Ascutney: The name remains the same

From the Maxfield Parrish painting, 1937

The Vermont Board of Libraries voted 5-0 Monday to reject a petition to change the name of Mount Ascutney to Kaskadenak, the original Abenaki name. 

Tom Marsh, town supervisor of Windsor, had predicted the name change would be rejected. In an email to Windsor residents, Marsh wrote that a survey on the change had over 1,200 responses, 90 percent of which opposed it. The towns of West Windsor and Windsor sent a joint letter of opposition to the State Library Board. Although the Town of Weathersfield followed suit with a similar letter, the board of libraries did not receive the letter in time for it to influence their decision. 

The name-change petition was begun by Windsor native Rob Hutchins, who argued that “Ascutegnik,” an Abenaki place name from which Ascutney was derived, actually designated the village at the foot of the mountain, not the mountain itself. Kaskadenak means “wide mountain.” Although the white settlers who founded the village of Ascutney in 1773 named it after the Abenaki village, the name of the mountain was Cascadnac or Kaskadenak in records from the early 1800s. However, according to Cherie Yaeger at the Vermont Board of Libraries, a map of Windsor county dated 1869 gives the mountain's name as Ascutney. 

The State of Vermont Board of Libraries is responsible for geographic naming in Vermont. “The board of libraries can name anything except a road,” said Yaeger. The board receives 3-5 petitions for place naming per year. 

Paul Bunnell, chief of the Koasek Abenaki Nation and of the Bear Clan, said the tribe supported the name change “because it's Abenaki.” 

“Robert Hutchins is actually driving it,” said Bunnell. “We thought it was a good idea because using the ancient ways is a good thing. Whether the public will accept it is another thing.” 

The tribes' language specialists helped Hutchins find the proper name for the mountain. “All the ancient names [for mountains] have been gone,” said Bunnell, “although there's many rivers that have the Abenaki names.” (The Pemigewasset is a good example; the modern name is derived from the Abenaki word bemijijoasek, mean “side current entering.”)

Bunnell is an author, tribal genealogist, a certified United Empire Loyalist descendant, and administrator for the band. He was preparing the agenda for a tribal council meeting when the Eagle Times called him. The tribe officially has 260 members, said Bunnell, but there are many who refuse to be listed. 

“We have a large number of people underground because of the eugenics program in Vermont,” said Bunnell. “They don't want the government to know they're Abenaki.” 

In 1931, Vermont passed a law supporting sterilization of “feeble minded” and “degenerate” human beings. Under the supervision of the Department of Public Welfare, social workers identified, registered, and intervened in families deemed likely to produce problem children, including those of French-Canadian or Abenaki ancestry. 

“They were still doing it undercover in the 1970s,” Bunnell continued. “So we have some real hardliners who don't want the tribe to be organized, or have anything to do with the [U.S.] government.”

Recently, the Cohen Center for Genocide and Holocaust Studies at Keene State College invited the tribe to get involved with the creation of a Holocaust Center in Keene. Members of the tribe, including Bunnell, have joined the center and will be involved in the opening ceremonies for the building when it is finished, possibly later this year. 

“There used to be 10,000 Abenakis,” said Bunnell. “They don't have to look in Germany for genocide survivors. We're right here under their feet.”

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