Quebec History Marianopolis College

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L’Encyclopédie de l’histoire du Québec / The Quebec History Encyclopedia


Abnaki, Abénaki, Abenaqui



[This text was originally published in 1907 by the Bureau of American Ethnology as part of its Handbook of American Indians North of Mexico . It was later reproduced, in 1913, by the Geographic Board of Canada. The work done by the American Bureau was monumental, well informed and incorporated the most advanced scholarship available at the time. In many respects, the information is still useful today, although prudence should be exercised and the reader should consult some of the contemporary texts on the history and the anthropology of the North-West Indians suggested in the bibliographic introduction to this section. The articles were not completely devoid of the paternalism and the prejudices prevalent at the time. While some of the terminology used would not pass the test of our "politically correct" era, most terms have been left unchanged by the editor. If a change in the original text has been effected it will be found between brackets [.] The original work contained long bibliographies that have not been reproduced for this web edition. For the full citation, see the end of the text.]


[Further information on the Abenaki may be found in the Canadian Encyclopedia , the Encyclopedia of North American Indians and at the Native American Languages's site]


Abnaki. (Wâbuna'ki, from wâbun, a term associated with 'light,' 'white,' and refers to the morning and the east; a'ki 'earth,' 'land'; hence Wâbuna'ki is an inanimate singular term signifying 'eastland,' or 'morning-land,' the elements referring to animate dwellers of the east being wanting.- Jones). A name used by the English and French of the colonial period to designate an Algonquian confederacy centreing in the present state of Maine , and by the Algonquian tribes to include all those of their own stock resident on the Atlantic seaboard, more particularly the "Abnaki" in the N. and the Delawares in the S. More recently it has been applied also to the emigrant Oneida , Stockbridges, and Munsee about Green bay , Wis. By the Puritans they were generally called Tarrateens, a term apparently obtained from the southern New England tribes; and though that is the general conclusion of modern authorities, there is some doubt as to the aboriginal origin of this term. In later times, after the main body of the Abnaki had removed to Canada , the name was applied more especially to the Penobscot tribe. The Iroquois called them Owenunga, which seems to be merely a modification of Abnaki, or Abnaqui, the name applied by the French and used by most modern writers. The form Openango has been used more especially to designate the eastern tribes. Maurault ( Hist. des Aben. , 2, 1888) says: "Some English authors have called these savages Wabanoaks, 'those of the east'; this is the reason they are called 'Abenakis' by some among us. This name was given them because they were toward the east with reference to the Narragansetts."


Ethnic relations . - In his tentative arrangement Brinton ( Len. Leg ., 11, 1885) brings into one group the Nascapee, Micmac, Malecite, Etchimin, and Abnaki, but this is more of a geographic than a linguistic grouping. Vetromile ( Abnakis , 20, 1888), following other authors, says that we should "embrace under this term all the tribes of the Algic [Algonquian] family, who occupy or have occupied the E. or N. E. shore of North America; thus, all the Indians of the seashores, from Virginia to Nova Scotia, were Abnaki." Maurault gives the following as the principal tribes of the Abnaki confederacy: Kanibesinnoaks (Norridgewock in part; Patsuikets (Sokoki in part); Sokouakiaks (Sokoki); Nurhantsuaks (Norridgewock); Pentagoets (Penobscot); Etemankiake (Etchimin) Ouarastegouiaks (Malecite), the name Abnaki being applied in the restricted sense to the Indians of Kennebec r. All these tribes spoke substantially the same language, the chief dialectal differences being between the Etchimin and the other tribes of the group. The Etchimin, who formed a subgroup of the Abnaki confederacy, included the Passamaquoddy and Malecite. Linguistically the Abnaki do not appear to be more closely related to the Micmac than to the Delaware group, and Dr. William Jones finds the Abnaki closely related to the central Algonquian languages. In customs and beliefs they are more nearly related to the Micmac, and their ethnic relations appear to be with the tribes N. of the St. Lawrence.


History . - The history of the Abnaki may be said to begin with Verrazano's visit in 1524. The mythical accounts of Norumbega of the early writers and navigators finally dwindled to a village of a few bark-covered huts under the name Agguncia, situated near the mouth of Penobscot r., in the country of the Abnaki. In 1604, Champlain ascended the Penobscot to the vicinity of the present Bangor , and met the "lord" of Norumbega, doubtless an Abnaki chief. From that time the Abnaki formed an important factor in the history of the region now embraced in the state of Maine . From the time of their discovery until their partial withdrawal to Canada they occupied the general region from the St. John to the Saco; but the earliest English accounts indicate that about 1605-20 the S. W. part of the coast of Maine was occupied by other Indians, whose chief seat was near Pemaquid, and who were at war with the Abnaki, or Tarrateen, as the English termed them, who were more to the N.; but these other tribes were finally conquered by the Abnaki and probably absorbed by them. Who these Indians were is unknown. The Abnaki formed an early attachment for the French, chiefly through the influence of their missionaries, and carried on an almost constant war with the English until the fall of the French power in America . The accounts of these struggles during the settlement of Maine are familiar episodes in American history. As the whites encroached on them the Abnaki gradually withdrew to Canada and settled chiefly at Bécancour and Sillery, the latter being afterward abandoned by them for St. Francis, near Pierreville , Quebec . The Penobscot, Passamaquoddy, and Malecite, however, remained in their ancient homes, and, in 1749, the Penobscot, as the leading tribe, made peace with the English, accepting fixed bounds. Since that period the different tribes have gradually dwindled into insignificance. The descendants of those who emigrated from Maine together with remnants of other New England tribes, are now at St. Francis and Bécancour in Quebec , where, under the name of Abnaki, they numbered 340 in 1911. In 1903 the Malecite, or Amalicite, were numbered at 801 in several villages in New Brunswick and Quebec , with about 625 Penobscot and Passamaquoddy in Maine . The present Penobscot say they number between 300 and 400, while the Passamaquoddy claim as many as 800 souls.


Customs and beliefs . - According to the writers on early Maine , the Abnaki were more gentle in manners and more docile than their western congeners. Yet they were implacable enemies and, as Maurault states, watched for opportunities of revenge, as did other Indians. Notwithstanding Vetromile's statement to the contrary, if Maurault's assertion ( Hist. Abenakis , 25, 1866) applies to this tribe, as seems evident, they, like most other tribes, were guilty of torturing their prisoners, except in the case of females, who were kindly treated. Although relying for subsistence to a large extent on hunting, and still more on fishing, maize was an important article of diet, especially in winter. Sagard states that in his day they cultivated the soil in the manner of the Huron. They used the rejected and superfluous fish to fertilize their fields, one or two fish being placed near the roots of the plant. Their houses or wigwams were conical in form and covered with birch-bark or with woven mats, and several families occupied a single dwelling. Their villages were, in some cases at least, inclosed with palisades. Each village had its council house of considerable size, oblong in form and roofed with bark; and similar structures were used by the males of the village who preferred to club together in social fellowship. Polygamy was practised but little, and the marriage ceremony was of the simplest character; presents were offered, and on their acceptance marriage was consummated. Each tribe had a war chief, and also a civil chief whose duty it was to preserve order, though this was accomplished through advice rather than by command. They had two councils, the grand and the general. The former, consisting of the chiefs and two men from each family, determined matters that were of great importance to the tribe, and pronounced sentence of death on those deserving that punishment. The general council, composed of all the tribe, including males and females, decided questions relating to war. The Abnaki believed in the immortality of the soul. Their chief deities were Kechi Niwaskw and Machi Niwaskw, representing, respectively, the good and the evil; the former, they believed, resided on an island in the Atlantic ; Machi Niwaskw was the more powerful. According to Maurault they believed that the first man and woman were created out of a stone, but that Kechi Niwaskw, not being satisfied with these, destroyed them and created two more out of wood, from whom the Indians are descended. They buried their dead in graves excavated in the soil.


Tribal divisions . -The tribes included in the confederacy as noted by Maurault have already been given. In a letter sent by the Abnaki in 1721, to the governor of New England their divisions are given as follows: Narantsouuk (Norridgewock), Pentugouet (Penobscot), Narakamigou (Rocameca), Amnissoukanti (Amaseconti), Muanbissek, Pegouakki (Pequawket, N. H.), Medoktek (Medoctec), Kwupahag, Pesmokanti (Passamaquoddy), Arsikantegou (Arosaguntacook), Ouanwinak (Wewenoc, s. edge of N. H.). The following is a full list of Abnaki tribes: Accominta, Amaseconti, Arosaguntacook, Etchimin, Malecite, Missiassik, Norridgewock (the Abnaki in the most limited sense), Passamaquoddy, Penobscot, Pequawket Rocameca, Sokoki, and Wewenoc. The bands residing on St. Croix and St. John rs. spoke a different dialect from those to the southward, and were known collectively as Etchimin. They are now known as Passamaquoddy and Malecite. Although really a part of the Abnaki, they were frequently classed as a distinct body, while on the other hand the Pennacook tribes, although distinct from the Abnaki, were often classed with them on account of their connection during the Indian wars and after their removal to Canada. According to Morgan they had fourteen gentes: 1, Mals'-sum, Wolf; 2, Pi"uh', Black Wildcat; 3, Ah-weh'-soos, Bear; 4, Skooke, Snake; 5, Ah-lunk-soo, Spotted Animal; 6, Ta-mäk-wa, Beaver; 7, Maguh-le-loo', Caribou; 8, Kä-bäh'-seh, Sturgeon; 9, Moos-kwk-", Muskrat; 10, K'-che-gh-gong'-go, Pigeon Hawk; 11, Meh-ko-ä, Squirrel; 12, Che-gwä'-lis, Spotted Frog; 13, Koos-koo', Crane; 14, March'-weh-soos, Porcupine. According to Chauvignerie their principal totems were the pigeon and the bear, while they also had the partridge, beaver, and otter totems.


The Abnaki villages, so far as their names have been recorded, were Amaseconti, Ammoncongan, Aquadocta (?), Arosaguntacook, Asnela, Aucocisco, Bagaduce, Bécancou, Calais (Passamaquoddy) Gunasquamekook (Passamaquoddy), Imnarkuan (Passamaquoddy), Kennebec, Ketangheanycke, Lincoln Island, Masherosqueck, Mattawamkeag (Penobscot), Mattinacook (Penobscot), Mecadacut, Medoctec (Malecite), Meecombe, Missiassik (Missiassik), Moratiggon (?), Moshoquen, Muanbissek (?), Muscongus, Negas, Negusset (?), Norridgewock, Norumbega, Okpaak, (Malecite) Olamon (Penobscot), Old Town (Penobscot), Ossaghrage, Ouwerage, Pasharanack, Passadumkeag (Penobscot), Passamaquoddy (village?), Pauhuntanuc, Pemaquid, Penobscot, Pequawket, Pocopassum, Precaute, Rocameca, Sabine, Sagadahoc, Sainte Anne (Malecite), St Francis, Satquin, Sebaik (Passamaquoddy), Segocket, Segotago, Sillery, Sokoki (village?), Taconnet, Tobique (Malecite), Unyjaware, Viger (Malecite), Wabigganus, Waccogo, Wewenoc (village?).

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Source: James WHITE, ed., Handbook of Indians of Canada , Published as an Appendix to the Tenth Report of the Geographic Board of Canada , Ottawa , 1913, 632p., pp. 1-3. Consult the entry on the Abenaki at the Encyclopedia of North American Indians.

© 2004 Claude Bélanger, Marianopolis College