The Quadricentennial and going through the motions

So, Burlington has had its festival commemorating the Champlain Quadricentennial —- meaning that 400 years ago in July 1609, Samuel de Champlain traveled down Petonbowk (the waters that lie between), making him the first European to set eyes on it.  Then he named it after himself.

Now, it is my understanding, from the big biography of Champlain that came out this year, that he was a pretty good guy, for an early European colonizer.  He spoke native languages, and was interested in collaborations and partnerships.

And, despite how very suspect the motives and urges of the Europeans who greedily came here were, to be fair, nobody had any idea how destructive the diseases they were carrying were going to be.

That was 300-500 years ago, and we can’t go back.

lake between

Big anniversaries of ambivalent and destructive events are really tough to figure out.  How do you commemorate something like this?  With seriousness?  With regret?  With celebration?

The celebratory commemoration is really a Victorian specialty — 100 to 150 years ago, every little town in Vermont was having a massive pageant to celebrate something or other.  In 1909 in Burlington, there was a massive pageant with Kahnawake Mohawks hired to paddle down the lake, reenacting Champlain’s historic visit (I learned this from a talk given by Kevin Dann last year, correct me if I’m wrong).  This was much easier to do in 1909, because all white people in Vermont knew for sure that all the Indians were long gone from the state.

Thankfully, 2009 is a tougher time for people to do something like that.  So Burlington assembled sort of a mish-mash of artists and musicians, some of whom were from Quebec and some from France.  There were some Abenaki and Iroquois artists in there too, as well as an Abenaki encampment.  And a parade.

I really support paying artists and musicians.  Paying artists is an excellent way to stimulate the economy.  Paying artists is also important for it’s own sake.

But if I had been in charge of the Quadricentennial, I would have mustered whatever ceremoniousness might have still be available to me from those repeating 09s and used it to make some serious commitments on behalf of the state of Vermont to Abenakis and other Native Americans here.

It would include official proclamations about history and responsibility.  It would include addressing poverty in the present.  It would include letting people label their crafts.  It would include not expecting people to show up and perform their culture for tourists for 10 days.  It would include admitting that we screwed things up in the intervale.  It would involve listening and asking questions and not hoping for a single spokesman for the “native perspective.”  It would involve a real pledge to be an ally on the state level and a supporter on the national level.  It might even involve giving up some land.

I would take all the money devoted to drinking beer and listening to music on the waterfront (you don’t have to put a million dollars toward people doing that! people are already doing that on their own dime!) and put it towards research and conservation.  I would commit to a bold environmental goal for the Lake Champlain region.  I would get a bunch of scholars to rigorously do the busywork and collaborate with native scholars and communities, researching and recording stories until we actually know a lot more about Vermont’s real history.  Because we don’t actually know that much.

That would be, I think, a commemoration that connects the past to the future.  Maybe they will let me do it in 2059.


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