The descendants of Louis and Katherine Watso are repairing an ‘unbroken chain' of Abenaki history
Blodgett Landing on Lake Sunapee used to be a thriving commercial hub with a casino, hotels and shops. Those businesses were mostly owned by white people, but Louis and Katherine Watso, an Abenaki couple, became well-known for selling hand-woven baskets.
The Watsos settled at the landing in the late 1800s after leaving Odanak, an Abenaki reserve in Canada. Generations later, Blodgett Landing’s businesses are mostly gone, but the descendants of the Watso family keep their family’s traditions alive.
In an image from the family’s photo collection, Louis and Katherine Watso stand in front of their Blodgett Landing basket business in the 1890s.
Another shows Katherine wearing a traditional Abenaki gown that has become a family heirloom, passed down to every woman in the family. Her great-granddaughter, Donna Lee, has the gown now.
“I liked having it on because – it barely fit me, incidentally – but I liked having it on because everybody else had done it before me,” Lee said. “And I'm quite proud of the fact that I'm part Indian … There's no reason not to be at all.”
Lee and her brother spent summers at Blodgett Landing with Louis Watso when he was still alive, swimming around Lake Sunapee and climbing a massive rock behind their great-grandfather’s house. Lee is now the keeper of the family’s vast collection of photos and heirlooms, some of which date back to the 1800s.
“It actually brings back memories of them, even though I know this was all made before my time, it does. It brings back memories and it makes me think of them,” Lee said. “He really was a nice man. He was soft-spoken and he was a good great-grandfather.”
Skilled in their craft of basketmaking, great-grandson Steve Lewko says the family could tell which baskets were made by Katherine, and which ones were Louis’s.
“I remember my grandmother had a couple of the little smaller baskets and it must’ve been that her mother [Katherine] made them. They're much more intricate than what the men would do anyway. You know, that's where the finery was,” Steve Lewko said. “And that's I'm sure those were the selling points that people would want to bring back to the city with them.”
Sherry Gould, a professional basketmaker and citizen of the Nulhegan Band of the Coosuk Abenaki Nation, said basketmaking was how many Abenaki found a way to generate income, using natural materials.
“We needed an economy, a way to make a living,’ she said. “We would make these baskets and sell them to the tourists. And they loved them and they bought them. But we used those materials and the braided sweetgrass is really particular to the Abenaki and Katherine did a lot of braided sweetgrass.”
Basketmaking has been somewhat of a throughline between generations of Abenaki families. Gould calls it an “unbroken chain.” But she says the practice was almost lost in some families as they attempted to protect their children from discrimination and potentially dangerous situations.
“They did not want them to weave baskets or speak the language, they wanted them to acculturate and be safe and stay alive,” Gould said.
But in recent years, Steve Lewko, the great-grandson, has worked to repair that chain of tradition. He learned how to make baskets from Gould’s husband, from weaving to preparing materials, like ash and sweetgrass.
Lewko and his daughter, Meredith Lewko, Louis and Katherine’s great-great-granddaughter, found another way to connect to Louis and Katherine. A few years ago, the two traveled across the northern border to Odanak, the Abenaki reserve, (a “reservation” in the U.S.), in Quebec.
It’s where Louis and Katherine came from before settling in New Hampshire. Meredith Lewko said their visit was like a homecoming.
“It was like home, like a family reunion when we went up to visit the reservation,” she said.
The Lewkos said some of the people living at Odanak still remembered the Watsos, like a living record of the family Meredith Lewko never actually got to meet.
“I was talking to some friends recently [about] how I don't think a day goes by where I don't think of being a Native American,” Meredith Lewko said. “Maybe just like a brief second throughout the day. I don't know what it is, but it's true to me.”
Soon, it’ll be time for Katherine Watso’s Abenaki gown to be passed down to Meredith Lewko.
Lewko said she shares the project of keeping her family's history alive through artifacts "from a time almost forgotten."
"I’d like to preserve them,” she said.
The John Hay Estate at the Fells, near Lake Sunapee, is working to put together an exhibit of Abenaki artifacts that will include the historical context of the lively economy on the lake that Louis and Katherine were embedded in. “Abenaki Life on Lake Sunapee” is scheduled to open later this year.
Copyright 2022 New Hampshire Public Radio. To see more, visit New Hampshire Public Radio.