Nebizun: Water Is Life Curatorial Statement

This exhibit brings together artwork by Abenaki artists of the Champlain Valley and Connecticut River Valley regions to illustrate the Abenaki relationship to water, our awareness of water as a fundamental element necessary for all life, and our concern that pollution of water can change our traditional lifeways and the health of all our relations, human and animal.

Nebizun: Water is Life draws visitors into the Native American worldview of water from the very first word. Nebizun (or Nebizon) means “medicine,” and the root word, Nebi, is the Abenaki word for water. As stewards of the environment, Native American people know the importance of clean water. We also understand the healing powers of water. The Abenaki people know how essential water is to foodways, medicine, and everyday activities that may be taken for granted. 

In the title of the exhibition, the word Nebizun is brought together with the phrase “Water is Life,” making a conscious connection to the Lakota phrase Mní wichóni (“Water is life”), the anthem of Native American Water Protectors during the controversial construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) through the homelands of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe.

During this crisis, the hashtag #NoDAPL was born, and allies from around the world brought awareness to the issue through protest and on social media, as seen in “No Pipelines,” a marker-on-paper drawing by the artist JES that is featured in the exhibit. In this piece, a long yellow menacing snake can be seen winding its way around the mountains. The word “oil” signifies the threat of possible oil line ruptures.

The Dakota Access Pipeline crisis also inspired Francine Poitras Jones to create her acrylic painting “Water is Life,” reflecting awareness of both traditional values and contemporary issues. “Naturally, my first thought was a baby within its mother’s womb,” Jones said.  “The image was strong and could even be upsetting to some. However, it was my reality… the painting flowed from me, much like the water that sustains life.” 

Here in N’Dakinna (Abenaki for “Our Homeland”) which includes Vermont, New Hampshire, and parts of Massachusetts, New York, and Maine, Abenakis recognize the life-bringing qualities in the flowing blue hues of waterways such as Kwenitekw, Kchi Pôntegok, and Bitawabagok. These rivers and lakes share equal importance with green landforms in Amy Hook Therrien’s watercolor painting “Aerial View of N’Dakinna.” Throughout deep time, the rivers and tributaries of N’Dakinna were our earliest highways for traveling, and the water itself is important to the plants, fish, animals, birds, and other wildlife that are necessary to our way of life.

Inspired by a group of Wabanaki (Native American) Grandmothers who undertook a 857-kilometer spiritual journey to walk from the Sipekne’katik River in Nova Scotia to the Penobscot River at Nebezin, in Passadumkeag, Maine, this exhibit hopes to inspire everyone to be a Water Protector.

— Vera Longtoe Sheehan (Elnu Abenaki Tribe), Curator