Powerful Medicine: Abenaki Circle of Courage welcome Jim Bruchac and share stories and lessons |

SWANTON — “The drum is the heartbeat of Mother Earth,” said Abenaki leader Stacey Gould. “Her voice is sacred … It is 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-casted animal prints from animals like the wolf, the wolverine and the moose. Abenaki storyteller, author and animal tracker Jim Bruchac came to share stories, lessons and the songs of his people.

Young members of the Abenaki Circle of Courage, at an after school program in Swanton, are no strangers to the voice of the drum, though. They carefully carried the Mother Drum into the cafeteria under a soft blanket. They warmed it with a hair dryer to prepare the skin. Students gathered chairs around as others helped younger female students wrap themselves in protective blankets. The medicine is strong and can harm women if they are not careful, Gould said.

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Jim Bruchac. (Kate Barcellos)

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Jim Bruchac and his students. (Kate Barcellos)

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Jim Bruchac teaches students how to hear like deer. (Kate Barcellos)

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Jim Bruchac. (Kate Barcellos)

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Jim BruchacKate Barcellos

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Stacey Gould fills a small leather pouch with tobacco to open the drum. (Kate Barcellos)

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Jim Bruchac accepts his mallet and his seat in the circle. (Kate Barcellos)

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Jim Bruchac seats with the Abenaki Circle of Courage drummers. (Kate Barcellos)



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Jim Bruchac. (Kate Barcellos)



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Jim Bruchac and his students. (Kate Barcellos)



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Jim Bruchac teaches students how to hear like deer. (Kate Barcellos)



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Jim Bruchac. (Kate Barcellos)



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Jim BruchacKate Barcellos



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Stacey Gould fills a small leather pouch with tobacco to open the drum. (Kate Barcellos)



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Jim Bruchac accepts his mallet and his seat in the circle. (Kate Barcellos)



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Jim Bruchac seats with the Abenaki Circle of Courage drummers. (Kate Barcellos)

After calling to the directions, the students took their places at the drum and began to drum a deep heartbeat rhythm. A ring of students circled around the drummers, always to the left as the heart lies on the left side of the chest in accordance with the Abenaki tradition.

As they drummed in sync, the drummers began to sing. Despite the youth of their voices, the songs sounded holy and ancient, as though the students were singing with the voices of generations before. They sang in the Abenaki tongue, memorized, while raising their mallets in sync to thunder out an echoing and powerful rhythm.

As student Selah Cota drummed, the elder Abenaki – Gould and Bruchac – stood solemnly outside the circle gazing on with pride. The sounds, the songs, the stories and the steps of the Abenaki lived on before their eyes.

Honoring the spring

As the seasons change, the Abenaki Circle of Courage honors the traditions and stories associated with them with special activities and eats. Now being spring, students learn about the first harvests after maple season: wild strawberries and fiddlehead ferns. Both were foods the Abenaki harvested and ate, so students got to have a taste of each of them, along with Gould’s homemade corn muffins.

Now that the ground is getting softer, students could be on the lookout for animal tracks, something Bruchac specializes in.

The author of 10 books on Abenaki stories, Bruchac has traveled all over the continent tracking everything from wolverines to grizzly bears and can judge the size and species of an animal by analyzing its footprints.

On Wednesday, the students learned about many creatures including the mountain lion and Azeban, the Abenaki trickster also known as a raccoon.

“Stories can tell us many, many things,” Bruchac said. “They can teach us lessons that 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 not well-liked. He liked to challenge other animals to races and taunt them when he won, and soon no one would race against him.

Until one day, Azeban challenged a boulder to a race, and pushed the boulder — also called Grandfather — down the hill to race beside him. But the boulder caught up to Azeban, and squashed him into the ground. None of the other animals raised a hoof or paw to help him, until a family of ants 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 slowly stood back up, and as soon as he could brushed the ants off of him without any show of gratitude or thanks and laughed at them. But as he began to walk away from the ants, he noticed that they hadn’t finished his legs, which were still stunted and remain short to this day.

Nowadays, Bruchac said Azeban is often found on the side of the road covered in ants. Instead of putting Azeban back together, though, these days the ants are taking him apart.

“The lesson there is we must always keep our promises to our friends, even the smallest ones,” Bruchac said. “Because they could get you in the end, bit by bit.”

Sharing tradition

After he shared his stories, Bruchac was invited to sit at the drum with the students and Gould for the singing of a song to thank him for his stories, his presence and his knowledge. Gould took her place at the drum for a special song that the Abenaki play for and with travelers and visitors, to wish them well on their journey ahead.

The rhythm increases in speed with every round as the students dance special steps in a ring around the drummers, always to the left, close to the heart.

Bruchac bowed his head as his mallet fell on the drum and Gould and the others joined in song. Gould’s daughter, Sage, sang brightest of all, and there was a deep pride in Gould’s eyes as she drummed beside her.

“They know the power of the drum, and they respect it,” Gould said as she watched her students dance. “If she doesn’t sing, something is wrong.”