Tucked away in the Nulhegan Abenaki territory of the Northeast region of N’Dakinna (our homeland), Lake Memphremagog (mem-frə-MAY-gog) spans the international boundary between Orleans County Vermont in the United States and Quebec in Canada.
In Abenaki, Memphremagog means a place where there is a large expanse of water. Nulhegan means “Place of the wooden fish traps,” like the woven Ash splint eel trap made by Nulhegan artist Bill Gould seen in this exhibit. This place holds for the local Native American community because this freshwater glacial lake has always been a local source for drinking water and nutrition. The Nulhegan Abenaki and their ancestors have stewarded these lands and the surrounding 687 square miles (1,780 km) of watershed for thousands of years.
The local Nulhegan Abenaki Band of the Coosuk Abenaki Tribe citizens continue to fish the waters as their ancestors have for thousands of years. Nulhegan ancestors sometimes fished from canoes called rattlers. These canoes had metal nuts tied to the end of their lines, which made a distinctive sound as they paddled into a “V” formation. The sound chased the walleyes (pike) to the center where they could be harvested more easily. This practice was very efficient for feeding families, but angered their Euro-American neighbors.
Nulhegan ice fishing traditions were described in their application for State recognition in Vermont. Every winter, they continue to dress in warm layers and head out onto the ice. Lucy Cannon Neel is one of the Abenaki Culture bearers that is carrying this tradition to the next generation. Her paintings of canoeing and Lake Memphremagog express the importance of the lake to the Nulhegan Abenaki.
Although the surrounding area is relatively undeveloped and appears pristine, Lake Memphremagog itself has accumulated pollutants, such as phosphorus, sediments, and other contaminants like polyfluoroalkyl chemicals. Although clean up efforts to restore the water quality began as early as the 1980s, the rivers that feed the lake still bring wastewater from several water treatment plants. Studies by the Vermont Department of Fish & Wildlife and the U.S. Geological Survey showed “higher-than-expected rates” of cancerous melanomas on the brown bullhead population. The Department of Fish & Wildlife recommends that people not eat fish with black lesions.
In spite of pollutants, the 31 mile long (50 km) lake provides drinking water to over 200,000 people in the US and Canada.
McClallum, Kevin. Lake Memphremagog’s Natural Beauty Belies Worries About Contaminants and Fish With Tumors. Seven Days. Accessed May 21, 2022.