Who Were The Abenaki Indians?

The history, culture, societal make-up, hunting and spiritual life of the Abenaki Indians. Also an analysis of the living conditions of the remnant of these people surviving in the 21st century.

The Abenaki Indians were the inhabitants of the northern part of New England and the southern part of the Canadian Maritimes. The Abenaki were divided into eastern, western and maritime divisions. The eastern Abenaki were located in modern day Maine, to the east of New Hampshire's White Mountains. The western Abenaki lived on the eastern shores of lake Champlain. The Maritime Abenaki were to be found on the border between what is now Maine and New Brunswick. Prior to the arrival of the white man the Abenaki numbered as many as 40,000 people, divided between the three divisions as follows - 20,000 eastern, 10,000 western and 10,000 maritime.

The Abenaki actually referred to themselves as "˜Alnanbal', meaning "˜men.' The name Abenaki meant "˜people of the dawn' or "˜easterners.' Among the Europeans the Abenaki were also known as the St. Francis Indians, while other tribes referred to them variously as the Anagonges, the Natsagana and the Obunego. The Abenaki spoke their own unique dialect of the Algonquin language.

The Abenaki may have been living in their traditional lands for as many as 10,000 years. The Abenaki were an agricultural people who would normally locate their villages on the shore of a river or stream. Main crops were maize, beans and squash. Some of their crop fields were of massive proportion, with one corn field in particular stretching to more than 250 acres. The produce of the field was augmented with fishing, hunting and the gathering of wild foods, such as wild rice.

The Abenaki lived in isolated villages, mainly consisting of extended families. During the winter they would roam their hunting grounds, which were inherited through the father ( the Abenaki being a patrilineal society). In the Spring the people would emerge from the forest to regroup at set locations, invariably near a river. Here they would plant their crops and fish. The average summer village would consist of about one hundred people. For dwellings, the Abenaki preferred to make use of the dome shaped wigwam which was covered in elm bark.

The Abenaki did not have a central governing authority. Rather each sub tribe was relatively autonomous. Even the Sachem, the overriding power among other tribes, had limited power among the Abenaki. Important decisions regarding such things as warfare were made after a meeting with all of the adults in the village and a consensus being reached. After 1670, however, circumstances moved the Abenaki to form a confederacy to fight the Iroquois and the English. Still, however, it was basically each man for himself. This lack of unity actually proved to be a good thing for the Abenaki. It enabled them to scatter and disappear away into the woods when they were outnumbered.

The Abenaki first encountered the European during the 1500s. The negative effect was immediate. Before 1600 two major epidemics had decimated their numbers. The first one struck between the years 1564 and 1570 with the second, an attack of typhus striking in 1586. In the second decade of the new century three more epidemics swept through the land. When Maine was hit with a smallpox outbreak in 1617, the eastern Abenaki were hit hard and their numbers fell to just 5,000. Because the western Abenaki were more isolated they were not so badly affected. However they still lost about half of their people. Over the next 150 years, the Abenaki were hit by as many as twenty more epidemics, with everything from smallpox, to influenza to measles ravaging the native populations.

The numbers of the Abenaki were artificially boosted by thousands of refugees fleeing from the effects of King Philip's War in 1676. But after the American Revolution the total number of Abenaki was down to a little over 1000 - down from about 40,000 just one and a half centuries earlier. The numbers have come up again, however. Today, there are about 12,000 Abenaki living in both Canada and the United States. Those residing in the United States have, however, never received Federal recognition.

© High Speed Ventures 2011