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Arrows for a Green Heart

stained glass heart with arrows going through it
Heart with arrows through it, stained glass window at St. Augustine Parish in Montpelier, Vermont, was photographed by Damian Costello.
This summer, my children came home with bows and arrows they made at Turtle Island summer camp. Watching them launch arrows and scamper off to find them in the brush filled me with an unexpected yearning. Something about how their delicate fingers learned to cradle the arrows and the unmediated focus in their eyes called up.

Certainly it had to do with my childhood. Their joy brought me back to the many days I spent fashioning makeshift bows and arrows, running behind my house through the large maples of the old sugar bush and red pine plantation, imagining that I was like the children who had lived in central Vermont for the last millennia. 

That’s when people of central Vermont first obtained the bow and arrow. Countless generations of Abenaki children practiced on birds and small game and probably heard one version of the creation story of human beings.

“The first people were made of stone and did not respect the earth, so Gluskabe, knowing that the ash tree had a heart, shot an arrow into it. The tree split and twins emerged with living green hearts, who promised to care for all the creatures of Dawnland.” 

I didn’t know that the bows and arrows made me like the children of central Vermont since American settlement. An elder resident recalled in the Vermont Watchman on March 31, 1910 that during his pre-Civil War childhood the main sports were “cricket, baseball and football, as well as archery. Most of the bows and arrows were made by wandering Indians who came here.” 

“Wandering Indians” is not quite accurate. Even if not stationary, Abenaki and Mohawks were very intentional residents of this area. They visited traditional hunting grounds and met with relatives. They put on lacrosse games at summer fairs and lobbied for land. 

Mohawks from Kahnawake on behalf of the Seven Nations made land claims at the Vermont State Capitol starting in 1798. On May 5, 1910, the Vermont Watchman recorded that in 1885 “the entire hill back of the state house was covered with woods and the Indians camped there, as they had done for several years previous.” Montpelier residents mingled at the camp and for the children “a band of Indians was a wonderful attraction,” in part because they most certainly sold bows and arrows. 

To survive, many Indigenous people sold traditional crafts, including bows and arrows. It was often at vacation spots, such as along Lake Champlain or near the White Mountain resorts, but it could be anywhere. In 1858, Edwin Burlingame, a teacher in Barre, encountered a group of Abenakis from Odanak and Maine camped near the river about a mile out of town. Their large white tents were filled with finished baskets and supplies “in strips, some of them dyed blue, yellow, and red,” and “materials for bows and arrows.” 

The Abenaki and Mohawk knew that bows and arrows captivate the non-Indigenous people of Vermont, just like my children and me before them. I don’t think we can help it; the bow and arrow is an important part of our ancestral traditions no matter where we are from, a tactile embodiment of our past. 

At the same time, what I saw this summer in my children was not nostalgia. Shooting an arrow is about the future, about incorporating the best of our ancestral heritage into a better future, yearning to have the green hearts of the people that emerged out of the ash tree and to live up to the promise they made to Gluskabe. 

Damian Costello is the Director of Postgraduate Studies at NAIITS: An Indigenous Learning Community and a speaker with the Vermont Humanities Council.