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Craven: Why Champlain Matters

06/04/09 5:55PM By Jay Craven
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(HOST) Commentator Jay Craven is producing this summer's Samuel de Champlain Quadricentennial celebration and festival in Burlington. And he's been thinking about the reasons behind the whole enterprise.

(CRAVEN) I've been working in Burlington lately so it isn't surprising that I'd grab an almond meringue at Mirabelle's last week and stop by City Market for some fresh cut local asparagus before heading home to the Northeast Kingdom.  

What was extraordinary was how, in both places and within the course of an hour, I was asked the same question.

Why celebrate Champlain?

I cited the July festival's rich array of concerts, theater, film, dance events and a food festival. But that's not people wanted to hear.

So, why mark this moment?  Why Champlain?  

Well, first, we tend to observe these Champlain anniversaries every 50 and 100 years-so the big question might be what will make this commemoration different.  Beyond that, the fact remains that my generation is hugely skeptical of official versions of history-and even more of European explorers.  But Samuel de Champlain was also critical of other European colonizers, going so far as to visit Spain's Caribbean outposts where he made paintings of abuse he witnessed.  He sent them to the King of France, vowing that his New World settlements would be different.  And they were-Champlain sought respectful relations and his canoe trip into our lake was done to support his Native allies.  Sure, he also believed that his religion was superior and that he could legitimately rule indigenous people-so this history is complex and fascinating-and its legacy endures.  Indeed, I'm reminded of T.S. Eliot's poem, Burnt Norton suggesting how "all time is eternally present."

We are uniquely positioned to refresh our understanding of this history.  Because we now have the information, tools, and resources to more critically and creatively examine it than we ever could have-a hundred or even fifty years ago.  

This year also provides the first chance we've had to interact so fully with our historic partners, Quebec and France. Indeed, the French circus arts troupe, Aurelia's Oratorio, is traveling to Burlington direct from a performance in Russia.  This would have been impossible, even fifty years ago, given Aurelia's two tons of stage gear and costumes.  

And with French and Quebec cultural officials, diplomats, and artists looking to us-why not take them up on their offer to collaborate in this unprecedented partnership?   

And how about our region's Franco Americans - who will be represented in music, food, and Abby Paige's commissioned theater piece.  And the region's Native populations, by many accounts objectified or imitated in previous celebrations, to reinforce European views of their culture.  Efforts this year have been made to provide a dynamic venue for Native people - to articulate their own voices.

Of course, standing by the vegetables at City Market, I'm sure I offered only a partial case for all this.  But I believe this year provides a chance too good to pass up.  A chance to capture a moment that invites us to reflect, engage, enjoy, and critically explore-to cross borders and discover--to imagine and create-and yes, to celebrate our place, our history, and our time that is now.

(TAG) You can find more commentaries by Jay Craven online at VPR-dot-net.
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