The flags vanished over a period of half an hour. But it took several hours longer before the Middlebury community learned where they had gone.
Four women and one man – one a Middlebury College student, one a member of the Haudenosaunee nation brought to campus by that student – plucked all 2977 of them from the grass around Mead Chapel in the middle of the afternoon, where they had been planted in memory of the victims of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. The group worked efficiently, assembling the flags in small piles and then dumped them into opaque black garbage bags.
Julia Madden ’14 was passing on the way to the gym when she realized that something was wrong. After first passing by the scene, she turned to accost the five. They informed her that the site was an “Abenaki burial ground” and that they were acting to counter “American colonialism.” Madden was struck by the disrespect of this action. “I should have gotten a little more aggressive,” she says. “I was just dumbfounded.”
College Republicans President Ben Kinney ’15 was walking up the hill to Mead on his way from class. In past years, the flags had been put out as a collaborative effort between the College Democrats and Republicans – a bipartisan effort to commemorate a national tragedy. This year, however, the late start to the school year meant that the process had not been formally organized, so Kinney got the flags and began to set them up himself, driving each of the nearly three thousand miniature flags into the grass. Several friends stopped by to help at various points, one of whom had lost a close relative on that day twelve years ago. By the time Kinney finished, two hours later, he had blisters on his hands.
When Kinney saw the group removing the flags, he initially thought that the College Democrats had come out to remove them before the impending downpour. He quickly realized that none of them looked familiar, so he asked if they were college students. They denied this, and informed him that they were confiscating the flags.
At this point, Madden and Kinney attempted to engage the group in a discussion. According to Madden, they offered a number of compromise solution. They asked to be allowed to replace the flags in an alternate location, if they erect a sign that would mark the land as a burial ground, or if the vandals could instead submit an Op-Ed to the Campus. None of those suggestions stopped the group.
Madden described the other participants in the action as a male with a long, reddish-colored bead, a female with dark hair and brown eyes, and a larger female with a visible butterfly tattoo on her upper chest. Kinney managed to wrestle one of the bags away, but this third person seized the remaining bag full of flags, saying that they “were confiscating them” before informing Kinney that he was “commemorating the wrong deaths” and departing the scene. Madden was unable to remember the physical appearance of the final participant.
The Community Reacts
Rachel Kogan ’14, who took a photograph of the incident, says that “what [she] found most upsetting was that they refused to give the flags back to Ben [Kinney], literally ripping them from his arms even after he said he wouldn’t put them back.” She added that she “feel their point could have been made without stealing someone else’s property and throwing flags representing American lives lost into trash bags.” The flags had been purchased by the College Republicans several years previously.
Cynthia Connard ’15 had helped Kinney put up the flags. She says that in the past, the “serene recognition” of the simple display struck her on a personal level. This year, she’d been “happy to be able to participate” in the commemoration of the victims of an act that had struck so close to home that her parents had come up with a personal escape plan in the event of further attacks. Connard described the removal of the flags as “unspeakably horrendous.” She wasn’t alone in this thought. Shock quickly spread through the Middlebury community as they realized that the disappearance of the flags had been a deliberate act of theft.
Before midnight, Anna Shireman-Grabowski posted a statement to middbeat taking credit for the action, claiming to “act in solidarity with [her] friend, an Indigenous woman and a citizen of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy who was appalled to see the burial grounds of another Indigenous nation desecrated by piercing the ground that their remains lay beneath.” For much of Middlebury, this was their first introduction to this issue. In fact, Shireman-Grabowski and a group of other students have spread the claim that Middlebury College rests on land stolen from the Abenaki since January of this year.
Amanda Lickers, a member of the Onondowa’ga Nation, was on campus for a “workshop on settler responsibility and decolonization” on the day of September 11th. In a statement, she said that “thousands of American flags should not penetrate the earth where my Abenaki brothers and sisters sleep … I took action to respect them and began pulling up the flags.” As she did so, she was confronted by Kinney, who she referred to as “a nationalistic-settler, a young white boy … demanding I relinquish the flags to him. I held my ground and confiscated them.”
Sam Koplinka-Loehr ’13 has lobbied the College on behalf of indigenous issues in the past. He reacted to the incident by saying that “those who died on 9.11 certainly deserve a place in our memory and hearts. We must remember, however, that using the american flag as a symbol for their lives carries with it a long legacy of genocide and colonization on this land.”
Reached for comment, Chief Donald Stevens of the Nulhegan Band of the Abenaki Nation responded that “If these individuals knew Abenaki culture or traditions, they would have known that these flag placements would not be offensive to us. We often honor our warriors and the fallen with objects to display respect and to honor their bravery.”
Stevens further added that “Native peoples may not always like the way the government has treated our people and we may not always agree with what happens in the political world. However, many Native peoples including my father, myself, and my son have all served in the US. Military proudly. This is our land and we will defend it to our deaths against anyone who threatens us or our people. We walk in two worlds and accept both. We are Americans and we are Native to this land, hence we are Native Americans. I condemn any actions by Native or Non-native people that would use our culture for their own agenda without regard to the people they affect by their actions.”
On January 13, 2013, Shireman-Grabowski and Student Co-Chair of Community Council Barrett Smith ’13 presented the “Decolonizing Middlebury College Bill” to the Senate of the Student Government Association. The bill claimed that Middlebury College had been built on land stolen from the Abenaki tribe, and recommended that the college return that land.
Senator Naila Jahan ’15 asked what section of college land this would involve. “All of it,” replied Koplinka-Lehr. Jay Saper ’12.5 also testified in support of the bill, saying that “the Abenaki people have created a culture that has been robbed from, that our eugenics movement at Middlebury robbed their lands and cultures.”
According to Jahan, the bill failed to attract the necessary sponsors to come to a vote, although former Senator Christian Holmes ’14 speculated that “the bill likely would have received two votes in favor.” According to former SGA Elections Committee member Sydney Fuqua ’13, Shireman-Grabowski missed her third meeting as a Senator on February 17, and a special election to choose her replacement was held on March 11.
Stevens said that “I would have to question the motivation of these individuals and also their knowledge of Abenaki burial grounds. We do not make known our burial grounds to the public (unless they are already public knowledge) for the protection of those sites.”
A History of Arrest
A major in Sociology and Anthropology, Shireman-Grabowski has a long history of activism in favor of environmental and land-rights causes. In August 2011, she was arrested along with Middlebury College Scholar-in-Residence Bill McKibben, and more than a thousand others who showed up around the White House to protest the Keystone XL pipeline in a protest organized by 350.org and refused to leave until their points were heard.
In March of 2013, Shireman-Grabowski, along with Saper, Koplinka-Loehr, and Lucy Whipps ’14 were taken into custody along with 21 others who had handcuffed themselves together at the offices of the TransCanada Corporation – the company constructing the Keystone pipeline – in Westborough, Mass. They were held for eight hours and then released without bail.
As spring rolled into summer, Shireman-Grabowski set her sights on a new target: the Addison County Natural Gas Project, where Vermont Gas aimed to extend a pipeline in three phases to the town of Middlebury, a paper company across Lake Champlain, and eventually the city of Rutland. Shireman-Grabowski organized the attendance by anti-pipeline opponents at a public service board meeting on March 22, and a march across campus on May 7 to deliver a petition to Middlebury College Treasurer Patrick Norton and President Ronald D. Liebowitz demanding that the college retract its support for the project.
Shireman-Grabowski remained in Middlebury over the summer to organize community opposition with the organization Rising Tide Vermont, who ignored a request to comment on this story. As late as September 10, she helped to pack a hearing of the Public Service Board with opponents of the project, some of whom signed the attendance sheet as proponents of the pipeline in order to get a chance to speak.
The next day, she and four friends took part in a far less public form of protest.
But the story doesn’t end with an act of vandalism. Kinney still had a garbage bag containing roughly 1500 of the flags. A small group of students including Kinney and Sasha Schell ’15, united not by political affiliation or even by friendship, but rather by a common cause, went to the college store and purchased every American flag in stock. They then returned to the grounds around the chapel and restored the memorial as well as they could. There the flags remained: more than a thousand fluttering in the breeze, keeping the memory of those lost on that tragic day alive.