ABENAKI INDIANS One of the five tribes of the Wabanaki Confederacy
The Abenaki Indians were one of five algonquin tribes that belonged to the Wabanaki Confederacy. The Sokoki, or western Abenaki, were known in New England as the St Francis Indians. While the Abenaki are a separate tribe on their own, their name is often used interchangably to mean the whole Wabenaki Confederacy.
Wabenaki is actually the geographical area these tribes lived in, and means Dawn Land. W˘banakiak is the term used to mean People of the Dawn Land. Abenaki and Wabanaki have the same Algonquian root, meaning in English "people from the east."
The Penobscot Indians are often included in the Western Abenaki grouping, although they are a separate tribe from the Abenaki. The eastern abenaki peoples also include separate tribes called the Mi'kmaq, Maliseet and Passamaquoddy.
Ethnologists divide the Abnaki people into two subdivisions: the Eastern Abenaki and Western Abenaki. These subdivisions are further broken down into bands.
The Abenaki people call themselves Aln˘bak, meaning Real People. There are a dozen variations of the name Abenaki (singular) or Abenakis (plural form), such as Abnaki, Abanaki, Abenaquiois, Abakivis, Alnanbal meaning "men," Abenaqui, Benaki, Oubenaki, Quabenakionek, Wabanaki, Wippanap, Wabenakies and others.
The earliest use of the term Abenaki in its various spellings appears to be French. Champlain, the Jesuit Relations, and other sources use the term after about 1630, abandoning the earlier extension of Etchemin (Maliseet-Passamaquoddy) to include them.
Many later writers lumped all the abenaki with the Western Abenaki under the heading Openango (with several spelling variations). English writers of the seventeenth century usually called the Eastern Abenaki simply Eastern Indians.
In the nineteenth century the term Tarrantine, a seventeenth-century English name for the Micmac, was revived as Tarratine and erroneously applied to the Penobscot. Various other obscure and confusing identifications also exist.
Because Abenaki was not a written language, there are no rules for spelling, adding to the proliferation of abenaki names.
Extending across most of northern New England into the southern part of the Canadian Maritimes, the Abenaki called their homeland Ndakinna meaning "our land."
The eastern Abenaki were concentrated in Maine east of New Hampshire's White Mountains, while the western Abenaki lived west of the mountains across Vermont and New Hampshire to the eastern shores of Lake Champlain. The southern boundaries of the Abenaki homeland were near the present northern border of Massachusetts, excluding the Pennacook country along the Merrimack River of southern New Hampshire.
The maritime Abenaki occupied the St. Croix and the St. John's River Valleys near the border between Maine and New Brunswick. New England settlement and war forced many of the Abenaki to retreat north into Quebec where two large communities formed at St. Francois and Becancour near Trois-Rivieves, and are still there today.
There are also three reservations in northern Maine (Penobscot, Passamaquoddy, and Maliseet) and seven Maliseet reserves located in New Brunswick and Quebec. Other groups of Abenaki, without reservations, are scattered across northern New Hampshire and Vermont.
The original Abenaki name for their specific tribe is Alnombak, "the people." Today there are 2,000 Abenaki Indians living on two reserves in Quebec, where they fled from British aggression in the 1600's, and another 10,000 descendants scattered throughout New England. The Abenaki tribe is only officially recognized in Canada, and only the Canadian population still speaks the Abenaki language fluently.
Modern Abenaki history has been a fugue of attrition and regrouping. Up to 75% of the Native Americans in New England were killed by European diseases in the 1500's and early 1600's.
Dozens of distinct tribes originally lived in this area, but after each disaster the survivors of nearby villages moved together for safety's sake, and even Indian oral history became blurry about who was who. Since the Abenaki tribe tended to retreat into Canada to avoid attacks from the British and Iroquoians, England was left with the impression they were Canadian Indians, but in fact the Abenakis were originally natives of New England.
The Abenaki bands' strategy of merging after heavy losses and keeping more powerful neighbors in the dark about their existence may have caused them headaches in getting federal recognition, but it has also ensured their survival, whether their neighbors are aware they are still there or not.
Abnaki, or Western Abenaki, is an Algonquian language spoken today by only a few elders in Canada.
Native speakers call their language Alnombak, Aln˘bak, or Aln8bak (the 8 was a Jesuit symbol for a nasalized, unrounded 'o'.) Penobscot or Eastern Abenaki, a dialect mutually comprehensible with Western Abenaki, was once spoken in Maine. Sadly, the last fully fluent speaker of Penobscot Abenaki has passed on, but several elders know something of the language and are working to revive the language in the Penobscot Nation today.