Craven: Man and Lake

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(HOST) Teacher, filmmaker and commentator Jay Craven has been working on next summer’s commemoration of the 400th anniversary of Samuel de Champlain’s arrival in Vermont – but he finds himself surrounded by a bigger story than he expected.

(CRAVEN) I thought the French explorer’s story was pretty straightforward,  then I discovered David Hackett Fischer’s engrossing new book, "Champlain’s Dream" which rendered fresh details about the French explorer’s outrage at brutality he’d witnessed against slaves and Indians in Spanish colonies. I was intrigued by how that experience caused Champlain to seek cooperative relations with indigenous people.

Then I encountered Abenaki historian Marge Bruchac, who told me spellbinding tales of how Huron, Algonquin, and Montagnais leaders brokered Champlain’s lake trip in the first place – for a showdown with their Iroquois foes. Not content to fully accept Fischer’s version, Bruchac draws on Native oral histories, cultural practices, diaries, myths, and even dreams and reflections to further enlarge and intensify this narrative.

Then, I ran into folks at Burlington’s ECHO Lake Aquarium and Science Center at the Leahy Center for Lake Champlain. They opened a whole new realm for me, with their disclosures about our region 12,000 years ago.The very first Vermonters – called "paleoindians" roamed the area and the Champlain Valley was covered by what Smithsonian archeologist Stephen Loring calls a "giant arm of the sea" – where beluga whales and walruses frolicked in salt water – areas now reserved for sheep and cow farms, creperies, and condos.

This complex history is riveting, and ECHO has just opened an exhibit that explores it. "Indigenous Expressions" is a facility-wide Champlain 400 event, advised by the Smithsonian’s Loring and Abenaki historian Fred Wiseman. During the coming months, ECHO will unfold a series of exhibits, Indian portraits, interactive displays, film screenings, and lectures  that will focus on our indigenous ancestors and neighbors. They’ll even have some live fresh water eels.

ECHO visitors will have a chance to explore these historical, anthropological, and scientific eye-openers for themselves. And if you’re like me – a lot of this will be new. But don’t worry – as ECHO director Phelan Fretz puts it, "Present-day historians are just beginning to understand these complex materials-based cultures from thousands of years ago." He continues, "We don’t presume to tell the whole story, but we do intend to reveal new scientific information that will foster a spirited conversation."

What a fascinating opportunity to understand new dimensions of who we are and where we are – and it’s not that long after, if you judge according to the really big picture, Champlain’s expedition.

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