Greensboro Bend

Abenaki People

Indigenous Homelands of Vermont's State-Recognized Tribes

The Abenaki have been in Vermont for time immemorial and they are here now. The information below is gathered from Abenaki sources of knowledge and wisdom. The goal is to highlight unmediated Abenaki voices.

The Wabanaki Confederacy is comprised of five principal nations: Abenaki, Malecite, Micmac, Passamaquoddy, and Penobscot. There are four Vermont state-recognized Western Abenaki tribes:

  1. The Elnu Abenaki Tribe, according to information available at http://elnuabenakitribe.org/, their traditional territory is southern Vermont.
  2. The Koasek Traditional Band of the Koas Abenaki Nation, according to information available at http://koasekofthekoas.org/, their traditional territories are central and northwestern New Hampshire and northeastern and central Vermont.
  3. The Nulhegan Band of the Coosuk Abenaki Nation, according to information available at https://abenakitribe.org/, their traditional territories are the Upper Connecticut Basins of Vermont, northern New Hampshire, and the eastern townships of Quebec.
  4. The St. Francis-Sokoki Band of the Abenaki Nation of Missisquoi according to the map above, agreed upon by the chiefs of each tribe and Frederick Wiseman, their traditional territory is northwestern Vermont. Their website is https://www.abenakination.com/.

Ancestral lands of the Stockbridge-Munsee Band of Mohican Indians, descendants of Mahican and Lenape peoples, include the Massachusetts town of Stockbridge. Their current territory in the eastern United States consists of 330 acres in Sullivan County, New York, and 2 acres in Madison County, New York. Their website is https://www.mohican.com/.

Contemporary

The Nulhegan Band of the Coosuk Abenaki Nation is nestled in N’dakinna (our homeland), the present-day Northeast Kingdom of Vermont. The tribal headquarters are located in Barton, Vermont.

According to Don Stevens, chief of the Nulhegan Band of the Coosuk Abenaki Nation,

“We are the Nulhegan Tribe; the Memphremagog Band; the Northern Cowasuk Indians. We have lived here, in the St. Francis, Nulhegan, Memphremagog, Passumpsic, and Upper Connecticut Basins of Vermont, northern New Hampshire, and the eastern townships of Quebec, from time beyond memory. Our memories and oral history tell about when the old ones were faced with the decision to stay or travel west to the Great Lakes. Some made the journey and some stayed here in N'dakinna (our homeland). Our oral history tells of the wars and the hardships of survival and acceptance in the centuries after. Our presence here has not always been wanted, warranted, or even admitted. Memories and stories of eugenics and ethnic cleansing in the 19th and 20th centuries brought animosity and distrust that still manifests itself today.”

The Nulhegan Band of the Coosuk Abenaki Nation filed an application for tribal recognition with the Vermont Commission on Native American Affairs. On April 22, 20ll, the Nulhegan Abenaki Tribe was recognized by the State of Vermont as a Native American Indian tribe. The first week of May is recognized as Abenaki Recognition and Culture Week in Vermont.

Lauren Sopher's summary of The Voice of the Dawn: An Autohistory of the Abenaki Nation, by Frederick M. Wiseman

Dr. Wiseman is an Abenaki Tribal Council member and the Director of the Abenaki Tribal Museum and Cultural Center in Vermont.

13,000-10,000 | The Years of the Adebaskedon [Mammoth]

The ancestors of the Abenaki, referred to as “Our Oldest Ones,” lived in “highly dispersed groups of families tied together by language and kinship.” On a yearly cycle, they followed herds of upland game and marine life. Small and medium-sized game were hunted with a lightweight javelin, sometimes thrown with an atlatl—a wooden shaft with leather finger loops on one end and a hook or notch on the other end—to hold the javelin. Examples of small animals that were hunted include mateguas (Arctic hare), ptarmigan (a game bird in the grouse family), seabirds, and mihkua (squirrel). Larger game, such as magolibo (caribou), ktsiwoboz (giant elk), adebaskedon (mammoth), ktsiawaasak (mastodon), ponkiawassos (polar bear), and ktsiawassos (short-faced bear), were hunted with a heavy two-part lance. Examples of hunted marine life include fish (capelin, sculpin, smelt, and stickleback), askigwak (seals: bearded and hooded), podabak (small whales: beluga and porpoise), and walrus. Hunting was likely done from a canoe similar to the mozolol (hide-covered boat). Podabak (large whales: bowhead, finback, and humpback) were too large to hunt, but would sometimes beach themselves and be harvested.

The landscape transitioned from a tundra—grasses, lichens, sedges, and small shrubs (sata‒blueberry, kanosasiz‒dwarf willow, and paksiwimen‒partridge-berry)—to a smattering of maskwamozi (birch), kokokhoakw (fir), ossggakw (poplar), and mskak (spruce) around 11,000 years ago. Over time, wdopiak (alders) and kanosasak (willows) moved in along streams and the land transitioned to an open woodland of conifers, mahlawks (ash), and senomozi (sugar maple). With the change in landscape came new animals: tamakwa (beaver), awassos (black bear), pezo (lynx), apanakega (marten), moskwas (muskrat), moz (moose), kokw (porcupine), and meskagodagihla (spruce grouse). Humans supplemented an animal diet with bark, berries, leaves, and tubers.

Koluscap [Our Great Hero] and the Frost Monsters

“Here camps my story, an old granite rock scoured by ice and covered by hoarfrost and lichen. Koluscap [our great hero] was tired of the cold. It was so cold that people had moved to Nibenakik [to the south], where it was warm enough to hunt and fish. He went to find Bezegawan, the Fog. Slowly, tendrils of mist flowed down snow-covered hills, merged and coalesced, and Bezegawan stood before Koluscap. “Why does Ice now cover the earth so much that it bends under its weight?” “Koluscap,” said the Fog, “the Frost Monsters in the north have gotten too strong. They blow their ice breath so that Winter is long and the other seasons are so short they cannot melt the ice. The Frost Monsters are powerful and dangerous; if they catch a man, they will eat him alive, consuming him into more ice.” Koluscap said, “Grandfather, these creatures do not frighten me, I will go and fight them and make them stop the Ice.” “Koluscap,” said the Fog, “the Frost Monsters live in Pabonkik, so far to the north that you will need four pairs of ogenak (snowshoes) to reach them.” So Koluscap made four wonderful pairs of snowshoes to journey to the village of the Frost Monsters. Koluscap set off across the ice. By the time his first pair of snowshoes fell apart, the icy wind was blowing so hard that his cape flew from his shoulders. By the time his second pair wore out, the wind froze his hair to his neck. By the time the third pair wore out, Koluscap could only crawl through the howling gale.

In time he came to a huge village called Wazoli [snow], palisaded with ice stalagmites and with houses made of snow lit inside by cold blue fire that took away warmth. There he saw the Frost Monsters, with their great toothed and tusked mouths from which came a huge cold gale that froze the world. They were naked. Koluscap said, “You must stop making the world cold. You have forced my people to move far to the south to be able to find game. I will wrestle you each, and if I win, warmth will come to show that I have beaten you.” The monsters were persistent and tricky in wrestling and could not be beaten without killing them, which he did, though it was hard work. After killing many, he said, “Enough, I cannot kill you all.” He also thought, “If I kill them all, winter, and the rest that it gives the earth, will not come, and Aki [earth] will tire quickly.” So he returned home, leaving some of the Frost Monsters alive. That is why we still have winter but not so strong as before, and Frost Monsters still eat the unwary hunter in the dead of winter. Koluscap laboriously slogged back to his lodge beside the lake. Bezegawan rose from the lake and said, “Koluscap, you did well to stop the breath of the Monsters, but you did even better to let some live so that my sister the earth can rest.” The Alnôbak [Abenaki] were again able to live in Wôbanakik, the Land of the Dawn.” Source: Medawas, 1993

10,000-6,500 | The Years of the Moose [Moz]

This time period is characterized by its warmer and drier climate. The open, low woodlands transitioned into dense, tall woodlands comprised of warmer species such as pagȏn (butternut) and watsilmezi (white oak). The ancestors of the Abenaki lived in smaller, seasonal camps in order to easily hunt in the uplands and fish along rivers. The development of more sophisticated ground stone woodworking tools, the “full-channel” gouge and the adze,” allowed for the creation of dugout canoes, which replaced skin boats. The small forest animals dominated the woodlands (tamakwa‒beaver, mateguas‒hare, moskuas‒muskrat, and mihkua‒squirrel); they were hunted with a klahigan (deadfall trap) and lighter atlatls. Few large animals (awassos‒bear, moz‒moose, and magolibo–woods caribou) roamed the woods, though moose meat was a significant part of the people’s diet. Fish (monazigan‒black bass, maskwenoza‒muskellunge, kwenoza‒northern pike, namas‒salmon, kabassa‒sturgeon, and lapasalod‒yellow perch) and berries (sata‒blueberry, pessimenal‒currant, sgueskimenal‒raspberry, and mskikikoiminsal‒wild strawberry) also were important parts of the people’s diet. Maskwaijoal, bark containers filled with cooked berries and maple sweetener, were sealed with moose fat and hung from wigwam frames.

Moose [Moz] Hunting Story

“To hunt a moose by water, you approach the moose by canoe around a peninsula which hides him from you. In this canoe you must have two hunters, the one in the bow, who carries the hunting weapon, and the stern paddler who calls the moose. When you have paddled silently as close to the moose as possible without being seen, you quietly bring the canoe to a stop. The stern hunter dips the moose call, a Mason jar (or cone of birch bark in the past), into the water. The call is then lifted three feet above the lake and its water carefully poured in such a way that it sounds exactly like a female moose, in heat, urinating. The male moose, hearing this sound, will quickly and foolishly round the peninsula in search of the female. You must quickly kill the moose or, in his rage at being tricked, he may sink the canoe.”
Source: “Monkey” Drew, ca. 1955

6,500-1,000 | The Years of the Log Ships

This time period is referred to as the “Climatic Optimum,” which is defined by the warm and moist climate. The practice of woodworking (with stone, metal, and bone tools) expanded, impacting water travel and hunting; trading expanded, by sea and land. Family and village life became larger and more complex. Villages were centered around rich alluvial river valleys, such as Nonnigonikon Winooskik (the Winooski Site, near Burlington, Vermont). Ancestors of the Abenaki lived in clusters of wigwams: “a conical frame of flexible saplings with a birch, elm, or softwood bark covering, sewn to the frame with spruce root ties.”

The people perfected plant gathering and transitioned to a plant-dominated diet. The summer brought a bounty of berries: satal (blueberry), saskibal (elderberry), mololdagwal (grape), and sgueskimenal (raspberry). The fall brought a stockpile of nuts: anaskamenal (acorn), wajomozial (beechnut), pakimizial (black walnut), pagon (butternut), wobimenal (chestnut), pagonizal (hazelnut), and bagimenakwamal (hickory). This diet was supplemented by the upland hunting of awassos (bear), pezo (bobcat), nolka (deer), olanigw (fisher), bakkesso (partridge), kokw (porcupine), wokweses (red fox), and naama (turkey), and the lowland marsh hunting of tamakwa (beaver), doleba (box turtle), woptegua (Canada goose), moz (moose), moskwas (muskrat), and onegikw (otter).

The people commanded travel on lake and sea. Woleskaolakw, canoes built with white pine or other softwoods, and huge log ships were relied upon for transportation. Marine fish (cod and swordfish), freshwater fish (monazigan‒black bass, maskwenoza‒muskellunge, kwenoza‒northern pike, meskwamakw‒salmon, kabassa‒sturgeon, namoakw‒trout, and mamsalagikwsak‒walleye pike), and sea mammals (askigw‒seals, podabak‒whales, and walrus) were hunted too. Hunting technologies advanced, especially in the wooden atlatl, drag snare, klahigan (deadfall trap), and astahiganal (harpoon) departments. Drag snares, “loops of cord attached to logs that tightened and strangled the animal as it dragged the log,” were used to catch awassos (bear), nolka (deer), and moz (moose).

The people deepened their connection with the spiritual world: birth, death, dream, spirit, and the cycles of the sun, moon, and seasons. These worlds were interpreted by medlawinoak (shamans) and wassobamit (clear seers or clairvoyants).

Trade expanded beyond Wôbanakik (the Land of the Dawn) and subsistence labor declined. More time was spent crafting functional and ornamental objects. Stone bowls, cups, pipes, plates, and body ornaments were formed from soapstone of the Green Mountains. Bone, metal, polished stone, and shell were crafted into beads, gorgets (plates of stone worn around the neck), pendants, and whistles. The appearance of clay vessels, used as cooking pots, indicates the end of this period.

1,000-400 | The Years of the Corn [Skamon]

There were three major changes that exemplify this time period: (1) the advent of the dobi (bow) and the asigwonit (arrow); (2) the introduction of agriculture, with a focus on skamon (corn), adbakwa (beans: red and kidney), wassawas (squashes: acorn, butternut, pumpkin, and summer squash), Jerusalem artichokes, and odamo (tobacco); and (3) the loss of hunting lands to a new group of people from Nibenakik (south central Appalachian area). Otherwise, fish and game species, as well as their respective associated technologies, were similar to the Years of the Log Ships’ last years.

1600-1820 | The Years of the Beaver [Tamakwa]

This was a turbulent period for the people of Wôbanakik (the Land of the Dawn); they dealt with disease from the east and unfriendly visitors. Coastal villagers were the first to come in contact with the Blacmonak (people from France). In exchange for information about the land and animals, those people gave glass beads, woven cloth, and black metal (iron). Iron changed how the people of Wôbanakik interacted with nature; using iron needles, fish hooks, points, knives, and axes were more time-efficient than using chipped- or ground-stone tools.

Trade continued to expand beyond Wôbanakik (the Land of the Dawn) and included items like trade beads (mozobial‒large necklace beads, bugle beads‒long tubes of colored glass, and mozobizal‒small beads for sewing to clothing), silver (aneskamonal‒large center-holed brooches, buttons, and pins), and bells made of wizowahlakw (brass).

The Agomenokiak people introduced the beaver trade to the people of Wôbanakik (the Land of the Dawn), and clashes over beaver hunting territories began. In the words of Frederick Wiseman, “Our respect for conservation and game animals was challenged for the first time in scores of generations. To survive in a changing world, we could not refuse the new technology, no matter what the environmental consequences. For our neighbors, who looked upon our hunting territories with newly greedy eyes, were themselves acquiring new weapons’ technologies against which we would be helpless.”

A cycle of war amongst nations led to an alliance based on peace and hope, according to evidence from the wampum records of the Passamaquoddy and the Haudenosaunee. “...Every Indian to the farthest boundaries was informed that a great confederacy was to be made,” said Wapapi Akonutomakonol (Lewis Mitchell, 1990). The First Nations of the Great Council Fire formed, “to reduce discord among member nations and to mediate warfare and peace with native and Anglo opponents, but as time went on it also became an agent to let the European powers know that we had not lost any war and were continually knowledgeable of our rights.”

These were the last years of total sovereignty for the Alnôbak (Abenaki). War was common; the people had to fight throughout the year. Tools of war included the tomahawk and firearms (muskets) from the Europeans. Please refer to Wiseman’s descriptions for more details on warfare at this time (pgs. 104-113).

The Alnôbak (Abenaki) way of life was defined by the seasons. Spring: “A village’s year began in Zogalikas (the sugar-making moon of early spring), when it became warm enough for the sap to flow in the maple and birch trees.” Bark crafts, especially of canoes and dwellings, basketry, and longhouse construction, were common in the springtime.

Summer: hunting, gathering, planting, harvesting, and playing games (adowiz‒the ring and pin game, gagwenigan‒the dice game, and babaskwahamawôgan‒lacrosse) defined summer.

Fall: the processing of field corn with dakwahogan (corn pounding mortar), eel fishing season, and the main hunt of the year defined fall.

Winter: the hunters returned to the villages with animal harvests; a time of social renewal and games was centered within wigwams and longhouses. Winter hunting was made possible by specialized winter clothing (plejes‒moosehide leggings and mkezenal‒moccasins) and the perfection of ogenak (snowshoes) by the Alnôba and their neighbors.

1820-1970 | The Years of the Fox [Waukweses]

“The position of the state is that in the late 1700s the Abenaki ceased functioning as a tribe, and although they have regrouped, it still doesn’t meet the legal test.” -Janet Ancel, Governor’s Counsel, St. Albans Messenger, May 15, 1995

Against the Darkness
Let the visitors believe they have conquered,
that they have the land and its bounty.
Let them believe that we are gone, Indian Joe is dead.
The forests keep our secret.
The unseen fox has kits in its den.
The drums and rattles are not stilled.
They are heard in the far places,
they are heard on the air of night.
The visitors think they have won.
Yet the scent of sweetgrass troubles their dreams.

Source: Medawas, 1994

As Anglo-Americans moved into Wôbanakik (the Land of the Dawn), contrary to the storyline of many academic historians, the Alnôbak (Abenaki) people kept their beliefs and customs. Wiseman states, “This lack of scholarly research and writing has inadvertently provided the state of Vermont with a tactical tool in its campaign of disconnecting us from our ancestors, a strategic cornerstone in its ethnic cleansing program.” He explains, “There were five options: (1) exile, (2) fade into the forests and marshes, (3) live the “Gypsy”/ “Pirate” / “River Rat” life between Native and European culture, (4) merge with the French community, (5) “pass” into English-American society.”

Alnôbak (Abenaki) families sought refuge in the Odanak and Wôlinak reserves within Canada. The St. Lawrence mission villages, run by French Canadians and the Catholic Church, were accepting of Alnôbak families. Overall, the Alnôbak people were dispersed across the landscape, in areas not desired by English Americans: the marshes, mountains, and pine woods. Derogatory names were assigned to the various Alnôbak family bands: “River Rats,” “Pirates,” and “Gypsies.” River (“River Rats”) and lake (“Pirates”) folks lived in shanty towns by rivers or on houseboats on the lake. Upland (“Gypsies”) folks lived in shanty towns too, and had a semi-mobile lifestyle. Some families merged with the working “French” class in northern New England, including Frederick Wiseman’s family.

Despite significant oppression of the Alnôbak (Abenaki) people, traditional craft technologies continued to develop. The alnôbaiwi (canoe) saw significant advancements. The mozolol (moosehide skin-covered canoe), woleskaolakw (dugout canoe), pkwahaol (spruce bark canoe), wigwaol (birch-bark canoe), odoalagwal (cargo canoe), and madobaolagwal (war canoe) were used for river and lake travel. The primary materials used to build birch-bark canoes were igua (a single large piece of birch-bark), cedar strips for wogino (ribs and lining), wadabal (spruce-root lashings), and pego (spruce gum).

Craftsmanship also continued in the form of baskets, made for European collectors, and ogenal (snowshoes). The Victorian basket was made from mahlawks (ash), wigebiak (ash splints), and sometimes walmogwkil (sweetgrass). The Alnôbak (Abenaki) developed teardrop-haped ogenal (snowshoes) that were the precursor to modern snowshoes. The snowshoes were made of mahlawks (ash) and rawhide.

In the mid-1920s, the Vermont Eugenics Survey was led by Henry Perkins of the University of Vermont. Wiseman describes, “Soon the lens of genocide was trained on the Gypsies, Pirates, and River Rats, as well as other ethnic groups...it was reported that over two hundred people were sterilized during this campaign.” This period of history closed with a decline in the eugenics movement, but with continued resistance to the Abenakis’ political and cultural sovereignty.

1970-1994 | The Years of the Bear [Awassos]

In the words of Frederick Wiseman, “All of the forces of creation and destruction that mold the modern Abenaki world developed in these years. The forces of creation included acceptance of the Abenaki people that they were Indian, acceptance of the Abenaki people by academia, building organizational and political structures to deal with Anglo Vermont, and rediscovery of symbolic and material heritage. The forces of destruction unleashed included a constantly shifting, overtly hostile state of Vermont and a built-in political instability caused by friction between traditional family-band politics and Anglo-imposed tribal and social organizations run by authoritarian leaders.”

Place & People Names Word Bank

Recovering and reclaiming indigenous place names is an essential component of unfolding the history of a place. The words below are full of deep history—consider using them in your personal and professional life.

Abenaki Name Modern Name Approximate Meaning
Alnôbak Abenaki people Abenaki people
Aki Earth Earth
Bitawbagok Lake Champlain Lake Between
Kwenosakek Mouth of the Lamoille River Pike Place
Mamhlawbagok Lake Memphremagog Wide Water
Wintegok Lamoille River Marrow River
Wabanaki Wabanaki people People of the First Light or Dawnland
Wôbanakik Our land The Land of the Dawn
Source: Wiseman, F.M. (2001). The Voice of the Dawn: An Autohistory of the Abenaki Nation. Hanover, NH: University Press of New England.

Resources

Works Consulted

Nulhegan Abenaki Tribe. (2017). Retrieved from https://abenakitribe.org/.

Wiseman, F.M. (2001). The Voice of the Dawn: An Autohistory of the Abenaki Nation. Hanover, NH: University Press of New England.