CLAREMONT — A 10-acre parcel of forested wetlands in Claremont has become tribal land of the Ko’asek (Co’wasuck) Traditional Band of the Abenaki Nation, whose leaders aim to build a cultural and educational center on the donated property.
“Everything about this is new to us,” said Elder and Chief Paul “Gwilawato” Bunnell. “This is our first land and we are so proud of that.”
The Ko’asek band, which consists of approximately 400 members, is in the early stages of grant applications to raise funds to build a cultural center for public education and tribal gatherings.
On Saturday, Bunnell, chief of the New Hampshire tribal region, and Chief David Nepveu of the Vermont tribal region held a short ceremony on their new land on Elm Street to “awake” a gifted cedar tree that was planted last year and welcome the tree following its first winter.
Jeanne Kennedy and Rick Bascom, the property’s previous owners, donated the cedar, a sacred tree to the Ko’asek, and the land to the Ko’asek last year.
“We were afraid when we planted it last fall that it wasn’t going to make it through the winter,” Bunnell said. “But it is very much alive.”
During the ceremony, Bunnell blessed the tree and the “six directions” surrounding it (north, south, east, west, above and below) while Nepveu played a drum. Filmographers from the Cohen Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies at Keene State College filmed the ceremony ahead of their upcoming Zoom lecture by author and policy advocate Suzan Shown Harjo on April 13.
The Ko’asek is one of many tribal bands belonging to the Abenaki, an indigenous people whose territory once spanned the northern New England states and the Canadian provinces of Quebec, New Brunswick, and Nova Scotia. According to the Ko’asek website, the Abenaki were semi-nomadic and moved within their boundaries according to the seasons and fishing cycles, particularly salmon.
Historically, the Abenaki would gather each year for planting season in an area that is today recognized as Haverhill, New Hampshire, and Newbury, Vermont. At the end of the season the bands would disperse again.
The acquisition of the new land in Claremont brings a new but welcome challenge, Bunnell said. Everything involved in developing the property is new to the tribal elder, from grant writing to working with city officials to develop a site plan and acquire permissions.
The tribal band, which is a unrecognized nonprofit group, has a grant manager under contract and has been working on the site plan with the help of Claremont City Planner Scott Osgood.
The Ko’asek also received a small grant of $2,500 from the New Hampshire Charities Foundation to put toward their project.
The planned building is targeted to be 2,600 square feet and will include a small residency, a meeting hall and a museum to house the tribal band’s artifacts and archives, Bunnell said. Outside the center are eventual plans to construct a wigwam and a longhouse to show visitors what living conditions looked like historically, according Bunnell, and walking trails with signs identifying native New Hampshire trees and plants.
The Ko’asek also plan to bring in endangered native plants for their preservation and potentially a couple of endangered species of native turtles, depending on whether the property’s wetlands could provide a sustainable protective habitat, Bunnell said.
The tribal band will need to do an extensive cleanup of the wetland area, as many people have used it as a dumping ground for items including old tires and vehicle parts, according to Bunnell.
Bunnell expressed his gratitude to the Kennedy-Bascom family, the many supporters of the Ko’asek, Claremont city officials who have assisted the Ko’asek with the planning and permitting process.
To learn more about the Ko’asek band and Abenaki Nation visit their website at koasekabenakination.com.
To learn more about Harjo’s lecture on Tuesday, April 13, visit the Cohen Center’s website at keene.edu/academics/ah/cchgs.