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ETHNONYMS: Abenaque, Abenaquioicts, Abenaquois, Abnaki, Eastern Indians, Mawooshen, Moasham, Obenaki, Openango, Oubenaki, Wabnaki


Identification. The Abenaki appear first as "Abenacquiouoict" on Champlain's map of 1632; they were located in the interior of Maine between the Kennebec and Penobscot rivers. In 1604, Champlain had called the Indians of modern New Brunswick and Maine "Etechemins" (lumping the Indians of southeastern New England under the term "Armouchiquois"). Because "Etchemin" was later applied more specifically to the modern Maliseet and Passamaquoddy of New Brunswick and easternmost Maine, some scholars have concluded that the communities Champlain found in Maine in 1604 subsequently withdrew eastward and were replaced by Abenaki expanding from the interior. Others, including this writer, have favored the view that the apparent shift was more likely due to confusion resulting from the changing mix of place-names, personal names, and ethnic identifications that alternated and overlapped in time and space in New England.

Location. In the Handbook of North American Indians (1978) a distinction is drawn between the Western Abenaki of interior New Hampshire and Vermont and the Eastern Abenaki of western and central Maine. The Western Abenaki included people of the upper Connecticut River called the "Sokoki." The Eastern Abenaki can be further subdivided from west to east into the Pequawket, Arosaguntacook, Kennebec, and Penobscot, reflecting community clusters along the Presumpscot, Androscoggin, Kennebec, and Penobscot rivers. All through the devastating epidemics and wars of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, many survivors from the first three divisions, as well as many Western Abenaki, relocated to the Penobscot. Most Western Abenaki, along with some Eastern Abenaki, eventually settled at Odanak (Saint Francis), near the St. Lawrence River in Quebec. Most Eastern Abenaki survived at Old Town and in other communities of central Maine, where they are known today as the Penobscot Indians. Both communities have absorbed people from southern New England and to a lesser extent from the Maritime Provinces over the last three centuries.

Demography. There were probably around 14,000 Eastern Abenaki and 12,000 Western Abenaki in 1600. These populations collapsed quickly to around 3,000 and 250, respectively, owing largely to epidemics and migration early in the seventeenth century. Further demographic changes took place as refugees arrived from the south, the number of violent deaths increased in the course of colonial warfare, and communities became consolidated at a few locations. In 1973 there were probably no more than 1,000 Western Abenaki, 220 of whom lived at Odanak. Others remain scattered in Vermont and in other portions of their original homeland. The population at Old Town was 815 in 1970, with many people of Penobscot descent living elsewhere.

Linguistic Affiliation. Abenaki dialects belong to the Eastern Algonkian subdivision of the Algonkian-Ritwan Language family. Depopulation and family relocations have so confused Abenaki history that it may be impossible to ever reconstruct the contents and distributions of seventeenth-century dialects.

History and Cultural Relations

The Abenaki were contacted sporadically by Basque and Perhaps French fishermen during the sixteenth century. Their hostility to Giovanni da Verrazano in 1524 suggests that there had been earlier unfriendly contacts. By the time of more intense French and English exploration just after 1600, the Abenaki were accustomed to dealing with Europeans, and there was brisk trading of furs for European manufactured goods. Kidnapped Abenaki were introduced to fascinated English audiences by their captors. The French took a different approach, sending Jesuit missionaries to convert the Abenaki to Roman Catholicism. An epidemic of hepatitis or some similar disease wiped out the communities of eastern Massachusetts after 1616, opening the way for English settlement in that area in 1620. Meanwhile, the French established themselves at Port Royal (in modern Nova Scotia) and on the St. Lawrence in Quebec, with Abenaki territory then becoming a zone of contention between the European powers. The Abenaki were drawn into six colonial wars between 1675 and 1763. English settlement of the Maine coast was largely abandoned during King Philip's War (1675-1676). Thereafter the Abenaki increasingly became economically tied to the English, but religiously tied to the French. Although they were dependent in different ways upon each, the Abenaki managed to remain independent from both through King William's War (1688-1697), Queen Anne's War (1702-1713), King George's War (1744-1748), and the Seven Years' War (1756-1763), each of which was an American counterpart to wars in Europe. Dummer's War (1721-1725) was a conflict between the Indians and the English that Despite French support for the Indian cause had no counterpart conflict in Europe. The Jesuit missionary Sébastien Râle was killed during this war, and afterward many Abenaki from western Maine began moving to safer communities in Quebec and on the Penobscot River. From this time on, the Penobscot were principal spokesmen for the Abenaki in dealings with the English. After the defeat of the French in 1763, the Penobscot joined with six other former French allies in a confederation that had its headquarters at Caughnawaga, Quebec. By this time the western and coastal region of Maine had been lost to English settlement. The Abenaki sided with American rebels in the American Revolution, and those remaining in the United States retained most of interior Maine. New treaties with Massachusetts (which then held the Province of Maine) began to be negotiated in 1786. By 1833 the Penobscot were reduced to a few islands in the Penobscot River. These were unconstitutional agreements, however, and recent land claims by the Penobscot and other Maine Indians have led to very large settlements in compensation for the lost land.


Abenaki villages based on hunting, fishing, and collecting were probably always more permanent than those of horticultural communities to the south and west. The Abenaki were unwilling to risk serious horticulture as long as they were at the mercy of frequent crop failures so far north. Thus, the Abenaki settlement pattern does not feature a large number of village sites, each the result of a short occupation. On the other hand, both the coast and the interior lakes are dotted with the traces of temporary camps that were used for seasonal hunting and gathering by family groups. At the time of first contact with Europeans, village houses appear to have been wigwams. These were large enough to accommodate an average of ten people each, although the range of three to twenty-seven people per house suggests considerable variation in house size. Houses at hunting camps were either small versions of the domed wigwam or pyramidal structures having square floor plans. In all cases these early houses were shingled with sheets of bark. Later Penobscot houses combined European log walls with bark roofs, and later villages were palisaded. Still later, in the nineteenth century, frame houses of European design replaced the earlier forms entirely.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities. The late prehistoric subsistence system probably featured family excursions from the main village to coastal camps during the warm months to hunt and gather maritime resources. Spring and fall runs of migratory fish were harvested from the main Villages, which were located mainly at strategic points on major estuaries. Families dispersed upstream to traditional areas along the tributaries of the main streams in the colder months. There were probably midwinter reunions at the main villages when families returned to exchange canoes and other fall hunting equipment for snowshoes, toboggans, and other equipment appropriate for hunting over snow and ice. After 1600, the development of a regular fur trade led to the conversion of traditional family hunting areas into more carefully defined family hunting and trapping territories. As the human and beaver populations shrank, the demand for furs and the importance of their trade for the acquisition of manufactured goods increased. By the nineteenth century, family territories had grown to about a hundred square miles each. The fur trade collapsed and the Penobscot gave up most of their interior lands by 1818. Thereafter they worked in lumbering and the production of splint baskets and canoes for cash income.

Industrial Arts. Birchbark was perhaps the single most important aboriginal material and was used to make shelters, canoes, moose calls, trays, and containers, among other things. Baskets made from ash splints and sweetgrass, for which the Abenaki are still known, provided an alternative source of income. The technique was apparently introduced by European settlers on the Delaware River in the seventeenth century and spread outward from there as it came to be adopted by Indian craftspeople in one community after another. Penobscot men were known as skilled canoe makers, and it is no accident that the Old Town canoe manufacturing company got its start across the Penobscot River from Indian Island. Other crafts were typical of the Eastern Algonkians of New England.

Trade. Although some limited trade with other nations probably occurred prehistorically, the clan system that facilitated trade elsewhere in the Eastern Woodlands was not developed among the Abenaki. After 1600, however, trade flourished with Europeans as the Abenaki were drawn into the world economic system as an important source of beaver pelts. Copper pots replaced native bark containers and earthenware, guns replaced bows, and glass beads replaced porcupine quills very quickly in these decades. Both French and English trading posts were established in and around Abenaki territory, and these led to the construction of forts designed to protect these trading interests through and between the colonial wars.

Division of Labor. Primary distinctions were made on the basis of age and sex. Men were hunters, fishermen, leaders, and shamans. Women were gatherers, hide workers, followers, and curers. Boys and girls aspired to and practiced at these roles.

Land Tenure. Land ownership was not an issue before the development of the fur trade and the historic establishment of farming. By the early nineteenth century, the Abenaki were aware of the advantage of the exclusive ownership of trapping territories and knew from experience the consequences of conveying title to Europeans. Yet by 1818 the disappearance of the fur trade made the ownership of the Maine forests appear useless to them, and they gave up everything but the right to hunt, fish, and collect ash splints over most of their former territory. Meanwhile, the ownership of individual plots became more important for managing gardens and house lots on remaining reservation land.


Kin Groups and Descent. The nuclear family was the primary kin group in traditional Abenaki culture. At the end of the nineteenth century, local lineages were often identified with specific animal totems. Those with aquatic totems Usually had trapping territories toward the coast and were known as saltwater families. Those with terrestrial totems were found in the more remote interior. Unlike true clans, the common ancestries of these family units were often known, or at least discoverable. Moreover, the ancient trading functions of true clans appear not to have given rise to the totemic groups of the Penobscot. The kinship system was bilateral, with some preference for the patrilineal side. Family (lineage) identities were usually inherited patrilineally, but a young couple who chose to reside with the wife's family would assume that Family identity over time.

Kinship Terminology. One's mother and father were distinguished from their siblings, but there was a tendency to lump cousins and siblings together.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. Lineage exogamy was customary, which was expressed as a prohibition against marrying first or second cousins. There was, however, no system of exogamy based on Family totems. Dominant men often had more than one wife. The levirate and sororate were common. Polygyny but not polyandry was allowed, partly in recognition of male dominance, partly as social security for widowed people. Households were led by dominant men. A young married couple might reside matrilocally if the husband's father was dead or weak or already had many sons or if the wife's father was strong or lacked sons. Older dominant men might have large Households under their control, but the maturation of strong sons could lead to the breakup of such a household.

Domestic Unit. The domestic unit was made up of one to four adult male warriors, a nearly equal number of wives, and a mix of children and elderly. This was the unit that moved to the interior woods in winter and to coast camps in the Summer. It was probably also the basic production unit for fishing and gathering activities even when in residence in the main village.

Inheritance. Aboriginally, families made their own houses, tools, and clothing. Sharing and gift giving were important mechanisms for redistributing items produced by specialists within and perhaps between families. Hunting and trapping territories, houses, and perhaps some portable goods were considered the property of the family as a whole, a Concept that obviated the issue of inheritance.

Socialization. Sisters were treated with formality and respect by brothers. Boys often took practical instruction from their father's brothers. Women were isolated during menstruation. Young men were also isolated for long periods and given special food if they were identified as gifted runners. Dominant fathers, caring mothers, kind uncles, and fun-loving aunts were familiar figures in the socialization of Abenaki children.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. The basic social unit was traditionally the residential family. Individuals maintained close relations with others sharing the same family totem. Families fell into a natural division between saltwater and terrestrial to-tems, but there is little evidence that this division was ever formalized. Men often established lifelong partnerships that went beyond the ties of kinship or close residence. Exchange couched as giftgiving served to maintain such relationships while at the same time facilitating the redistribution of prized items.

Political Organization. Prior to the nineteenth century, village leadership normally resided with a dominant local family. A strong man, or sagamore, usually emerged from such a family to hold a leadership position for life. There was often a second sagamore who also held his position for life. John Attean and John Neptune held these positions at the Penobscot village of Old Town until 1866. Up to that time resistance had been building among members of saltwater families, who referred to themselves as the "New Party." State intervention led to an annual (later biennial) cycle of alternating leadership by the New Party and the Old Party until 1931. Since then leadership has been by election.

Social Control. Leadership and social order were traditionally maintained through the force of strong personalities. Sagamores depended upon broad consensus and lacked the formal power to act without it. But political power, personal charisma, virility, and shamanistic power were nearly interchangeable concepts. Consequently, a strong man had much real power even though it was not defined formally.

Conflict. Abenaki concepts of shamanistic power allowed for the diversion of conflict into the realm of the supernatural. This eliminated much open physical conflict within the community as did warfare with non-Abenaki communities.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. Supernatural beings included Pamola, a powerful monster who was believed to live atop Mount Katahdin, the highest mountain in Maine. Gluskabe was a trickster and culture hero whose exploits were more humorous than frightening. Many living men and some women had their own shamanistic powers that allowed them to leave their bodies and enter the realm of the supernatural, usually in animal forms. Strange occurrences involving animals were customarily interpreted as being the acts of shamans in their animal forms.

Religious Practitioners. All shamans possessed at least one animal form into which they could transform themselves. Seven forms were attributed to John Neptune, the most powerful of the last shamans. Such men were virile and had strong personalities. Their powers were often expressed through polygyny and political leadership. The rare female shamans were especially feared and respected in this male-dominated society.

Ceremonies . Dancing was an important part of impromptu ceremonies, including the installation of sagamores, marriages, and occasions when visiting brought people together temporarily. Ceremonies appear to have been irregular compared to the periodic seasonal societies to the southwest. Death and mourning brought any current festivities to an abrupt end, and close relatives mourned for a year.

Arts . Elaborate stitching and curvilinear incised designs decorated prized bark artifacts. In recent centuries, ash splint basketry has been taken up, along with the use of metaltoothed gauges for splitting the splints. The use of tubular wampum was as important here as elsewhere in the Northeast in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and several Penobscot collars and belts survive. Later artisans favored glass seed beads sewn on trade cloth. Bead designs included floral and geometric motifs, as well as the well-known double-curve motif. Other crafts were the more standard ones shared by various Northeast Indian societies.

Medicine. Curers, a class of individuals separate from shamans, understood the medicinal characteristics of various plants, but did not necessarily possess shamanistic powers.

Death and Afterlife. The dead were buried in their best clothes in individual interments. Ideas about an afterlife were probably consistent with shamanistic beliefs, but centuries of Catholic missionizing have greatly modified traditional beliefs.


Day, Gordon M. (1978). "Western Abenaki." In Handbook of North American Indians. Vol. 15, Northeast, edited by Bruce G. Trigger, 148-159. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution.

Eckstorm, Fanny H. (1945). Old ]ohn Neptune and Other Maine Indian Shamans. Portland, Maine: Southworth-Anthoensen Press.

Snow, Dean R. (1968). "Wabanaki 'Family Hunting Territories.'" American Anthropologist 70:1143-1151.

Snow, Dean R. (1978). "Eastern Abenaki." In Handbook of North American Indians. Vol. 15, Northeast, edited by Bruce Trigger, 137-147. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution.

Speck, Frank G. (1940). Penobscot Man: The Life History of a Forest Tribe in Maine. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.


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ABENAKI. At first contact with Europeans, Abenaki peoples occupied most of northern New England. The Abenakis included the Penobscots, Norridgewocks, Kennebecs, and Androscoggins in Maine; Pennacooks and Pigwackets in the Merrimack Valley and White Mountains of New Hampshire; Sokokis and Cowasucks in the upper Connecticut Valley; and the Missisquois and other groups on the shores of Lake Champlain in Vermont. Abenakis were primarily hunters, but their subsistence economy also included fishing, gathering, and corn agriculture.

English expansion northward after King Philip's War in 1675–1676 drove many Abenakis to seek refuge at French mission villages like Odanak on the St. Lawrence. In the imperial wars between 1689 and 1763, most Abenakis made common cause with the French against the English. The English retaliated with bounties on Abenaki scalps and raids on Abenaki villages, most notably the Rogers' Rangers attack on Odanak in 1759. The fall of New France opened Abenaki country to English settlement. Although many Abenakis supported their colonial neighbors in the American Revolution, encroachment on Abenaki lands continued.

After European diseases, the fur trade, and invasion disrupted their subsistence patterns, many Abenakis continued traditional ways of living in the more remote areas of their homelands. Others found work as farm laborers, basket makers, trappers, loggers, and mill workers. Some served as guides for travelers and tourists. Many married non-Indians. Most lived in poverty. By the nineteenth century, most New Englanders assumed the Abenakis had effectively "disappeared."

But Abenaki people "resurfaced" in the late twentieth century. In 1980 the Penobscots and Passamaquoddies won $81.5 million in compensation for lands taken illegally by Maine and Massachusetts. Abenakis in Vermont promoted awareness of Native issues as they fought to protect human remains, preserve the Abenaki language, and revive traditional dances and crafts. They challenged the state on issues of sovereignty and petitioned the Bureau of Indian Affairs for federal recognition, which remained undecided at the beginning of the twenty-first century.


Calloway, Colin G. The Western Abenakis of Vermont, 1600–1800: War, Migration, and the Survival of an Indian People. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1990.

Haviland, William A., and Marjory W. Power. The Original Vermonters: Native Inhabitants Past and Present. Rev. ed. Hanover, N.H.: University Press of New England, 1994.

Wiseman, Frederick Matthew. The Voice of the Dawn: An Auto-history of the Abenaki Nation. Hanover, N.H.: University Press of New England, 2001.

Colin G.Calloway

See alsoKing Philip's War ; Tribes: Northeastern .

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Abnaki or Abenaki (both: ăbnä´kē), Native North Americans of the Algonquian branch of the Algonquian-Wakashan linguistic stock (see Native American languages). The name Abnaki was given to them by the French; properly it should be Wabanaki, a word that refers to morning and the east and may be interpreted as those "living at the sunrise." The Abnaki lived mostly in what is now Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont. Abnaki legend has it that they came from the Southwest, but the exact time is unsure. The Abnaki resided in settled villages, often surrounded by palisades, and lived by growing corn, fishing, and hunting. They were early involved in the French fur trade. Their own name for their conical huts covered with bark or mats, wigwam, came to be generally used in English. After a series of bloody conflicts with British colonists in the late 17th and 18th cent. (see French and Indian Wars), the Abnaki and related tribes (the Malecite, the Micmac, the Passamaquoddy, the Pennacook, the Penobscot, and others) withdrew into Canada, where they received protection from the French. In 1990 there were some 1,500 Abnaki in the United States, mostly in N Vermont. About 1,000 live in Quebec and another group lives in Maine. There are also around 2,500 Passamaquoddy, mostly in Maine (see separate entries for other related tribes).

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A·be·na·ki / ˌabəˈnakē; ˌäbəˈnä-/ • n. variant spelling of Abnaki.

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Abenaki: see Abnaki.

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