The Abenakis' name for themselves was and is Wôbanakiak (People of the Dawn Land), although the Wabanaki Confederacy (Wabanaki = Dawn Land) also includes the Passamaquoddies, Maliseets, Penobscots,and Micmacs, of northern Maine and the Maritime Provinces. These tribes are futher broken down into bands, some of which are considered independant tribes today.
The French called them Abenaquis, Oubenaquis, or sometimes, when less certain as to their identity, Loups—a word they also applied to some other Indian peoples. English colonists often called all Indians they dealt with in Maine eastern Indians. By the late eighteenth century, British and Americans alike tended to label the Western Abenakis "St. Francis Indians," after the inhabitants of the village of Odanak, or St. Francis, in Quebec.
By the time Europeans first saw northern New England, various groups of loosely related Algonquian-speaking peoples had inhabited the area for thousands of years. These Indian groups came to be known collectively as Abenakis, a name referring to their eastern location as "people of the dawn land." Their homelands stretched from Lake Champlain in the west to Maine's Atlantic Coast, and from the St. Lawrence Valley in Quebec to northern Massachusetts.
The Abenakis included the Sokokis on the middle and upper Connecticut River, the Cowasucks farther upriver, the Missisquois on the northern shore of Lake Champlain, the Pennacooks of New Hampshire's Merrimack Valley, the Pigwackets in the White Mountains, the Androscoggins of western Maine, and the Penobscots, Norridgewocks, Wawenocks, and Kennebecs farther east. Anthropologists distinguish between the Eastern Abenakis of Maine and the Western Abenakis of Vermont, but the lines of separation are neither rigid nor clear, and rest on linguistic affiliation rather than political division.
A more appropriate way of distinguishing between the two groups might be to regard as Western Abenaki those peoples who viewed the Champlain Valley, the scene of their creation stories, as the center of their universe, and to include as Eastern Abenaki groups who looked to the spiritual power of Mount Katahdin in Maine—although these were not the only sacred markers in the Abenaki homeland.
Abenaki peoples were hunters, and early Europeans saw no crops growing north of the Saco River. However, in the Champlain and Connecticut Valleys, the Abenakis grew corn centuries before Europeans arrived. In most areas, Abenaki people developed a diversified economy that combined hunting and gathering with fishing and corn agriculture on a seasonal basis.
The Abenakis tended to locate their villages in river valleys, to take advantage of fertile bottom lands and spring fish runs, while forested mountains provided rich hunting territories. In the east, they harvested the marine resources offered by the Atlantic Coast. Community life varied with the seasons and their associated subsistence activities.
Villages came to life when bands of related families congregated for spring fishing or planting, late summer harvesting, and winter stories and ceremonies; villages often disappeared when families dispersed into hunting territories in the fall.
The Abenakis did not operate, or deal with Europeans, as a single "tribe." Abenaki political and social structure was fluid and flexible. The family band was the core social unit, and leaders usually were heads of lineages rather than tribal chiefs. Europeans on the coast of Maine in the first decades of the seventeenth century referred to chiefs with great power, but leadership in Abenaki society seems more normally to have depended upon persuasion, example, and charisma and to have involved obligations to one's followers as much as authority over them.
As Europeans began to penetrate the Abenaki homeland in the seventeenth century, Abenaki people confronted a changing world. Europeans imported new diseases, new religions, and new technologies. Thousands of Abenakis died from epidemics such as the plague that swept the coast of Maine in 1617 and the smallpox epidemic of 1633-34 on the Merrimack and Connecticut Rivers.
Many converted to Catholicism as Jesuit priests, promising salvation and coming hard on the heels of devastating diseases, established missions in their villages. Many Abenaki people received French surnames when they were baptized. The oldest Catholic cemetery in New England, dating from 1688, is at the Penobscot community on Indian Island, near Old Town, Maine. The Pennacooks and other groups closer to the English colonies came under the influence of Puritan missionaries. All Abenakis adopted some of the manufactured goods European traders filtered into their world.
But the Abenakis also shaped the new world that was emerging in New England. Europeans found inland travel made easier by Abenaki moccasins, canoes, and snowshoes; they learned Abenaki hunting and horticultural practices; they borrowed Abenaki words, sought out Abenaki healers, and sometimes spent much of their lives in Abenaki country. Abenaki communities came to include French missionaries, English captives, and those who simply preferred Abenaki society to life in colonial New England or New France. Captives who were adopted and stayed added an English strain to Abenaki society. Some of those who returned to English settlements retained strong attachments to Abenaki culture, and Abenaki parents continued to visit their adopted "children."
As competition mounted between England and France for control over North America, Abenaki homelands became war zones. Some Abenakis had felt the repercussions of King Philip's War in 1675-77 and knew well that English expansion threatened their lands and their way of life. The French seemed content with beaver pelts and baptisms, while the English demanded land cessions and cultural capitulation. Most Abenakis found the French to be more acceptable allies. Beginning in the late seventeenth century, as English settlers pushed northward, many Abenakis began to retreat, and some took up temporary or permanent residence at French mission villages like St. Francis and Bécancour on the banks of the St. Lawrence.
Some Abenakis migrated to the Midwest, settling in the area south of the Great Lakes. Abenaki communities also received refugees from other Indian groups throughout New England. As they confronted the challenge of English expansion and escalating imperial rivalry, many of the people inhabiting Abenaki villages also were remaking their communities and rebuilding their lives.
Abenaki warriors frequently fought alongside the French during the so-called French and Indian Wars of the eighteenth century, but they also fought independently and for their own reasons. Many of their raids took them south to territory they regarded as rightfully theirs and against settlers they regarded as thieves and trespassers. Abenaki villages fell to English assault in 1724, when the English and their Indian allies destroyed Norridgewock and killed and scalped the Jesuit missionary Sebastian Rasles, and in 1759 when Robert Rogers's Rangers torched St. Francis. For the most part, however, the Abenakis avoided such costly encounters.
Their usual strategy was to raid the English frontier, elude pursuing militia, and evacuate their villages when danger threatened. Such tactics kept battle casualties to a minimum and kept English settlement pinned to the peripheries of Abenaki territory for the best part of a century.
The fall of New France in 1760 cost the Abenakis their French allies and opened a new era. British settlers moved onto Abenaki lands in unprecedented numbers, felling trees and building farms, mills, roads, and bridges. British soldiers stood behind these advances, and the British Indian Department tried to restrain the Abenakis by centralizing its relations with them at St. Francis. Rather than contend with their aggressive new neighbors, many Abenaki families retreated deeper into their territory, ignoring British directives to stop "wandering" and settle in one place.
The outbreak of the American Revolution brought agents and emissaries to Abenaki communities as both sides tried to recruit Abenaki warriors. Colonel John Allan, appointed by the Continental Congress as agent to the "eastern Indians," secured a measure of support from Indian groups in Maine and Nova Scotia for American efforts in the area, and the Penobscot chief Joseph Orono was sympathetic to the American cause. However, British pressures and threats prevented full-scale or consistent commitment.
As in the French and Indian Wars, Abenaki neutrality was not a viable option. Instead, some Abenakis fought on each side in the Revolution. They usually served as scouts or rangers, a role that enabled them to keep the war away from their homes.
Though some Abenaki groups supported the American cause during the Revolution, all Abenakis suffered the consequences of American victory as individual states opened up Abenaki country to settlers and land speculators. Flouting the Indian Trade and Non-Intercourse Act of 1790, which required that Congress approve transfers of Indian land, Massachusetts made treaties with the Penobscots and Passamaquoddies that robbed them of huge amounts of territory. Logging companies and paper mills began operations on the rivers of northern New England.
With the fur trade all but exhausted and their traditional patterns of subsistence disrupted, many Abenakis tried to maintain traditional ways of life in the poorer areas of their once-productive lands. Others worked as day laborers, or made and peddled baskets and birch-bark containers designed for American rather than Abenaki use.
Some, like the Penobscots Joe Polis and Joseph Attean, who guided Henry David Thoreau on his treks through the Maine wilderness, worked for American travelers and tourists. Many Abenakis avoided identifying themselves as Indians, often passing as French Canadians. The U.S. Census of 1900 recorded 798 Indian people in Maine, 22 in New Hampshire, and 5 in Vermont!
These figures reflected the myopia of the census takers and the fears and choices of Abenaki people in an environment hostile to Indians. The Abenakis survived in far greater numbers, but most kept a low profile, often living in remote areas of northern New England. To their American neighbors, they seemed invisible. They were truly vanishing Americans.
The Abenakis refused to vanish, however. Through the hard times of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, many Abenaki people kept alive—and kept secret—stories, beliefs, basketmaking skills, and community relations that defined them as Abenaki in their own eyes even as they appeared unidentifiable as Indians to outsiders. Not until 1954 did the state of Maine lift restrictions that prevented its Indian citizens from voting.
As the social and political climate mellowed in American society in the later twentieth century, the Abenakis ceased being invisible. They stepped forward to be counted and began to take increasing control over their own affairs.
The Penobscots and Passamaquoddies brought suit against the state of Maine for the return of lands taken in contravention of the Trade and Non-Intercourse Act. After a protracted legal battle, the Maine Indian Land Claims Settlement Act of 1980 granted the tribes $81.5 million. The money has not brought the tribes economic independence but the victory boosted their efforts to rebuild their communities and revive their cultures.
The tribes were able to repurchase some three hundred thousand acres of forestland. The injection of unprecedented amounts of capital enabled the Penobscots to create jobs, construct housing, invest in educational programs, and attract tribal members back to the community.
In 1983 the Passamaquoddies bought the Dragon Products Company, New England's only cement maker, and then sold it in 1988, more than tripling their investment. They also bought a large blueberry farm near Machias, which they continue to operate as a tribal business.
Meanwhile, in Vermont, under the aggressive leadership of Chief Homer St. Francis, the Western Abenakis, who had never signed a treaty with the United States, began the long and tortuous process of trying to secure federal recognition of their status as an Indian tribe. Centered around Swanton, near the site of the ancient village of Missisquoi, the Vermont Abenakis also have worked to preserve ancient burials sites, have tackled the state head-on in fishing-rights cases and other issues affecting their sovereignty, and have produced educational programs to promote awareness of Abenaki presence and heritage in the state.
At Odanak in Quebec, the Abenaki inhabitants are recognized as "status Indians" by the Canadian government. In 1982, the community established the Mikwobait Cultural Association to help preserve Abenaki culture and heritage. A year later it started a profit-making corporation to create employment for craft-workers by selling their goods through outlets in Quebec, Montreal, and various cities in the United States.
After almost five hundred years of contact, Abenaki people in Quebec, the Acadia region of Canada, Maine, Vermont, and New Hampshire are still working out relations with non-Indian neighbors. These relations are not always smooth. Outsiders might criticize Abenaki actions and even question their identity as Indians, but the Abenakis have dispelled the illusion that they are a vanishing people. U.S. Census takers, who counted 5 Indians in Vermont in 1900, recorded 1,696 in 1990.