Home News and Features New Abenaki Mural at Transit Center Promotes ‘Unity, Joy, Healing’

New Abenaki Mural at Transit Center Promotes ‘Unity, Joy, Healing’

Missisquoi Abenaki artist Abena Songbird stands beside “We Continue to Live,” the new mural inside the Montpelier Transit Center on Taylor Street. Songbird was the lead designer and one of the eight painters who created the 17-foot-high, 27-foot-wide mural. Songbird said she wanted the work, which portrays Abenaki heritage, to promote “unity, joy, healing.” Photo by Tom McKone.
The bare wall at the back of the Montpelier Transit Center lobby was an enormous blank canvas begging for someone to bring it to life, and now that has happened. Eight artists — six of them native — have filled the space with an engaging, brightly colored mural that joyfully celebrates Abenaki culture.

“This piece was a prayer for healing,” said Missisquoi Abenaki artist Abena Songbird in a recent interview at the mural. “We’ve all been through a lot of challenges — including the city of Montpelier … I wanted people to feel the joy, the beauty, the vibrancy, the aliveness of our culture … I wanted us to feel healed, to come together in unity, joy, healing.”

Songbird, who was the lead designer and one of the painters, recruited two other Abenaki artists and three Ojibwe artists to join her. She said that in addition to painting, Nulhegan Abenaki artist Lucy Cannon Neel made important design contributions and was the secondary designer.

Standing 17 feet high and 27 feet wide, “Nd’ôlemôwzibna” (“We Continue to Live”) presents seasonal images of Abenaki culture encircling drummers within a loop of braided sweetgrass. Drumming and sweetgrass, a sacred herb used in praying and basketry, are at the heart of the culture, and the river flowing beside those images shows a birch bark canoe and loons. 

Spring, portrayed in the mural, shows images of maple sugaring, summer has traditional vegetables, and fall has an ash tree and people making ash baskets. Tradition connects Abenaki origins with the ash tree. The winter images show people playing snow snake, which native peoples have played for centuries. Competitors carve a wooden snake and compete to see who can slide theirs farthest in a snow track.

Strawberries, a symbol of unity, provide a border for the mural. While the two elders have faces, the others are blank, a nod to the Abenaki story of a corn maiden who lost her ability to see her own reflected image because of her vanity. “It’s not all about the individual,” Songbird said. “We’re community, and everyone has a role and a strength.”

Bob Hannum of the Montpelier Public Art Commission has wanted to add permanent Abenaki art to downtown for several years, so last year when Songbird painted one of the murals at Gateway Park, he asked if she would like to create this work, also. She jumped at the chance and spent six months designing it.

“When we honored the Black Lives Matter movement with the beautiful mural on the Rec Center several years ago,” Hannum wrote in an email, “it was important to me that we also honor … another local minority, our ‘First People,’ the Abenaki. All the more so since there was no permanent work of Abenaki art in our capital.”

Hannum credits Songbird with taking over the idea of the mural and a celebration with Abenaki music.

“From that point Abena took off and developed it even further, inviting other Abenaki artists, creating a budget and timeline, presenting the project to our Commission for approval, and planning a Grand Opening of Abenaki drummers, singers, and a chef! And she secured donations.”

Funding for the $7,000 project, which was finalized before the July flood, included a $4,000 grant from the Vermont Arts Council and support from the art commission. As it has with the Gateway murals, Montpelier Construction donated scaffolding services. Hannum worked with the city (which owns the building) and the Green Mountain Transit Authority (which leases it) on the administrative side.

“This mural is inside an important public building and has the potential to have a lasting impact, recognizing the Abenaki people here in our capital for many years to come,” commission chair Ward Joyce wrote in an email.

One of about 70 people who attended the opening ceremony, Joyce also wrote about that.

“Abena created a very meaningful event for the opening that celebrated not just the art but the people who came together to put it together. The event was a celebration of her community, represented by folks of all ages, and warmly included everyone, whether Abenaki or not, which I found really beautiful.”