BELLOWS FALLS, Vt. – Long before European settlers came to the Vermont area and colonial governors from England started chartering towns, members of the Native American Abenaki Tribe fished the waters of the Great Falls, which they called the Kchi Pôntegok. Not only this, but part of the surrounding area was part of a sacred burial ground. Today, according to spokesperson Diana Jones, hundreds of their descendants are most likely dispersed among the local population, where they have become hardly distinguishable. The only visible reminder of this past is the Petroglyphs, carvings on the rock wall by the Vilas Bridge in Bellows Falls. These are hard to access and hardly visible at all.
Since the first of the year, 2022, a committee of locals formed to raise awareness of the area’s Native American heritage. It is made up of local Chief Roger Longtoe Sheehan, his wife Linda, Abenaki Historian Richard Holschuh, Archeologist Gail Golec, Historical Society member Anette Spaulding, Rockingham Selectboard member Eliza Zimmer, and Diana Jones, a native of the area who has been in Bellows Falls most of her life.
Jones has been active in other community endeavors and says of her Native American heritage, “It’s a hard subject that I don’t think people know how to bring together. It’s a personal side of history I wanted to explore.”
Zimmer says, “The dramatic loss of the native lands hasn’t been addressed in the past. [To] the people that were here and are still here, [it] is important in reconciliation… I think people are really excited about rediscovering the history. As a selectboard member, I strongly support recognition of the indigenous people.”
Cathy Bergmann, President of the Bellows Falls Historical Society, also lends her support. She says, “The Bellows Falls Historical Society, with its total commitment to all history, celebrates an opportunity to watch and perhaps participate in the exploration of the lives, culture, and story of these indigenous people.”
Last month, the group announced the completion of their first major accomplishment. A collaboration of the Elnu Abenaki Tribe and the Rockingham Historic Preservation Commission was awarded a National Park Service Underrepresented Community Grant to reassess the historic landscape of the Petroglyphs site, reassess its sacredness, and update its listing on the Register of Historic Places. The hope and focus of the group is now the establishment of a Kchi Pôntegok Cultural Center. They state that the purpose of the center is, “To teach the community about a culture through use of events, festivals, and workshops.” Jones says the exact shape, size, and location of the center itself is still in the visionary and planning stages, but some funding sources have been identified.
The center is already one of the projects proposed for ARPA, American Rescue Plan Act, pandemic recovery funding of about $1.5 million that is currently under consideration for distribution to various projects by the three local government boards. The Vermont Humanities Council has a Partnership Project Grant that may help, and there is also a Vermont Arts Council Cultural Facilities Grant that could be tapped. Likely the final funding will be some kind of combination of more than one source. And, as with all such projects, matching fundraising through member donations and corporate and business donations will be part of the final package.
Jones says she is happy with the progress to date. She notes that, “Nobody ever talked about it,” when she was younger. She now feels she has reconnected with this part of her past, saying, “The more stories we know, the better off we are.”
Anyone wishing information on the project can contact Jones at firstname.lastname@example.org or 802-376-2511.