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Remembering Chief Homer St. Francis
Amid a stormy sky with bright patches of sun - today was the funeral of Chief Homer St. Francis, of the St. Francis Sokoki Band of the Abenaki at Missisquoi. The ceremony was held in the Church of the Nativity and was a remarkable blend of Catholic high holy and Abenaki traditions. The priest admitted "If I tried to eulogize Homer, he'd have a few choice words for me," so instead he spoke briefly of a rough and powerful soul, admired even by those who feared him, who was being sent home to a peaceful place. "Homer said this church was like all outdoors," and we agreed, seated in this 19th century cathedral in the north country, with it's high vaulted ceilings, sturdy beams of Vermont pine, sparking old stained glass, and windows open to the cool breezes wafting in from the surrounding pines. The Chief was honored by the entire Catholic ritual service, with prayers and songs, incense and communion, while two tribal members held a feathered prayer staff and the Missisquoi flag at either side of the center aisle. Attendees were dressed in styles that unwittingly illustrated the effects of four hundred years of European occupation of Abenaki territory, and Native peoples' ability to adapt new fashions and incorporate old traditions. Business suits, leather and fringe, feather headdresses, top hats, beads, and t-shirts with tribal logos were all in evidence. The Chief's wife, Patsy, and other family members were surrounded by a crowd of nearly 900 people, including many Native and non-Native friends - a cross-section of the local community and all of New England, that included politicians, archaeologists, and professors, alongside Swanton residents and numerous Native peoples.
Homer St. Francis was willing to stand up for Abenaki people, land, ancestors, and local recognition at a time when most Vermonters, and many others, refused to acknowledge that the Abenaki even existed. Homer was especially important in forcing his neighbors to recognize the numbers of Abenaki people still living in our traditional, original Abenaki homelands in New England, particularly in Swanton, VT. Many people still mistakenly believe the only remaining Abenakis are those living at the Canadian reserve called Odanak or St. Francis. Proud, powerful, a war veteran, Marine, and a fighter, Homer St. Francis was loved and hated for his willful determination to never give up Missisquoi homelands. Chief St. Francis has often been described as a "war chief," and it has been a difficult time, with many struggles within and outside the Missisquoi community.
Over three decades and two appointments as chief, St. Francis witnessed many accomplishments of the St. Francis Sokoki Band at Missisquoi. The Nation has: staged fish-ins to establish aboriginal title, been formally recognized by the state of Vermont only to see that recognition withdrawn by an anti-Indian governor, hosted heritage celebrations and powwows, taught language recovery classes and educational programs through its Title V Indian Education Office and in local schools, repatriated numerous ancestors and reclaimed some of our burial grounds on Monument Road (the site of the first Jesuit church in Vermont and an ancient, long-occupied Abenaki village site), and maintained a tribal office, retail store, and museum. The Chief's daughter, April St. Francis Rushlow, who served as Acting Chief during his illness, will continue to oversee tribal affairs in the Chief's absence.
John Moody, tribal ethno historian, eulogized the chief, extolling Homer St. Francis' spirit, his determination, his understanding of history and prophecy, and his love for the children. He started by reciting the length of Abenaki presence at Missisquoi - literally thousands of years - thinking, as many of us were, of
the anthropomorphic glacier that formed the lake now called Champlain, the ancestors who were there to witness those transformations, and the remains of those ancestors who still lie in the land all around this part of the world.
John also made the comment, aimed particularly at the local and state of Vermont dignitaries seated in the church, including Governor Dean, that Vermont owes its beauty and wildness to the long presence of Abenaki who preserved their traditional homelands and held off more concentrated settlement. "Greylock was the 18th century Abenakis' solution to urban sprawl."
Moody, himself a Vietnam veteran, went on to list the wars in which Abenaki men had fought, on behalf of the United States, beginning with the many scouts who served in the French and Indian wars, as the Abenakis played both sides to cleverly preserve their territory. There was "Indian Joe," from Missisquoi, who, along with other Abenaki men who fought on the colonial side in the Revolutionary War, was promised that the traditional homeland at Missisquoi would be preserved. Other Indian war veterans received similar assurances - the Penobscots were promised that they could hold "Indian Island" in Maine, and the Passamaquoddys reserved "Pleasant Point," both long-inhabited sites. There was Chief Louis Gill, who held an officer's commission from George Washington, and generation upon generation of northeastern Indians in general, and Abenaki in particular, who went to war alongside their Yankee neighbors, to preserve America and their homelands, even while the American government was systematically erasing Abenaki sovereignty, sterilizing Abenaki women, and sending Native children off to institutions. During the 1940s and 50s, white Vermonters formed Ku Klux Klan vigilante groups in northern Vermont, and started targeting Abenaki and other undesirable "colored people," ensuring that Vermont's population would become the overwhelmingly "white" demographic that it is today.
Homer knew all of that, and he fought all his life to keep this corner of what we now call "Vermont" for an Abenaki community that went underground and survived right under the noses of their neighbors for the last two hundred years, long after Ethan and Ira Allen claimed Vermont was a deserted hunting ground.
We got to hear how John Moody, as a young anthropologist thirty or more years back, came to interview a few Indians, and met Homer St. Francis. "I told him how my Yankee mother had raised me to fear the St. Francis Indians, who were the scourge of the settlers, and told me they were eventually wiped out by Robert Rogers in 1759." Despite the statements in Rogers' falsified reports, and the myths perpetuated by white New Englanders, the Abenaki communities at St. Francis and elsewhere survived. Homer told the young anthro, "I won't kill you today... but you're mine." Moody has ended up devoting his life to collecting and preserving the history of the tribe. He is now our tribal ethnologist, and is married to our Repatriation Coordinator, Donna Roberts.
Moody acknowledged the chiefs and delegations from the St. Francis Abenaki Reserve at Odanak, in Canada, from
Narragansett, and many other Native Nations, who sent one, two, or many people to honor the chief, whom they didn't always agree with, but whose spirit was admired by all who knew him. Then Moody brought our attention to one of the most pressing problems that needs to be addressed by all Vermonters. As Homer used to say, "There's more of us in the ground than there are walking around above it." Vermont has hundreds of thousands of Abenaki burials that are not protected by any state officials, despite existing laws against disturbance of marked and unmarked burials. Remains are still being unearthed in known habitation sites, and still being shoveled back into landfills, even at places like Monument Road, a stone's throw from the church we were seated in. Monument Road, Moody reminded us, was the site of the first church in Vermont, founded by a Jesuit who came to live among the Missisquoi at Greylock's village, along the same river where many of the Abenaki seated in the church along with us were born.
Ironically, the chief's passing forced a rescheduling of a coalition that has been formed to address the issue of continued disturbance of Abenaki burials, in known village sites, by housing construction and urban sprawl. "It's time for us to council together, to preserve our ancestors, and to look to those who come after." Moody also noted that this church, placed here on one of the oldest sites of human habitation in Vermont, was acknowledging, as the earliest priests among the Abenaki did, that there need be no conflict between Christian and Abenaki traditions.
"Gluskabe and Jesus both counseled the same ideals - care for the old ones, heal your spirits, look to the children."
The chief was also a Marine, so a Marine honor guard in addition to the tribal honor guard attended him. What choked me up the most was the moment when, as the church bell started tolling his age, and the Marines were unfolding the flag over the casket, the voices of the Maliseet drummers could be heard outside the church, singing the Wabanaki chief's honor song. We processed to the church graveyard and stood by, as the sky shifted through clouds and rain and bright sun. As the flag was being folded for his wife Patsy, a small fire of sweetgrass, sage, and tobacco was started at the foot of the coffin. When three crisp shots from the Marine rifles suddenly broke the silence, many non-Natives flinched and startled, but not an Indian among us moved. The now-bare coffin was soon covered with flowers, the chief's headdress, tobacco, and many other offerings. I brought a hide of my own long-past father's white deerskin, to cover the chief as we have covered the old ones who have traveled back, home to Missisquoi, home to Greylock's village, home to Monument Road, by way of the Winooski, Bitownbauk, and Missisquoi waters.
Chief Homer St. Francis can now sleep with the old ones.