Penobscot (Native Americans of the Northeast Woodlands)

Penobscottmp2026_thumb, "where the rocks widen,"refers to falls on the Penobscot River. The Penobscot were members of the Abenaki Confederacy and are sometimes referred to as being among the Eastern Abenaki people (others include the Kennebec, Arosagunticook, and Pigwacket). They are culturally similar to the Micmac and Passamaquoddy. See also Abenaki.

Location Penobscots traditionally lived along the Penobscot River, from the headwaters to the mouth, including tributaries. Today, most Penobscots live in east-central Maine, although many live in various cities and towns throughout New England and elsewhere.

Population There were perhaps 10,000 Eastern Abenakis around 1600 and about 1,000 Penobscots in the early eighteenth century. The 1992 Penobscot population was approximately 2,000.

Language Penobscots spoke an Eastern Algonquian language.

Historical Information

History Tribal tradition has these people originating in the Southwest. Shortly after their first encounter with non-natives, in the sixteenth century, a story began to circulate in parts of Europe about Norumbega, a fantastic (and mythical) Penobscot town. This tale greatly encouraged British interest in the region.

Because early British visitors mistreated the Indians, the Penobscots showed a preference for contacts with French traders. Intertribal war with the Micmac ended in 1615, about the same time that devastating epidemics drastically reduced the local Indian population. Involvement in the fur trade from the seventeenth century on signaled the virtual end of many aspects of traditional material culture, as the Indians became dependent on cloth, glass beads, corn, metal items, guns, and items of non-native manufacture. Wampum became a currency as well as an important status symbol.

Winter dispersal into the forests and summer trips to the shore became less necessary, as village Indians could eat corn and other foods obtained in trade for furs. Some groups started growing their own corn at that time. Penobscots were often at war with the British, some of whom were pushing into Penobscot territory, during the later seventeenth and the eighteenth centuries. However, since they needed the British as trade partners, they refrained from establishing a full-blown alliance with the French until the mid-eighteenth century, when they joined the Abenaki Confederacy. By that time, many Penobscots had exchanged their traditional dwellings for log cabins. Much of western Maine was in British hands, and other Eastern Abenakis had left the area for residence in Quebec.

Although the Penobscots tried to remain neutral in the French and Indian War, British bounties on their scalps pushed them into the French camp. The British victory ended their access to the ocean, among other calamities. Around that time, the Penobscots joined a confederacy of former French allies whose center was at Caughnawaga, Quebec. They remained members until 1862, when regional intertribal affairs could no longer hold their interest sufficiently.

Although Penobscots fought with the patriots in the American Revolution, Massachusetts took possession of most of their land in the late eighteenth century in exchange for in-kind payments (food, blankets, ammunition, and so on). An Indian agent appointed by the state of Maine was responsible for conducting the tribe’s business after 1820.

In 1833, the tribe sold all but about 5,000 acres to Maine. Their traditional economy in ruins, Penobscots became farmers, seasonal wage laborers (loggers, hunting guides), artisans (snowshoes, canoes, moccasins), and basket makers for the tourist trade. Traditional government was superseded by state-mandated elections in 1866, and the last sagamore (chief) died in 1870.

In the 1920s, the tribe actively sought to bring tourists to the reservation by means of pamphlets and pageants. They also benefited from increasing work in local industries (canoes, shoes, textiles). With other Maine Indians, the Penobscot in the 1960s pushed for and won improved services through a new state Indian Affairs department.

Religion Summer was the time for religious ceremonies. Shamans were religious leaders. They led ceremonies and cured illness of spiritual origin by blowing and dancing. Common ailments (those without a spiritual component) were cured with herbs and plant medicines.

Government Tribal organization traditionally consisted of a loose grouping of villages, each with its own sagamore. These leaders, who might or might not be shamans, consolidated their power through multiple marriage and by supporting and making alliances with nonrelatives. Leaders were chosen by merit, although there was a weak hereditary component. Sagamores had various social obligations that included feasting the band.

The Eastern Abenaki were politically united, prior to and through the time of the first European contact, under one chief sagamore named Bashabes. Penobscots had a chief sagamore, sometimes in name only, from at least the early seventeenth century to 1870.

Customs Penobscots were divided into patrilineal lineages, each with its own winter hunting territory that became more strictly defined in the fur trade era. They may have recognized a dual division. The tribe broke into small hunting groups in winter but came together in summer villages along rivers.

Most socializing, such as playing the hoop and pole game, took place in summer gatherings. Women were secluded during their menstrual periods. The first kill of the season was given away, as was the first kill of any boy. Gifts to the bride’s family formalized a marriage; the quantity and quality of the gifts reflected the desirability of the bride and the status of her family. Leading men might have more than one wife.

Common illness was treated by means of sweating, herbs, and plant medicines. An anticipated death might be hastened by starvation. Those material goods not given away before death were buried with the body.

Dwellings There were no permanent villages until at least the eighteenth century. Some villages were palisaded, at least in the historical period. People lived in both square houses with pyramid roofs and cone-shaped wigwams. Both were covered with birch-bark sheets and were about 12 feet in diameter. They featured two deerskin-covered doors and a top smoke hole.

Diet Men hunted and trapped deer, moose, bears, beaver, otter, and other animals, especially in winter. Hunters wore deerskin disguises. Most meat and fish were dried and stored for winter. Eaten fresh, they were either roasted or boiled.

The people boiled maple sap for syrup. They gathered wild tubers, fruits, and berries, and they fished. On spring and summer trips to the ocean, they gathered shellfish and hunted porpoise, seals, and fowl. There may have been a small amount of corn cultivation.

Key Technology Hunting equipment included bows and arrows, knives, deadfalls, clubs, snares, and spears. Fishermen used harpoons, nets, weirs, and basketry traps. Birch bark was a key material; in addition to houses and canoes, the people made it into folded containers, baskets, and other important items. They also made smaller containers of bark, sweetgrass, and hide.

Pipes might be made of clay or stone, but most vessels were of clay. Utensils were carved of wood. The fire kit consisted of iron pyrite and pieces of chert (silica). Items were sewn with basswood inner bark, split spruce, or cedar roots. Lashings were generally of rawhide.

Trade Penobscots were part of a trade network that reached past the Mississippi to the west, almost to the Gulf Coast to the south, and north into Labrador. Still, most trade was local and included items such as canoes, pipes, pottery, and birch-bark goods.

Notable Arts Clothing was decorated in curvilinear designs with dyed quills and braided moose hair.

Transportation Men built canoes of birch bark (and occasionally moose hide) "skin" over cedar ribs and keel. The sheets were sewn together with basswood inner bark; pitch caulking made the seams watertight.

They also made ash and moose-hide snowshoes and toboggans.

Dress Most clothing, such as tunics, breechclouts, long skirts, and moccasins, came from tanned skins. In winter people wore removable sleeves and leggings and moose-hide coats. Beaver pelts were sometimes used for breechclouts and robes. Sagamores might wear special headgear. Men and women also engaged in extensive face and body painting.

War and Weapons Penobscot enemies included the Mohawk and Micmac. From the eighteenth century on, the Penobscot were part of the Abenaki Confederacy, which also included the Abenaki, Maliseet, Passamaquoddy, and Micmac.

Contemporary Information

Government/Reservations The Penobscot Reservation, Penobscot County, Maine, established in 1820, consists of about 4,400 acres of land on about 200 islands in the Penobscot River. The only regularly inhabited one, Indian Island, is home to the main village of Old Town. The people elect tribal officers, a 12-member tribal council, and a nonvoting delegate to the Maine legislature. The 1990 Indian population was 417. The tribe also owns about 55,000 acres of trust land in Penobscot County and in western Maine as well as roughly 69,000 acres of other land.

Economy Tribal members receive per capita payments from their share (over $40 million) of a 1980 land claims settlement. The money was also used to reacquire land (the trust land described under "Government/Reservations"), to provide for the tribe’s elderly, and to finance development projects. Other income comes from land leased to logging companies and an audiocassette manufacturing plant. Although unemployment is relatively low (for an Indian reservation), poverty is still a problem.

Legal Status The Penobscot Tribe is a federally recognized tribal entity.

Daily Life There is a tribal police force and court as well as a primary school. Recognition in 1980 brought a host of new projects and improvements in infrastructure and standards of living. Substance abuse remains a significant problem. There is some interest in traditional crafts and religious ideas, although most traditional culture was lost over 100 years ago. Although only a few elders still know the native language, the people are attempting to preserve that language. Most Penobscots are Catholic. The people regularly intermarry with Maliseets and Passamaquoddys as well as with people from other tribes and non-natives.

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