Obamsawins

The three Obamsawins, whom Jeanne heard as a girl “talking Indian with each other, two sisters and a brother: left to right, Marion Obamsawin, William Simon Obamsawin, and Elvine Obamsawin Royce, Jeanne’s grandmother. (c. 1960) 

Rogers’ Raid, an all-out attack on “the most active and troublesome” Indians fighting the English during the French and Indian War, has captured the imagination of generations of Americans for over 250 years.

Gen. Jeffrey Amherst, leading the English forces in New England, ordered the raid in 1759, at the height of the French and Indian (Seven Years) War, which the English were winning. The village of St. Francis, founded just north of Montreal by French Jesuits, offered protection to Native Americans driven from their lands south of the Canadian border by the English. From this base, Abenaki and other Indians kept up attacks on the invaders of their homeland to the south.

Major Robert Rogers led a party of “regulars” north to make a surprise attack October 4, 1759, killing inhabitants and burning down the church and all the log houses in the French Jesuit village, a refuge for Indians from the New England colonies. He published the first account of the raid in his Journals, from England, in 1765.

From that time to the present, the story of Rogers’ raid, the devastation of St. Francis, and the horrific suffering that took the lives of many raiders on the long trek back, has inspired many writers. In 1940, Kenneth Roberts’ best-selling 1936 novel, “Northwest Passage,” reached a mass audience when made into a movie of the same name, just as World War II was beginning.

In Vermont, a decade later, a young forester was discovering how Indian practices transformed forestlands. Gordon M. Day of Barre, wrote and published his observations about Indian management of northern forests, then changed careers, training as an ethnographer, so that he could immerse himself in the study of the St. Francis Abenaki. For the Quebec village Rogers’ Rangers had burned down—known as St. Francis or, in Abenaki, Odanak—had long ago been rebuilt, and become the center of a Canadian Indian reservation.

From 1956, Day’s new career at the Canadian Museum of Man in Ottawa, Ontario (now reestablished as the Canadian Museum of Civilization in Hull, Quebec) involved learning the Abenaki language from residents of Odanak. Once he was fairly fluent, he began his chosen work: conducting interviews in Abenaki, in order to learn and record their way of life and their traditions. He wrote and published many papers based on his research at Odanak.

But it was back in Vermont, just a few years after he’d begun, that Day would become the first person outside the Abenaki community to hear the native “tradition,” or oral history, of Rogers’ Raid from Elvine Obomsawin, daughter of an Odanak Abenaki.

In early October, 1959, almost 200 years to the day after Rogers’ Raid, Gordon Day sat down with Elvine Obamsawin at her home in Berlin, and heard her sing, in Abenaki, the “Lonesome Song” of Malian Obomsawin.

A young girl in 1759, Malian (pronounced Molly-yawn) not only survived the raid, she lived to become a grandmother, and to pass down both her song, and also her account of that terrible night, to her granddaughter, Mali Msadoques. From one Abenaki woman to another, often skipping a generation, the “tradition” was passed down.

So Gordon Day, at Elvine’s home, heard her relate, in Abenaki, the St. Francis Indians’ story of Rogers’ Raid. Traditional Abenaki culture had no writing; its oral tradition ensured the careful transmission to succeeding generations of each community’s history.

When Day put the “tradition” of Rogers’ Raid into English, in a scholarly paper, “historians were amazed,” writes Marge Bruchac, a Native American scholar. For the Abenaki tradition tells how one of the Indian scouts with Rogers’ men broke away through the woods, to the village, to warn the people to escape. Most had left long before the attack; just 10 men and 22 women and children were killed, and nearly 200 survived the raid, which Rogers claimed had killed 200.

Day made a case for the accuracy of the Abenaki account in a scholarly paper, “The Oral Tradition as Complement.”

“American Indian historical traditions,” Day wrote, “are commonly discounted as historical evidence. Some groups, however, transmitted traditions with great care, and these should be taken into account…since our documents are usually partial and always ethnocentric. The Abenaki traditions of Rogers’ Raid are…an example of a case where history and tradition together form a more believable whole.”

What particularly “struck me,” Day wrote, “was the frequency with which the traditional statements solved puzzles…and the frequency with which the data of history and the data of tradition, taken together, form a congruous and more believable whole.”

In addition to Elvine Obomsawin, Day had another informant relate an Abenaki tradition of Rogers’ Raid. This was “an elderly man who had it from his grandmother, born in 1830. She had known persons who were alive at the time of the raid,” Day wrote.

This man, Theophile Panadis, told Gordon Day how an unknown Indian had warned the Abenaki the night before the raid. Day surmised that this must have been not one of the Mohican majority of Rogers’ scouts, but one of the several other tribesmen, possibly a Sokoki. “With friends and relatives at St. Francis,” where Abenaki were the majority, not the only Indians, “he took the long chance of warning the Abenaki at the very time when Rogers had the village under surveillance,” the night before the raid, Day points out.

“Small wonder,” Day observed, “that he refused, as my informant told me after the recorder had been switched off, to come out of the shadows when talking with the young woman” who stopped to hear his urgent warning, on her way to the gathering where she shared what she had been told. Many people heeded her words, knowing that their protectors were away: Most of men had left, called to the Yamaska River by the French governor, Vaudreuil.

Rogers’ own account notes that his men observed the Indians “in a high frolic or dance” the night before the early-hours raid; the Abenaki tradition relates that this was the night of the harvest celebration. It also identifies, by name, the Indian who warned the village: Samadagwis.

The Indian scouts with Rogers’ men, Marge Bruchac notes, included not only Mohicans, but “Sokoki, Pocumtuck, Woronoco, Cowas, Pequawket and others forced out from their homelands by English colonists.” Once the English had defeated the French, some Indians eventually left Canada for northern New England, some headed elsewhere, and others remained as the core community at Odanak.

Elvine Obomsawin, who passed on in 1967, was born March 5, 1886, on the reservation at Odanak. She moved to Vermont, following her father to Thompson’s Point, where he worked as caretaker of summer cottages. Her sister and brother settled here also. Elvine married, had six children and many grandchildren. Her granddaughter Jeanne Brink, of Barre, recalls hearing her “talk Indian” with her sister and brother when she was a girl growing up in Berlin.

“She lived with us from time to time,” recalled Brink. “I grew up hearing Abenaki—with French when needed. She and her sister and brother spoke a broken English, so they took someone along to interpret when they went selling baskets,” the fancy ash-splint and sweet grass baskets the women in her family made.

“I remember my grandmother very well,” she noted. “She would tell me stories and she would repeat words and phrases over and over again.” Later, when Brink began interviewing and recording Abenakis herself, she found that her grandmother’s oldest son would repeat things in the same way. Then she realized that this could be part of the tradition of transmission: Teaching words and phrases to ensure that they’d be remembered.

But Elvine and her husband had not spoken Abenaki to their children, and Elvine never taught Malian’s Lonesome Song and her account of Rogers’ Raid to Brink. The culture was no longer what it had been; these were families who sent their children to Vermont public schools, where they could learn the ways of other people, other Americans.

“My grandmother would tell me Abenaki stories. At age 10 or 11, I would ask how to do one thing or another, but then I’d be off to doing something else. My grandmother, her sister and her mother, and probably her grandmother” all made ash-splint and sweetgrass baskets. I grew up watching them. My grandmother and her sister never sat idle,” Brink recalls; “they would be making baskets.”

When she first learned that her grandmother knew “this amazing piece of history, Abenaki history that no ethnologist or historian or non-native person had ever heard,” Brink was awestruck. “I just saw her as this lady that was Indian, that talked Indian to her sister and her brother… and was a basket-maker.”

Today, Jeanne Brink is an elder at the center of circles of Abenaki culture, organizing Abenaki language learning, teaching basket-making, making presentations and serving as a resource to schools, colleges, and other groups interested in Abenaki culture.

Perhaps most rewarding of all has been her association with the late Gordon Day, for whom Brink computerized dictionary entries he had written on thousands of file cards. Day passed away in 1993, at 82, not living to see the publication of the dictionary that had been his life’s work: The first volume, Abenaki-English, in 1994; the second, English-Abenaki, in 1995. There had been an Abenaki-French dictionary published earlier, but Day’s is the first to serve English speakers.

“He was a remarkable man, he had a wealth of knowledge…but he was such a humble man,” said Brink. Gordon Day, who brought the Abenaki tradition of Rogers’ Raid to the world; Sophie Nolett, who taught her to make the fancy sweet grass and ash-splint baskets that Obomsawin women traditionally made; and Rhoda Carroll, who inspired her at Vermont College to earn a B.A. and M.A. in Native American studies, Brink says, have been the three greatest influences in her life.

She is soon turning 72, and may not be organizing pow-wows and accepting as many speaking engagements as she did 25 years ago, but Jeanne Brink remains a vital resource to the Abenaki and folklore communities, and surely will continue to touch lives with her gentle ways and Indian spirit.