higher risk was compensated by higher rates of return, but it also carried with it a higher chance of losing money. The idea was to balance the risk and return in such a way as to maximize return while minimizing the risk of loss. One of my early tasks was to provide investment advice to small-business pension funds, operating within a complex regulatory environment. In those early days of ERISA, I worked for an insurance company, so that, in addition to IRS regulations, we had to be aware of constraints placed on us by insurance regulators. Within that framework, I was able to model the best “asset mix” of stocks, bonds, and cash.

During this work, I became aware of Gibrat’s Law of Proportionate Effect (published in 1931), that proposed (among other things) that the growth rate of firms in an economy was independent of their size. This formulation, along with numerous more recent variations, have provided insight into the power laws that seem to regulate the distribution of a wide variety of phenomena. Such things as the size of cities, and the number of species in a given land area, seem to follow this pattern, which is best described in statistical terms as a lognormal distribution.

Which brings us back to wealth inequality. The Affine Wealth Model (AWM) is one variation on this general theme, that growth (or dispersion) in a random process will create a power-law distribution of outcomes. To oversimplify (and perhaps to somewhat mischaracterize), and without getting into particulars, this Model purports to show/predict the effect of a market economy on the wealth accumulation of its participants. Its premise seems to be that, when goods are exchanged, the exchange does not always happen at fair value, so that for (at least) some transactions, there are winners and there are losers. Even if no skill is involved (meaning that the win/loss is a random outcome), the result is a lognormal distribution of wealth.

Carried to its logical conclusion, such a model, in its raw form, would suggest a concentration of wealth far in excess of what is observed, so a modification is introduced to allow for some arbitrary redistribution of wealth (which may come by way of taxation or other means). All of this (and more) is explained quite well in the Scientific American article quoted at the beginning of this post.

All of this is well and good (and interesting), but I have a couple of major quibbles (which I guess is oxymoronic). One is that the AWM describes the outcome of the process, but is not based on the actual process. The real world is much more complex than a bunch of random transactions. There are issues of skill, cheating, privilege, unfair regulations, and so on, to name a few. The other objection I have is that wealth is not completely measured by the sum total of one’s physical, tradeable possessions.

Wealth, in a broader sense, includes many intangibles, such as a sense of well-being and community; access to cultural and recreational activities; feelings of self-worth and accomplishment; and much more. The richest person may very well be the one whose every need is met. Needs spring not from a market economy, but from within a person, and cannot be measured in dollar terms. True wealth is, in many ways, the absence of desire.

So, where does that leave us in trying to find a cure for the inequality of wealth, that, at its extreme, seems to violate our sense of fair play? Just as the problem is complex (life is not a 3-parameter process), the solution(s) will also be complex. Clearly, the “free” market is not to be trusted. But we already know that, which is why there really is no “free” market, but one that is constrained on all sides by laws and regulations designed to mitigate its worst offenses. Economists have long pointed out the distorting effect of “externalities” — those costs to society that are not priced into the market economy. We could benefit from more efforts to bring those costs into the market system, such as a carbon tax, as one example. Beyond that, we probably need more ideas on how to work outside the market model. We already have many successful examples, such as our system of public parks, and private land trusts. We need more such common actions that benefit all members of society; not just those with the money to buy access.


On a planet increasingly dominated by people—even the deep oceans today are being altered by humans—it probably makes sense to think about wilderness, too, as a human creation.

Elizabeth Kolbert, in “Recall of the Wild”

When I read Bill McKibben’s book The End of Nature, back in 1989 (it first appeared in The New Yorker), it had the same impact on me that Silent Spring had when that first came out, in 1962. In that earlier instance, bluebirds made an environmentalist out of me, when Rachel Carson explained why my favorite birds were gradually disappearing. Later, when I read McKibben’s essay, I came to the realization that there is no longer such a thing as wilderness, at least if it is envisioned as an unspoiled place such as existed before the arrival of humans.

This is a theme that has been taken up by other authors, such as Bill Cronon, in his 1995 essay The Trouble With Wilderness, in which he describes wilderness as a state of mind.

To think ourselves capable of causing “the end of nature” is an act of great hubris, for it means forgetting the wildness that dwells everywhere within and around us.

In Elizabeth Kolbert’s 2012 essay on rewilding, she gives much detail about a particular project in the Netherlands, named Oostvaardersplassen. It is a large park, on land reclaimed from the sea (and below sea level), which is being used to house large populations of animals thought to resemble those of ancient times, prior to the age of human agriculture. Similar efforts are underway elsewhere. She mentions Rewilding Europe as an example, and I’m aware of similar projects in North America, where lands in the West are being restored to their “original” (i.e. prior to the arrival of Europeans) grassland species of both flora and fauna.

None of these efforts can truly recreate habitats that are identical to ancient landscapes. The world has gone through phases of climate change, including the Little Ice Age and our current period of global warming. Species have been lost because of over-hunting, habitat loss, and other human-induced changes. Despite their limitations, I applaud these efforts. They do represent an increased awareness that we humans are destroying much that has value, and at the very least they are an attempt to attenuate that process.

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: