Abenaki, more properly Wabenaki, "Dawn Land People" or "easterners," were a group of Algonquian tribes. They are sometimes discussed as Eastern Abenaki (including Kennebec, Penobscot, Arosagunticook, and Pigwacket) and Western Abenaki (including Penacook, Winnipesaukee, and Sokoki). There was also a seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Abenaki Confederacy consisting of these and other tribes, such as the Maliseet, Micmac, and Passamaquoddy. See also Maliseet; Micmac; Passamaquoddy; Penobscot.
Location Abenakis lived near major rivers of northern New England and southern Quebec in the early seventeenth century. Today, there are Micmac, Penobscot, and Passamaquoddy Reservations in northern and eastern Maine. Maliseets live in northern Maine and southeastern Quebec, and Abenakis live in northern Vermont and southern Quebec.
Population There were perhaps 10,000 Eastern and 5,000 Western Abenakis in the early seventeenth century. In 1990, around 1,700 Western Abenakis lived in northern Vermont, about 800 lived in New Hampshire, and roughly 1,800 lived in Quebec, Canada. There were about 2,000 Penobscots in the early 1990s.
Language Abenakis spoke dialects of Eastern Algonquian languages.
History Abenakis originally came from the Southwest, according to their legends. They may have met early explorers such as Giovanni da Verrazano in the sixteenth century. They were definitely visited by Samuel de Champlain and others, including missionaries, early in the seventeenth century, shortly after which time the Abenakis became heavily involved in the fur trade. Western groups traded with the Dutch and entered the fur trade later than the eastern groups.
Almost immediately, many eastern villages disappeared as a result of war (mostly Micmac attacks) and disease. Among the survivors, material culture and subsistence economy changed rapidly with the availability of non-native items. Indians and French regularly intermarried. Western groups came in conflict with the Iroquois from the mid- to late seventeenth century. Abenakis first arrived in Quebec from Maine in the late seventeenth century. They lived on the banks of the Chaudiere River before moving to their present territory in the early eighteenth century.
Abenakis were staunch allies of the French in the colonial wars, although eastern groups needed to cover their bases with the British in the interest of preserving trade. Fierce Abenaki fighters sacked many British settlements throughout New England in the late seventeenth century and early eighteenth century. The Western Abenakis, in particular, played a significant role in much of the history of New France, including fur trading, exploring, and fighting the Seneca and Mohawk.
The Indians steadily lost land during the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The Penobscot slowly emerged as the strongest eastern tribe. When the town of Norridgewalk fell to the British in 1724, many Eastern Abenakis withdrew to Quebec. Although Penobscots urged Abenaki neutrality in the French and Indian War, other Eastern Abenakis, now living in Quebec, fought with the French. The Penobscots were eventually drawn in: The treaty of 1763 marked the British victory as well as the Penobscot defeat. Meanwhile, after the fighting ended in 1763, Western Abenakis returned to their territory to find British squatters. They abandoned most of these lands after 1783, settling near a reserve on the Ste. Francois River in Quebec.
In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, most Western Abenakis sought to avoid anti-Indian sentiment by speaking French, selling ash-splint baskets to tourists, and keeping to themselves. Some hunted in a large territory north of the St. Lawrence River, and some returned to northern New England for seasonal cash work and subsistence activities. Many Western Abenakis attended Dartmouth College in the nineteenth century.
In 1941, the establishment of a wildlife refuge by the state of Vermont ended the people’s ancient hunting and fishing rights. A postwar resurgence of the western group was based on controversies over fishing and hunting rights and a lack of official recognition. These groups held fish-ins to dramatize their situation. State recognition in 1976 was withdrawn the following year.
Religion Western groups tended to believe in a supreme creator, and both Eastern and Western Abenakis enjoyed a rich mythology. Many ceremonies were based on crops or the hunt as well as on greeting visitors, weddings, and funerals. At least among the western group, boys might seek the help of supernatural beings by obtaining a guardian spirit through a vision quest around the time of puberty. Dances were often associated with the spirit power. Shamans, often employing drums, foretold the future, located game, and cured illness.
Government Authority was gained as a result of leadership qualities, although there was also an element of patrilineal descent. Eastern chiefs of extended families were also sometimes shamans and after the seventeenth century were known as sagamores. Western groups recognized lifelong civil and war chiefs as well as a council of elders. The chiefs’ powers were relatively limited.
Customs Several related nuclear families living together made up a household, which was the basic social and economic unit. Descent was patrilineal. Social status was somewhat hierarchical, especially in the east, where chiefs might have more than one wife. Shamans or special healers were brought in when herbal or plant-based cures and sweats failed.
In general, men provided animal foods, fought, and made tools and houses; women grew crops, gathered foods, prepared and cooked food, made clothing, and took care of children. Men engaged in frequent races and archery contests. They also played ball games, including lacrosse. People kept dogs as pets and used them to track game.
The use of stories and gentle group pressure was sufficient to discipline children. Boys gave away their first big game animal kills (all men gave away their first kill of the season). Marriage, considered official after gifts were given to the bride’s family, was celebrated by feasting and dancing (as were many occasions). The dead were buried as soon as possible with weapons and/or tools for use in the afterlife. The western group put bodies in bark coffins and placed east-facing triangular structures over the graves.
Dwellings Villages were located along streams and, among the western group, near meadows. Easterners lived in dome-shaped and square houses with pyramid roofs shingled with bark. There were smoke holes at the top, and deerskins covered two doors. At least in the early historical period villages were palisaded. Westerners tended to live in birch-bark longhouses with arched roofs. Several families lived in each house. They also built dome-shaped sweat lodges.
Abenaki men engaged in frequent races and archery contests. They also played ball games, including lacrosse. This nineteenth-century drawing by Seth Eastman depicts men playing ball on the ice.
Diet A shorter growing season and poorer soil meant that Abenakis depended less on crops than did southern Algonquians. In small family groups they hunted caribou, deer, and bear and trapped beaver and other small game as well as birds. Western groups called and ran down moose.
Women gathered berries, nuts, potatoes, and wild cherries and other fruits. They also boiled maple and birch sap for syrup and sugar. In spring, the eastern group fished along the coast for salmon, shad, eel, sturgeon, smelt, and other fish. They also gathered shellfish and other marine foods and hunted sea mammals. Fish were also important to the western group, who grew more corn, beans, squash, and tobacco.
Key Technology Men fished using hooks, nets, spears, and weirs and hunted using the bow and arrow, lance, and knife. Hunting bags, some made of woodchuck skin, included fire-making tools and pipe (clay and stone) and tobacco. Important tools included knives, awls, gouges, adzes, wooden and stone scrapers, and pounders. Some groups made carved wooden dishes and utensils as well as pottery.
Containers were made of folded bark, rushes, or grasses. Some were decorated with porcupine quills. From the early seventeenth century on, wampum beads were used to record treaties and major council decisions.
Trade Abenakis generally traded with neighboring groups until the beginning of the fur trade period, when they traded furs for corn from southern New England. At that time, wampum became a medium of exchange and political status.
Notable Arts Many items, including pottery, were carefully decorated. Bark containers, for example, were often decorated with incised, curved designs. Ash-splint baskets became popular after contact with non-natives, although the people may have woven some baskets aboriginally.
Transportation Men made birch-bark and dugout canoes, snowshoes, and toboggans.
Dress Women tanned skins to make most clothing. Men wore beaver-pelt breechclouts and belts. Western women wore skirts and blouses in addition to cold-weather gear. Both wore moccasins, leggings, moose hide coats, and fur robes and caps. Tunics were also common. Both sexes painted their faces and bodies and wore their hair long.
War and Weapons Before they joined the confederacy. Micmacs often fought eastern Abenakis. The western group often clashed with the Iroquois but were generally friendly with Algonquians. Weapons included the bow and arrow, knife, spear, and club. Among the western group, the question of war was discussed at a general council that all people attended and in which all could participate. If war was agreed upon, the war chief called for volunteers. Warriors painted their faces and bodies.
Government/Reservations There are Western Abenaki communities in Odanak (St. Francis; 607.02 hectares) and Wolinak (Becancour; 79 hectares), Quebec, Canada. The Odanak reserve had a 1994 population of 1,458, of whom 267 lived within the territory. The Wolinak reserve had a 1994 population of 311, of whom 114 lived within the territory. There are communities in northern Vermont near Highgate and St. Albans (Traditional Abenaki of Mazipskwik). The community at St. Albans, also known as the St. Francis-Sokoki Band, is governed by a tribal council. The Quebec communities are governed by band councils and represented by the Grand Council of the Waban-Aki Nation. The Abenaki Indian Village is located in Lake George, New York.
Economy Most Abenakis work mainly in the local non-native economy. Canadian Abenakis have begun setting up an outfitting business by filing a claim for exclusive local hunting and fishing rights. Basketry also generates income for the two communities.
Legal Status The St. Francis-Sokoki Band of the Abenaki Nation of Vermont has petitioned for federal recognition. The Penobscot Nation and the Passamaquoddy tribe are federally recognized tribal entities. The Odanak and Wolinak reserves are federally and provincially recognized.
Daily Life The Abenaki Self-Help Association attempts to meet people’s health and housing needs. Many Western Abenakis maintain their family-based culture. Ongoing cultural events include a harvest dinner in October and traditional dances and ceremonies at late spring/early summer powwows. A few people still speak the native language in Quebec. Abenakis are working to have the language taught in local public schools. Two Canadian institutions, the Societe Historique (Odanak Historical Society) and the Musee des Abenaquis (Abenaki Museum) represent the culture of the people to the world. Penobscots, Maliseets, and Passamaquoddys have intermarried considerably. Penobscot children attend their own elementary school.