SWANTON – “The drum is the heartbeat of Mother Earth,” said Abenaki leader Stacey Gould. “Her voice is sacred … It’s a powerful medicine.”
Along with classmates and members of the Abenaki community, there was another who entered the Abenaki Circle of Courage last Wednesday, carrying a traditional woven basket and plaster casts of animals from animals such as wolves, wolverines and moose. Abenaki narrator, author and animal tracker Jim Bruchac came to share the stories, lessons and songs of his people.
However, the young members of Abenaki’s Circle of Courage, an extracurricular program in Swanton, are no stranger to the voice of the drum. They carefully carried Mother Drum to the dining room under a soft blanket. They heated it with a hair dryer to prepare the skin. The students gathered chairs around them, while the others helped the younger students wrap themselves in protective blankets. The drug is strong and can hurt women if they are not careful, Gould said.
After calling for instructions, the students took their places at the drum and began drumming in a deep heartbeat. A circle of students circled around the drummers, always on the left, because the heart lies on the left side of the chest in accordance with Abenaki’s tradition.
As they drummed in sync, the drummers began to sing. Despite the youthfulness of their voices, the songs sounded holy and ancient, as if students had sung the voices of generations before. They sang in Abenaki, learning by heart as they raised their drumsticks in sync to thunder and with a strong rhythm.
As student Selah Cota drummed, the elder Abenaki – Gould and Bruchac – stood seriously outside the circle and looked on with pride. The sounds, songs, stories, and footsteps of the Abenaki lived on before their eyes.
Tribute to spring
As the seasons change, the Circle of Courage Abenaki honors the traditions and stories associated with them with special activities and foods. Now that it’s spring, students are introduced to the first harvests after the maple season: wild strawberries and ferns. Both were foods that Abenaki harvested and ate, so the students had to taste each of them along with Gould’s homemade corn muffins.
Now that the soil is softer, students could look for animal tracks, which Bruchac specializes in.
Bruchac, author of 10 books on Abenaki’s stories, has traveled across the continent, tracking everything from wolverines to grizzly bears, and can assess the size and species of an animal by analyzing its footprints.
On Wednesday, students learned about many creatures, including a mountain lion and Azeban, a cheater from Abenaki, also known as a raccoon.
“Stories can tell us a lot, a lot of things,” Bruchac said. “They can teach us lessons that will protect us and help us learn.”
Azeban once had long legs and could run faster than any creature, Bruchac said, but he was a braggart and a gambler and was not very popular. He liked to challenge other animals to races and make fun of them when he won, and soon no one raced against him.
Until one day, Azeban challenged the boulder to the race and pushed the boulder – also called Grandfather – down the hill to race next to him. But the boulder overtook Azeban and pressed him to the ground. None of the other animals raised their hooves or paws to help him until the ant family appeared.
Azeban asked for help in exchange for friendship, and the ants – not knowing how he treated the other animals – began to put him back together. Azeban got up slowly, and as soon as he could, he swept the ants off without gratitude or thanks and laughed at them. But as he began to walk away from the ants, he noticed that they had not finished his legs, which were still stunted and short to this day.
Nowadays, Bruchac said that Azeban is often found on the side of the road covered with ants. Instead of putting Azeban back together, the ants are taking him apart these days.
“The lesson is that we must always keep our promises to our friends, even the smallest ones,” Bruchac said. “Because they could eventually get you bit by bit.”
After sharing his stories, Bruchac was invited to sit behind the drum with the students and Gould to sing the song, to thank him for his stories, his presence and his knowledge. Gould took her place at the drum with a special song that the Abenaki play for travelers and visitors to wish them good luck on their way forward.
The rhythm accelerates with each round as the students dance special steps in a circle around the drummers, always to the left, close to the heart.
Bruchac bowed his head as his mallet landed on the drum, and Gould and the others joined the song. Gould’s daughter, Sage, sang the brightest of them all, and there was deep pride in Gould’s eyes as she drummed beside her.
“They know the power of the drum and respect it,” Gould said as she watched her students dance. “If he’s not singing, there’s something wrong.”