WASHINGTON — On February 24 at 2 p.m. the Institute for American Indian Studies, 38 Curtis Road, Washington, welcomes Vera Longtoe Sheehan, Abenaki, one of the creative minds behind the exhibit, “Alnobak Wearing Our Heritage.”
Vera Longtoe Sheehan, notes “this exhibit is unique because it is the first traveling exhibit about Abenaki people that are still here living on the land and creating wonderful things.” During this fascinating talk, Sheehan will explain how items in the current exhibition are made and used to express Native Identity.
This beautifully curated exhibit is composed of artifact clothing as well as contemporary pieces made by Vermont’s Abenaki artists, community members, and tribal leaders. The show offers a chronological look at Abenaki fashion and adornment. There is everything from a beautiful 17th-century style buckskin dress by Melody Walker Brook to a hip looking denim jean jacket with a Tolba or turtle design created by Vera Longtoe Sheehan.
“The message of this exhibit is that we are still here and that we know our history and still respect and practice our culture,” said Longtoe Sheehan. Many of us practice both traditional designs and clothes such as the twined woven dress and handbag I made as well as contemporary designs using a jean jacket, in different ways, both connects my family tradition to thousands of years of our history.”
In addition to the many contemporary handmade items celebrating Abenaki culture, there is a “Wall of Honor” that includes a wealth of archival photos including a portrait of19th-century matriarch Nellie Longtoe Sheehan wearing an animal claw beside her crucifix pendant. “We can’t separate our spirituality from our history from our art,” said Longtoe Sheehan. “The very being of our art is a celebration of our culture.”
This traveling exhibition was developed through a partnership of the Vermont Abenaki Arts Association and the Lake Champlain Maritime Museum. It was created to answer the questions of what it means to be an Abenaki person in the modern world and what it means to be an indigenous artist. In the quest to interpret Native art and culture from an Indigenous perspective, Vera Longtoe Sheehan has made the transition from community member and tradition-bearer to contemporary artist and curator, and founder of the Vermont Abenaki Artists Association. “Indigenous artists no longer need to choose between traditional and contemporary art forms,” she says. “Many of us practice both, and our contemporary art is informed by tradition.”
As an Abenaki culture bearer, artist, educator and activist Vera Longtoe Sheehan serves her community as the Director of the Vermont Abenaki Artists Association, a multi-arts services organization, supporting Native American artists in the decorative arts, fine arts, performing arts, music, and literary genres. Her BA in Museum Studies and Native American Studies combined with her current studies working toward an MA in Heritage Preservation from SUNY Empire allow her to act as a bridge between the Abenaki community and the mainstream art world in creating engaging exhibitions and educational programs and events that promote the vibrant culture of her people. Additionally, Vera leads the VAAA education team in the development of study guides and has developed the teacher a teacher-training program entitled “Presenting Abenaki Culture in the Classroom.”
Vera has done extensive research of primary resources relating to textiles made in and traded through the Northeast United States and Southeast of Canada. She is a Master Artist in the areas of Twined Plant Fiber Textiles and Wabanaki Clothing. To date she has curated, four museum exhibitions involving Native American clothing from the Northeast, Alnobak: Wearing Our Heritage and Warmth and Protection were dedicated to the continuity of Indigenous clothing.
Having lectured and exhibited her work both nationally and internationally, Vera preserves the traditions of her ancestors by making twined, plant-fiber creations. Her father taught her the proper way to harvest and process plants to make cordage, as well as the twists, ties, and knots she uses to make her distinctive twined bags, baskets, and textiles. Her twined bags, baskets and textiles reside in museums and private collections and can be seen in films and literature. Vera is committed to bringing this endangered tradition back into practice.
For over twenty-five years, Vera has combined her Indigenous heritage, her knowledge of regional history, and a passion for artistic creation, in offering programs for schools, and museums.