views updated May 21 2018



The name Abenaki (pronounced ah–buh–NAH–key) means “people of the dawnlands.” The Abenaki people call themselves Alnombak, meaning “the people.” The Abenaki (also called “Abanaki” or “Abnaki”) were part of the Wabanaki Confederacy of five Algonquian-speaking tribes that existed from the mid-1600s to the mid-1800s.


The group known as Abenaki was actually a union of many tribes. They were divided into eastern and western branches. The eastern Abenaki resided in Maine, east of the White Mountains of New Hampshire and in the Canadian provinces of New Brunswick and Nova Scotia. The traditional territory of the western Abenaki groups included most of Vermont and New Hampshire, as well as the northern part of Massachusetts. In the mid-2000s there were Abenaki reservations in Maine and additional ones in Canada. Other groups of Abenaki people who do not have reservations are spread across northern New England and throughout Quebec and New Brunswick, Canada.


In 1524 there were about forty thousand Abenaki (ten thousand western Abenaki and thirty thousand eastern Abenaki). In the 1990 U.S. Census, 1,549 people identified themselves as Abenaki. By 2000 that total rose to 2,544, and 6,012 people claimed some Abenaki heritage. In 1991 Canadian Abenaki numbered 945; by 2006 they numbered 2,164.

Language family


Origins and group affiliations

Some historians believe that the ancestors of the tribes making up the Abenaki confederacy first arrived in North America about three thousand years ago. The eastern Abenaki, the larger of the two branches, included the Penobscot, the Passamaquoddy, Maliseet, Androscoggin, Kennebec, Ossipee, and Pigwacket tribes. The western Abenaki tribes included the Sokoki, Cowasuck, and Missiquoi.

For thousands of years the Abenaki people lived tranquil lives, hunting and fishing in the forests, ocean, lakes, and rivers of present-day Maine. Then Europeans came, and from the 1600s through the 1800s the lives of Abenaki groups were terribly affected by war, starvation, and disease. Some tribal groups were forced to abandon their villages in New England and regroup in Canada during times of armed conflict. While the Native Americans were away from their New England territory, white settlers took over the land. The Canadian Abenaki managed to maintain peace and retain many of their customs and traditions. The Abenaki who remained in their homelands in the United States also tried to live quietly and avoid trouble with European settlers, but they were not always able to do so.


Mythical city lures Europeans

Around the early 1500s people in Europe heard rumors of a wealthy Native city called “Norumbega,” which was said to be located in northern Maine. Although Norumbega never existed, tales about the mythical city lured explorers to the area. One of the earliest was a French expedition led by Italian explorer Giovanni da Verrazano (c. 1485–c. 1528) in 1524. Though suspicious of the foreigners, many of the Abenaki tribes engaged in fur trade with Europeans, especially the French and the British. In return they received knives, iron axes, fishhooks, brass for making arrowheads, and cloth.

In 1604 French explorer Samuel de Champlain (1567–1635), visited many Abenaki villages while on a mission to trade furs and establish a French fort on the St. Croix River (in territory that is now part of the state of Maine). The British tried to establish a colony on Abenaki land in 1607, but, partly because of hostile encounters with the tribes, the settlement lasted less than a year.

Important Dates

1524: The Abenaki encounter the expedition of Giovanni da Verrazano.

1689–1763: The Abenaki are caught up in wars between European nations.

1805: The British government sets aside land near St. Francis, Quebec, to accommodate the flood of Abenaki moving there from the United States.

1980: President Jimmy Carter signs a bill granting the Passamaquoddy and Penobscot $81 million to make up for the loss of their homelands.

1982: The Vermont Abenaki apply for recognition by the U.S. government. Ten years later the Supreme Court ruled against them. The fight still continued in the mid-2000s.

2006: The Vermont Abenaki are recognized by the state.

Abenaki relations with the French

For the next fifty years the British and the French fought several wars for control of the Abenaki homeland, even though it belonged to the Native peoples of the area. All this tension led the Abenaki tribes to fight among themselves, and their competition for trade with the French only compounded problems. The French traded mostly with the Penobscot, who became the most powerful of the Abenaki tribes.

The Abenaki had no true friends among the European nations, but their relationship with the French was much better than with the British colonists. The French won over the Natives by providing them with guns and promising them protection from their longtime enemies, the Iroquois (see entry), who conducted raids on Abenaki villages throughout the 1600s.

The Abenaki Confederacy and the Great Council Fire

The Abenaki (also known as Wabanaki) Confederacy was composed of a group of Algonquian–speaking tribes who banded together in the mid–1600s for common defense against the tribes of the Iroquois confederacy. The Iroquois had overtrapped furs in their own homelands and began attacking nearby tribes to gain new hunting territories. The hostilities were further fueled by the Iroquois alliance with the British. At the time, England and France were bitter enemies. Both countries sought to stake their claim of New World lands and dominate the unsettled territory. The Abenaki were pro-French.

Conflicts between the tribes of the Abenaki Confederacy and the Iroquois Confederacy were settled through a peace pact called the Great Council of Fire, made in 1749. Despite the differences between Abenaki and Iroquois tribes, the Great Council endured for more than 25 years. When the American Revolution began in 1775, some Abenaki groups supported the American colonists in their fight for independence from Britain. However, other Abenaki and Iroquois tribes, including the Passamaquoddy (Abenaki), sided with the British and withdrew from the Great Council of Fire. By 1862 the Abenaki Confederacy ceased to exist.

The British and the Iroquois

The British were unsuccessful in their attempts to befriend the Abenaki. Between 1616 and 1619 deadly epidemics (uncontrolled outbreaks of disease) swept through Native territories, killing many Abenaki. The French convinced the Native Americans that the British were solely responsible for the devastation of the tribe. The British chose to seek the friendship and support of the Iroquois tribe instead.

During the 1660s a civil war took place in England. Many people fled from there to the New World and began to settle on Abenaki lands. After a time of peace, King Philip’s War erupted in 1675 when a group of southern New England tribes led by the brilliant Wampanoag (see entry) leader Metacomet (King Philip; 1639–1676) attacked British settlements on the Native Americans’ homelands. By the time this tragic war was over, the colonists had nearly exterminated the Wampanoag, Nipmuck, and Narragansett tribes. King Philip’s death in July 1676 ended Native military action in southern New England. The Abenaki resented the growing alliance between the British and the Iroquois and feared the large number of British settlers who had begun to take over their land, Most Abenaki groups, however, remained neutral (did not take sides) throughout the conflict.

The French and Indian War begins

Between 1689 and 1763 Native Americans of the Northeast became caught up in a struggle between England and France over who would dominate North America. These conflicts are referred to collectively as the French and Indian War (1754–63). This period consisted of occasional outbreaks of hostility followed by periods of quiet. The conflict also spread to Europe with the Seven Years War (1756–1763; war fought between Great Britain [allied with Prussia and Hanover] against France, which was supported by Austria, Sweden, Saxony, Russia and Spain).

King William’s War

King William’s War (1689–97) was the first of the French and Indian War conflicts. Most Abenaki groups, with the exception of the Penobscot, joined French troops in attacking British towns in eastern New York, New Hampshire, and Maine. The British responded with raids of their own. Soon many Abenaki retreated to northern New England and Canada, where their French allies were based. England and France signed a peace treaty in 1697, but the Abenaki continued to fight, upset that more and more British colonists were taking over their territory. In 1699 the Abenaki, worn out from fighting, signed an agreement to stay neutral in any future conflicts between England and France.

Queen Anne’s War

The peace between the British and the French did not last long. Queen Anne’s War broke out in 1702 as hostilities once again reached a fever pitch. Although many Abenaki stuck to the terms of their neutrality agreement, others joined the French in attacks on several British towns in present-day Maine.

The most famous raid of the war took place in February 1704 in Deerfield, Massachusetts. A large force of Abenaki and French carried out a sneak attack on the British at daybreak, killing more than fifty people, capturing more than one hundred, and burning a good part of the town to the ground. The Abenaki then withdrew back up the frozen Connecticut River, out of reach of the British, taking their captives with them. Even though they were successful, the greatly outnumbered Abenaki warriors suffered losses they could not afford. Weakened, the Abenaki had to trade more and more of their land to the French in exchange for safety in Canada. The pursuing British often encountered empty Abenaki villages as they marched northward.

Dummer’s War

In the treaty that ended Queen Anne’s War in 1713 the French gave the territory of Acadia (in present-day Nova Scotia) to England. Acadia was largely made up of Abenaki land. The Abenaki felt angry and betrayed by the French, and many French people who lived in Acadia agreed with them.

Supported by several French priests, the Abenaki decided to defend their land, and in 1722 Dummer’s War broke out. The great Abenaki warrior Grey Lock gained fame for his raids on the British, who were never able to capture him. The conflict was bloody, and the Abenaki eventually met with defeat in 1727.

King George’s War

Native peoples in the Northeast experienced relative peace from 1727 to 1744. Years of fighting and outbreaks of smallpox had greatly lessened their population. Furthermore, the Abenaki people’s intermingling with other tribes through ongoing association and intermarriage was changing the identity, culture, and lifestyle of these once fiercely independent groups. Peace ended for the tribes with the outbreak of King George’s War in 1744. Some Abenaki tribes once again joined the French in attacking the British because they wanted to stop the British settlers who were pushing their way up the Connecticut River Valley. The Native American raids, which ended in 1748, succeeded in temporarily forcing the settlers to retreat southward.

In 1749 the Penobscot, one of the largest Abenaki tribes, left the confederacy in the hopes of making a separate peace with England and France. The tribe’s plan to remain neutral could not last, however. England drew the Penobscot into battle by offering them very high prices for the scalps they could collect from Britain’s enemies.

In 1759 the Abenaki were dealt a serious blow when British Major Robert Rogers—nicknamed Wobi Madaondo (“White Devil”) by the Abenaki—led a group of soldiers against the Abenaki village of St. Francis, Quebec, and burned the village to the ground. The British defeated the French army and took full possession of Quebec and all of Canada. With the loss of their French allies, the Abenaki were forced to deal with their longtime enemies—the British—alone. Meanwhile, British colonists swarmed into Abenaki territory in New England in great numbers.

When the French and Indian War was over, all French rule in the northeastern part of the North American continent ended.

American Revolution splits Abenaki

More than seventy years of war, starvation, and disease greatly reduced the Abenaki’s population and power. But they had not seen the end of hardship. They endured further warfare and bloodshed when they were drawn into the American Revolution (1775–83; the American colonists’ fight for independence from England).

The various Abenaki bands did not agree on which side to support in the revolution. Many of the St. Francis (Quebec) Abenaki supported the British, while a majority of the Penobscot, Passamaquoddy, Maliseet, and Micmac (see entry) bands of Abenaki fought with the freedom-seeking colonists under the command of General George Washington (1732–1799). The colonists promised the Abenaki land in exchange for their support. For the most part, though, those promises would be broken by the victorious new nation.

Abenaki migrate north

In the newly formed United States, white-owned lumber companies took over Abenaki lands for their own profit. The United States and Canada further divided Abenaki lands when they drew boundary lines through them. The Native Americans’ dealings with various state governments were largely unsuccessful. For example, on five separate occasions during the 1800s, the state of Vermont denied the Abenaki land.

At the beginning of the nineteenth century some Abenaki continued to migrate north into Canada, a process that had been going on for a hundred years. The population of St. Francis, Quebec, swelled as Abenaki moved there to escape from the ever-growing number of American settlers. In 1805 the British government set aside land near St. Francis to accommodate the flood of Abenaki settlers. (Canada remained under British rule until 1867).

U.S. Abenaki try to fit in

The Abenaki who stayed in the United States tried to survive by adopting white ways and speaking British. Abenaki ways were lost as white loggers destroyed their hunting, fishing, and trapping grounds. No longer able to support themselves by traditional means, many Abenaki began making and selling baskets and other crafts to survive. In time, though, the Abenaki tribes began a long fight with state and federal governments to preserve their lands and culture. Among themselves they continued to practice their ancient rituals and customs.

In New England the Passamaquoddy and the Penobscot survived in their original homeland largely because the pressure from white settlers was less severe in the north, but they barely maintained themselves on small parcels of their old land. In 1786 they refused to sign a treaty with Massachusetts, but in 1794 they gave up more than a million acres to the state. By 1820 the Abenaki owned only a few thousand acres, and by 1850 they had been confined to two separate villages. Some, in fact, were forced out of villages in Vermont by white settlers and fled to live with relatives in Canada.

Abenaki in the early twentieth century

In 1929 a period of severe economic slowdown occurred in the United States. The Great Depression (1929–41), as it was called, put millions of Americans out of work. But the late 1920s and the 1930s were relatively good years for the U.S. Abenaki. They benefited from programs initiated by President Franklin D. Roosevelt (1882–1945; served 1933–45), who called the Native American the “forgotten man.” Roosevelt’s programs provided food and jobs for people like the Abenaki who were suffering hardships. Throughout Roosevelt’s administration, government policies regarding Native Americans changed, and emphasis was placed on maintaining and preserving ancient Native American culture.

But this forward-thinking trend did not necessarily extend to state government. Concerned about the number of Vermont men rejected by the draft during World War I (1914–18; a war in which Great Britain, France, the United States and their allies defeated Germany, Austria-Hungary, and their allies), the state began a program to get rid of “undesirables”—people they felt did not benefit the state. When the state identified these people, it sterilized them so they could not have children or it confined them to mental hospitals or prisons. One of the groups targeted was the Abenaki. To protect themselves, many Abenaki hid their Native American roots.

During the following years some Abenaki became part of a sizeable group of Native Americans who fought in World War II (1939–45; a war in which Great Britain, France, the United States, and their allies defeated Germany, Italy, and Japan). After the war Native soldiers were greatly disappointed to return home and find that U.S. government policy had returned to one of assimilation (incorporating or blending Native Americans into mainstream white society).

Abenaki Tribes: The Penobscot, Passamaquoddy, and Maliseet

The Penobscot and the Passamaquoddy were the largest of the tribes that made up the Abenaki Confederacy. They were the only ones who managed to remain on their homelands throughout the tremendous upheavals faced by all the Abenaki peoples. In the 1400s about 10,000 Penobscot lived on the Atlantic Coast. When the United States was established the lands of the Penobscot became part of the state of Massachusetts. The state quickly whittled away much of the Penobscot homeland. Later the state of Maine was carved out of Massachusetts, and more land and the right to self-government were taken away from the Penobscot. Most of the people left the reservation in disgust. By the mid-2000s there were about 2,040 Penobscot. Penobscot territory is made up of a 149,000-acre (60,298-hectare) reservation, which includes 146 islands in Maine’s Penobscot River. The village of Old Town is the main population center.

The Passamaquoddy and Maliseet together numbered about 1,000 in the early seventeenth century. The Passamaquoddy lived along the coast of Maine and in New Brunswick, Canada. As of 2000 there were about 2,700 Passamaquoddy. They have two reservations: one in Maine at Pleasant Point on the Passamaquoddy Bay and another, Indian Township, located 50 miles (81 kilometers) inland.

Historians often link the Passamaquoddy with the Maliseet, a nearby tribe who spoke the same language. The Maliseet inhabited a large area north and west of the land of the Passamaquoddy, in Maine, New Brunswick, and Quebec, Canada. Most of the Maliseet fled to Canada after the wars of the seventeenth and eighteenth century. In the 1990s most of the 885 Maliseet people resided in New Brunswick or Quebec, although there was one reservation for the tribe in Houlton, Maine, and other small groups of Maliseet were scattered throughout the United States. By 2000 the Maliseet population had risen to 972 in the United States and to 712 in Canada.

Abenaki fight for rights

During the 1950s American Abenaki voiced their dissatisfaction with federal and state government policies that had taken away most of their land, stripped them of their fishing rights, and virtually destroyed their economy. Then in the 1960s—with the civil rights movement (the fight for equal rights for people of all races) in full swing—the Abenaki, along with other Native groups, began to demand a full restoration of their rights as a tribe. They engaged in acts of civil disobedience (making their point by publicly disobeying certain laws) and used other forms of protest as part of a movement to reassert the power of Native peoples.

These efforts paid off for two Abenaki tribes. In 1972 the Penobscot joined with the Passamaquoddy in a court battle over 200-year-old treaties with the state of Maine and the U.S. government. The tribes claimed that the treaties were illegal and that nearly 12.5 million acres, or two-thirds of the state of Maine, had been wrongfully taken from them. They sought both money and federal recognition through the court system. In 1980 the court awarded the Penobscot and Passamaquoddy a total of $81 million from the federal government. Most of the money was put into a fund that permitted the tribes to buy 300,000 acres of their former land. The tribes also gained the federal recognition needed to obtain health and education benefits, as well the right to hunt and fish in their homeland.

Vermont Abenaki, however, continue to struggle with the issue of tribal recognition. During the 1970s and 1980s the St. Francis/Sokoki Band of the Abenaki Nation of Missisquoi reestablished cultural gatherings and began holding powwows in the 1990s to introduce others to their culture. They submitted an application to the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) in 1982, which was denied in 2005. They remain determined to gain federal recognition for their tribe, and an application was still pending as of mid-2007.

Canadian Abenaki in modern times

In 1979 the Grand Conseil (Council) of the Waban-Aki Nation was founded and included the Abenakis on the two Canadian reserves—Odanak and Wolinak. In 1999 this council helped form the Aboriginal Commission of Economic Development of Quebec and Labrador. The goal of this organization is to assist communities in these two provinces with economic and business development. The council also researched early land claims to request compensation for and/or to buy back some of the land that originally belonged to the Abenaki. Additionally the Grand Council has negotiated for fishing and hunting rights for the tribe.

Canadian Abenaki have also taken steps to keep their culture alive by starting a cultural center, establishing a corporation to provide job opportunities and shops for Native products, and opening a tribal museum. Schools are teaching Abenaki history and language so their culture will be passed on to the next generation.


The Abenaki were a deeply religious people. They believed that the Earth had always existed and called it their “Grandmother.” They also believed that a being called “The Owner” had created people, animals, and all natural things, such as rocks and trees, and that each natural thing had an individual spirit. Their hero, Gluscabi, who created himself, could make life good or bad for the people. For example, he might bring them tobacco or affect the weather to their advantage.

The spiritual leaders of the Abenaki were healers called shamans (pronounced SHAH-munz or SHAY-munz). Shamans enlisted the aid of the spirits to heal the sick and solve problems. (See “Healing practices.”)

During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries French Catholic missionaries arrived on the lands of the Abenaki, seeking to convert the Native Americans to Christianity. The priests were at first feared and shunned as witches, but finally gained the trust of many Abenaki by learning their language and assisting in their health care needs. Protestant missionaries met with much less success in their conversion attempts. In time Roman Catholic churches and cemeteries became important parts of many Abenaki villages.

In recent years some Abenaki have returned to their original belief in the Great Spirit and to their code of ethics, which includes self-respect and respect for all creation. Central to these beliefs is a standard of conduct that includes love, compassion, forgiveness, and harmony. As in times past, elders—those possessing wisdom—give sacred instruction.

The Coming of Gluscabi

This Abenaki creation story describes how Gluscabi came to be.

After Tabaldak had finished making human beings, he dusted his hands off and some of that dust sprinkled on the Earth.

From that dust Gluscabi formed himself. He sat up from the Earth and said, “Here I am.” So it is that some of the Abenaki people call Gluscabi by another name, Odzihozo, which means, “the man who made himself from something.” He was not as powerful as Tabaldak, The Owner, but like his grandchildren, the human beings, he had the power to change things, sometimes for the worse.

When Gluscabi sat up from the Earth, The Owner was astonished. “How did it happen now that you came to be?” he said.

Then Gluscabi said, “Well, it is because I formed myself from this dust left over from the first humans that you made.”

“You are very wonderful,” The Owner told him.

“Let us roam around now,” said The Owner. So they left that place and went uphill to the top of a mountain. There they gazed about, open-eyed, so far around they could see. They could see the lakes, the rivers, the trees, how all the land lay, the Earth.

Then The Owner said, “Behold here how wonderful is my work. By the wish of my mind I created all this existing world, oceans, rivers, lakes.” And he and Gluscabi gazed open-eyed.

Caduto, Michael J., and Joseph Bruchac. Native American Stories Golden, CO: Fulcrum Publishing, 1991.


The Abenaki language is part of the Algonquian language family. The eastern and western Abenaki people spoke different dialects (varieties) of the language. The best known of the many eastern dialects was the Penobscot, which is still spoken today. Many Abenaki place names remain in use in the New England area. For example, Connecticut means “the long river” and Katahdin (as in Mt. Katahdin, Maine) means “principal mountain.” The dialect of the western Abenaki continues to be spoken as a second language by some of the people.

During the nineteenth century Abenaki children were punished in American schools for speaking their traditional language; as a result, it has almost become extinct. In the 1980s and 1990s the U.S. Abenaki tribes made great efforts to save their language, and since then it has been taught in some Vermont schools. Canada, too, has initiated programs to ensure that the Abenaki language and culture are passed down to the younger generations.

Abenaki Words

The biggest difficulty in understanding the Abenaki language is that there is not always a literal translation for a given word. For example, Gordon Day’s Abenaki Dictionary lists the word for clock as babizookwazik, which is translated as “that thing that ticks.” Because Native Americans and Western Europeans had a very different concept of what time is and how it is measured, such a word could take on a confusing and complicated meaning.

Some other Abenaki words include:

  • ndakinna, meaning “our land”
  • bitawbagok (the tribal name for Lake Champlain), meaning “the lake between”;
  • kuai, meaning “hello”; adio, meaning “good-bye”
  • wliwni ni, meaning “thank you.


For the most part, at the time the Europeans arrived in the Northeast, the various Abenaki groups operated by consensus rather than using a central governing authority. Family bands were the usual means of organizations, and issues such as whether or not to go to war were decided by all the adult members of a tribe, often under the loose leadership of a well-respected person called a sachem (pronounced SAY-chem), or chief. A sachem not only directed the war efforts, but also represented the people in meetings with other tribes or with different Abenaki bands. Even after the formation of the Abenaki Confederacy in 1670, though, French military officers complained that Abenaki leaders had a hard time controlling their warriors. This perception mostly likely arose from Abenaki beliefs in individuality and consensus.

In the mid-2000s many Canadian Abenaki lived on reserves (the word Canadians use for reservations). Their leader was called sagama. Each band had its own government and operated like a small country, but the people were also Canadian citizens and had to obey those laws as well. In the United States, chiefs governed their tribes, but, while they had authority over internal tribal matters, their leadership was subject to most American laws.


The Abenaki economy was based originally on hunting, fishing, and gathering. After Europeans arrived on the scene, trade became more important. Wealthy Europeans who lived in drafty houses and castles were willing to pay large sums of money for furs to keep themselves warm in winter. The Abenaki and other tribes supplied European traders, especially the French, with a large number of the desired pelts. But by the mid-1660s the fur trade had fallen off because of overhunting. The British then allowed the Abenaki to buy European goods on credit, using their land for collateral (meaning the whites would have the right to take Native land if the Native Americans did not repay the loans on time). After a while, though, the British refused to be repaid in animal skins and only accepted Abenaki land.

By the late 1990s the surviving Abenaki tribes such as the Penobscot and the Passamaquoddy were supporting themselves through a variety of business ventures. Several organizations have been instrumental in helping other Abenaki tribes, who have not received federal recognition, become self-sufficient. The Abenaki Self-Help Association, Inc. (ASHAI) was formed in Vermont in the 1970s to request state and federal funds to assist the tribe. In 2000 the Abenaki Microenterprise Project began providing low-income households with training and advice on self-employment. Some community efforts in Vermont in the early- to mid-2000s included a Tribal Trading Post, with Native products for sale, and an Abenaki Tribal Museum.

Daily Life


Typical Abenaki lived with extended families—families made up of a father, a mother, their children, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins. Several related families lived together in the same large house, but each had its own living space and fire. Family members shared food and possessions, and children repaid their older relatives by taking care of them in their later years. In the summer family groups lived in separate hunting territories that were inherited through the fathers. Abenaki villages rarely contained more than one hundred people.

Abenaki childrearing practices differed greatly from those of the Europeans. In fact, early European settlers sometimes criticized Abenaki children as spoiled and said they ran wild. But Abenaki believe that children should not be mistreated, so they do not punish them. Instead they use storytelling to discipline them. Good habits and ethics are woven into most traditional tales. If a child misbehaves or acts foolishly, parents use a story to teach them a lesson.

Abenaki Population: 2000 Census

The Abenaki tribe as a whole has never been federally recognized. This means that the U.S. government does not maintain official relations with the tribe. But three Abenaki groups in the state of Maine—the Penobscot, the Passamaquoddy, and the Maliseet—have achieved federal recognition. Maliseet people also live on reserves located in New Brunswick and Quebec. Other people who claim Abenaki ancestry lost their lands, but continue to live throughout New England.

In the 2000 U.S. Census members of the various Abenaki groups in the United States identified themselves this way:

Abenaki Population: 2000 Census

“2000 Census of Population and Housing. Matrix 7: American Indian and Alaskan Native summary file.” Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Commerce, Bureau of the Census, Data User Services Division, American FactFinder, 2004.


Most Abenaki structures were made of birch bark. The basic family dwelling for the western Abenaki was the longhouse, in which several families lived together. In winter, when food became scarce, families sometimes moved into cone-shaped wigwams covered with elm-bark mats that resembled the tepees of the Great Plains tribes. Wigwams were not as sturdy as longhouses, but could be moved easily when a family was out tracking game.

Eastern Abenaki people built either dome-shaped houses or square houses with roofs shaped like pyramids. Many villages also had dome-shaped sweat lodges where purification ceremonies took place.

Clothing and adornment

The Abenaki made most of their clothing from tanned deerskin or elk skin. In warm weather, men wore breechcloths (flaps of material suspended from the waist and covered the front and back) along with sashes that were wrapped around the waist and knotted. Women wore wraparound knee-length skirts. Both men and women sometimes added leggings, buckskin sleeves, and moccasins as the weather got cooler.

In the cold winter months the Abenaki wore many of the same types of garments, but made them from heavier materials such as moose hide; men often put on moose hide vests. Winter wear for both men and women included robes made from beaver pelts, fur hoods, and moccasins insulated with rabbit fur. A poncholike piece of skin with a hole or slit cut for the head provided extra warmth.

Both men and women wore their hair long, and women sometimes wore braids. The people wore decorated belts, necklaces, and pendants made from shells or slate. Many men hung sheathed knives from their necks.


The Abenaki obtained most of their food by hunting and fishing along the streams and rivers of their tribal lands. In spring the people fished from the shore or from canoes for smelt, salmon, sturgeon, shad, alewives, and eels. Their fishing tools included nets, three-pronged spears, and weirs (fencelike enclosures used to trap fish). At night fishing took place by torchlight.

During the summer months coastal groups harvested the ocean for fish, shellfish, and sea mammals. In the fall the Abenaki used bows and arrows to hunt both large and small game. Inland Abenaki fished on frozen ponds during the winter. By wearing snowshoes made from wood and leather, the people could continue hunting moose, deer, bear, beaver, and otter throughout the cold weather. The Abenaki found a use for nearly every portion of a slain animal. They smoked leftover fish over a fire for later use and froze extra meat in wooden containers.

Crops such as corn, beans, squash, and tobacco (mostly used for ceremonies) were grown near the rivers. After the men cleared land near the village, the women planted crops there. In areas where the soil was less rich, the Abenaki used fish as fertilizer. Women also picked various greens and gathered food such as beechnuts, butternuts, hickory nuts, and berries to eat raw or bake into breads. Every February the western Abenaki collected maple sap, which they boiled to make syrup.


Abenaki children were often taught by their grandparents, aunts, or uncles. They learned tasks considered appropriate for their gender. Boys learned the skills of hunting and warfare and began practicing with a bow and arrow at a very young age. By age twelve they were permitted to go hunting with the men of the family. Girls learned to weave baskets, grow crops, gather foods, sew clothing, and tend to smaller children.

In the late twentieth century the Abenaki of Vermont began an Indian Education Program, a scholarship fund, a women’s support group, and a children’s dance company to educate their children in both the old and new ways.

Healing practices

Healers, or shamans, took care of the religious and medical needs in an Abenaki village. Most shamans were male. They used a variety of methods to cure the sick, including sweating and treatment with herbs, laxatives, teas, and salves (sticky substances applied to wounds or sores). European colonists learned about the use of plant medicines from the shamans; the use of these age-old treatments continues today.

If the use of herbs proved unsuccessful, shamans called upon special, magical remedies to treat illness. They might attempt to blow or dance an illness away, sometimes placing the patient on a surface covered with magical signs. If it became obvious that an afflicted person was near death, villagers brought the event about more quickly by letting the patient starve, a practice they considered kind.


Birch bark boxes and baskets

The Abenaki were known for the objects they fashioned out of the bark of white birch trees that grew in their region. They divided birch bark into flexible, waterproof sheets and shaped it into baskets, boxes, and canoes. Besides being useful, many of the objects were works of art. The Abenaki used sharp utensils to scrape the surface of birch boxes and expose the inner bark, producing contrasting patterns of dark and light woods. The Abenaki also created beautiful baskets by weaving strips of ash wood together or by twisting or braiding sweetgrass. Such baskets are still sold throughout Maine and Quebec.


Games and festivities

Games have always played an important role in Abenaki culture. Boys began to race when they were small, and archery was considered an important part of a boy’s development into adulthood. Handball and lacrosse (a game played with a ball and netted sticks) were among the most popular games. The feats of ballplayers were central to many Abenaki stories, including one that tells of a fantastic game in which the players had lights of many colors on their heads and wore belts made of rainbows.

The Abenaki liked to sing and tell stories while carrying out their daily chores. They also enjoyed riddles and word games. Dancing and singing was featured at most major social events, including marriages, the coming of visitors, funerals, and the first corn harvest.

At the end of the 1990s the Abenaki of Odanak, Quebec, began holding an annual summer festival that revolved around storytelling, music, Native foods, and political and social discussions. They hoped that sharing some of their traditions and seasonal festivals with the public would promote greater cultural understanding. Other Abenaki tribes in Canada and the United States hold powwows to introduce others to their dances and culture.

War and hunting rituals

When conflicts broke out with other peoples, the Abenaki war chief stood up with a red club in his hands and asked for volunteers to unite for the fight. Other men known for their leadership skills also stood up and asked warriors to join them in forming battle groups of ten. Then the men feasted and danced well into the night. Before beginning a battle, they painted their faces red and drew pictures of past battle victories on their bodies.


Around the time of puberty an Abenaki boy embarked on a vision quest, a long period of fasting in the woods, during which the young man waited alone for the appearance of the guardian spirit who was to guide him through life. Males were considered adults by the age of fifteen.

A girl’s first menstrual period signaled the arrival of womanhood and her readiness for marriage. Menstruating women were isolated from others in a special wigwam and were not allowed to participate in their usual tasks because menstrual blood was considered powerful, even dangerous. Some girls also undertook vision quests.


When a young man wanted to marry, he sent a representative to visit his intended bride with gifts to entice her into the marriage. If she refused the gifts, it meant that she rejected the proposal. If she and her parents agreed, the couple began a trial period of living together, although they were supervised by chaperons and were not yet allowed to engage in sexual relations.

Marriages became official when the groom’s family accepted gifts offered by the bride’s family and a wedding celebration was held. For western Abenaki it was customary for couples to live with the man’s family after marriage; if the bride’s family were wealthier, though, the couple would go to live with them. Eastern Abenaki newlyweds usually resided with the bride’s family. Some chiefs of the eastern Abenaki were permitted to have several wives.


Abenaki dressed the bodies of the deceased in their finest clothing, wrapped them in birch bark, and tied them with a cord. They buried them quickly so their spirits would not linger over the corpses and the village. Graves contained food for the deceased person’s journey to the other world, as well as weapons, tools, and personal items to use in the afterlife.

In winter the Abenaki placed the remains of the dead on a high platform until the earth thawed in the spring and the corpse could be buried. If a man died during a hunting trip, they left his body above ground, and the first person to find the body in the spring buried it.

Widows wore hoods on their heads and did not participate in social events for one year after the death of a husband. After the death of a child, a grieving mother would usually cut off her hair and blacken her face. Relatives brought presents to the parents to help ease their pain; in return the parents sometimes held a feast.

Current tribal issues

In the 1980s the Abenaki Indians of Vermont began a court battle for the right to hunt, fish, and travel on their traditional lands. In 1992 the Vermont Supreme Court ruled that all such Abenaki rights had ended. But the Vermont band fought on, and in 2006 the General Assembly of Vermont recognized the tribal status of the Abenaki people, meaning that an official relationship existed between the state and the Abenaki of Vermont. As a result, Vermont created a commission on Abenaki affairs to work out matters of concern to both the tribe and the state and to aid the tribe in its efforts to achieve recognition by the U.S. government. When the federal government recognizes a group of Native Americans as an Indian tribe, special services such as health care and educational opportunities become available to them, and they usually are granted the right to use their homeland for hunting and fishing purposes. As of 2007 the Abenaki were still working hard to attain this recognition.

Another difficulty the Abenaki face, in common with other Native tribes, is whether tribal government is sovereign (self-ruling) on Native land or whether the tribe must submit to federal laws. The Abenaki believe that, as a separate nation, they should make their own decisions. As of 2007 the U.S. government recognized their right to make tribal decisions, but insisted on overall authority in other matters. Two examples of ongoing areas of conflict include whether labor unions can organize in tribal casinos and if Native Americans can freely cross the Canada/United States border at will. Natives do not want unions, nor do they feel they must abide by the federal government’s minimum wage policy. They also insist that, because their reservation straddles the United States and Canada, they should be free to travel back and forth between the two countries at will.

Some Maine tribes were also concerned about pollution from outside sources upsetting the balance of their tribal waters and killing the wildlife. In 2004 several organizations joined to create the Penobscot River Restoration Project. This group received federal funds in 2007 that will enable them to remove two dams and bypass a third one. Their goal is to restore free-flowing water and improve river ecology for more than 500 miles (805 kilometers).

Notable people

Joseph E. Bruchac III, PhD (1942–), is an award-winning author and poet whose works reflect his Native American heritage. (He is also of Slovakian and British descent.) Bruchac’s stories and poems emphasize the importance of spiritual balance and address environmental concerns as well. His books, which include many stories for children, have been widely published. This author also founded a much-praised multicultural literary magazine as well as Greenfield Review Press, which publishes many books by Native American authors.

A Penobscot named Louis Francis Sockalexis (1871–1913) was the first Native American to play professional baseball. He was an outstanding hitter for the Cleveland Spiders, but his career was cut short by a serious alcohol problem. He later worked as an umpire, basket weaver, canoeist, woodsman, and ferryman on the Penobscot River. In 1915 the Cleveland team was renamed the “Indians” in his honor (although in the 1980s and 1990s many Natives protested the use of Indian names in sports as demeaning and stereotyping).

Samoset (1590–1653) was a sachem who lived on an island off the coast of present-day Maine. He served as a mediator between the Pilgrims and Native American groups. Samoset helped to create the first peace treaty between whites and the Wampanoag tribe. He also signed the first land deed in America, giving nearly 12,000 acres (4,856 hectares) of Native lands to whites.

Calloway, Colin G.; Frank W. Porter III, ed. The Abenaki. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1989.

Landau, Elaine. The Abenaki. New York: Franklin Watts, 1996.

Prins, Harald E. “Abenaki.” American Indians. Vol. 1. Edited by Harvey Markowitz. Pasadena, CA: Salem Press, 1995.

Ryan, Marla Felkins, and Linda Schmittroth. Tribes of Native America: Abenaki. San Diego: Blackbirch Press, 2003.

Wiseman, Frederick Matthew. The Voice of Dawn: An Autohistory of the Abenaki Nation. Lebanon, NH: University Press of New England, 2001.

Abenaki Culture & History Menu. (accessed on June 25, 2007).

“Native Languages of the Americas: Abnaki-Penobscot Language (Abénakis, Alnôbak),” Native Languages of the Americas. (accessed on May 9, 2007).

George Cornell, Ph.D.; Associate Professor, History and American Studies, Michigan State University; Director, Native American Institute

Laurie Edwards


views updated Jun 27 2018


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.



views updated May 23 2018


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 .


views updated May 23 2018


ABENAKI. The Abenaki were a loose confederacy of Algonquin tribes located in what is now northern New England and the Canadian Maritime provinces. European contact brought a number of devastating plagues that reduced the population of the confederacy by an estimated three-fourths. After King Philip's War in 1676, the Abenaki absorbed most of the fleeing natives of southern New England. Allied with the French, who had a mission at Norridgewock on the Kennebec, the Abenaki resisted English expansion into northern New England, launching a number of preemptive raids against settlements. In 1722 Massachusetts declared war on the Abenaki. What is known as Dummer's War reached a climax when the New Englanders destroyed Norridgewock in 1724. The Kennebec, part of the Abenaki confederation, were dispersed, mainly into Canada, and their new capital was located on the St. Francis River near its junction with the St. Lawrence. A peace treaty was signed in 1727. The Penobscot, Passamaquoddy, and Malecite did not migrate, however, and in 1749 the former nation made peace with the English. Some other Indians returned to Norridgewock, but this place was raided again in 1749; in 1754 its inhabitants returned to St. Francis. There they were attacked in 1759 by Robert Rogers, who burned their town and ended their participation in the Seven Years' War. The American Revolution divided the Abenaki. Most sided with the British, but the Penobscot and Passamaquoddy served with the rebels while the St. Francis and Micmac split between the two contenders. Massachusetts acknowledged the services of the Penobscot and Passamaquoddy by granting them reservations in northern Maine; the remaining Abenaki lost all claim to their lands within the new United States and sought refuge in Canada. The Abenaki are no longer even recognized by the U.S. government as existing.

SEE ALSO Rogers, Robert.

                            revised by Michael Bellesiles


views updated May 14 2018

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