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On Friday, September 15th, Vermont River Conservancy held a presentation led by Judy Dow, an indigenous educator, artist, and climate activist, as a conclusion to the week-long Face the River Workshop that VRC hosted in Brattleboro. Judy is the founder and executive director of Gedakina, an organization that supports indigenous youth, women, and families across New England.
The presentation involved a walk on the Melrose Terrace property in Brattleboro. The site has an Abenaki history as a community garden due to its location along the Whetstone Brook. In 1965, it was converted to public housing for the elderly by the Brattleboro Housing Authority (BHA). Because the apartments were built in the floodplain, within a few years Whetstone Brook overflowed its banks and flooded residents’ homes. In response, BHA built retaining walls along the river, but they were no match for Tropical Storm Irene in 2011.
After 60 apartments flooded during the storm, all of the residents were moved to a different complex. In 2016, BHA received a grant from FEMA to convert the site into a flood mitigation area. This project involved removing 11 of the 18 buildings, removing sediment and retaining walls from the banks, and adding a culvert under the bridge to better direct overflow. Now the site looks more similar to its original configuration and can better handle increases in flow.
Following the July 10th and 11th flooding in Vermont, the impacts of this river restoration project can be seen. Judy Dow shared her Abenaki perspective in relation to this site and the impacts that we as humans have had on it. She taught listeners about the indigenous relationship to rivers and how the Abenaki see them as a living entity that is kin to us as humans. When colonial settlement occurred in The United States, rivers were viewed as a force to be tamed and changed based on what was wanted by communities. This decreased the health of rivers and the symbiotic relationship indigenous peoples had with them was lost.
Judy has been educating people about healthy relationships with the land for decades. During her talk, she emphasized the importance of native plants that protect the rivers and intervales, or valleys with rivers running through them. In the Abenaki language, intervales are called wolhana if the river is flowing in a north-south direction and pasahana if it is flowing from east to west or vice versa. She mentioned that intervales are seen as beautiful places in Abenaki culture, but shouldn’t be used as a place to live. This distinction between terms highlights the value that such ecosystems hold in the Abenaki culture.
During Judy’s presentation, participants were able to share thoughts as well as hear important perspectives. There was discussion about whether ‘doing nothing’ in terms of interacting with rivers is a viable option, and what that looks like. Walking around the floodplain also brought up thoughts about scales of river restoration and how to strike a balance between bringing rivers back to their natural state and the costs these remediations present to the community.
Another important aspect of the conversation was the ways in which we handle housing groups of people. It has been a pattern over time that communities who are marginalized are put in places that are not safe. This community is an example of that, and there are many others throughout Vermont. In order for the land and people to thrive, there is a need to consider the needs of both. As a society, it will be important to find a balance between letting nature thrive and maintaining human infrastructure.
This project is a good example of how we can begin to respect our rivers more. Judy’s work with kids in the Brattleboro area has brought river remediation to their minds. A recent project she was involved with has been the Whetstone Brook access point in Brattleboro. She taught schoolchildren about rivers and helped them in preparing presentations for the community forum concerning the restoration project. They were able to exhibit their thoughts in a multimedia format and show community members their ideas about what the site could be.
The presentation at Melrose Terrace held by VRC and Judy Dow left participants with thoughts about how communities interact with rivers. The remediation of rivers in Brattleboro has shown how letting rivers behave the way they want can be in the best interest of communities that face flooding.
Learn more about Face the River in Southeast Vermont here: https://vermontriverconservancy.org/our-work/engage-communities/south