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The People of the Dawnland

Copyright 1995 Laura Brooks
University of Maine -- Orono, Maine
Bibliography appears at the end of the text

"When the white man stops insisting that the Indian adhere to his ways
and allows us to live as Indians, the Indian problem will be solved."
-- John Stevens, Passamaquoddy Tribal Governor

"The Indians survived our open intention of wiping them out, and since the tide turned they have even weathered our good intentions toward them, which can be much more deadly"
-- John Steinbeck, from America and Americans

Many writers with good intentions have tried to explain the history of the American Indian with the hope of shedding light on the "Indian problem" that John Stevens alludes to in the above passage. Unfortunately, in the past, historians have over-generalized North American Indians as being one large indigenous population who share the same customs and culture. As a result, people seem to think that there is one Indian language or one Indian religion. A fitting example of the deadly result of a good intention, which John Steinbeck refers to in the above quote. Although similarities may exist among the Indian tribes of North America, depending on which part of the country the tribes are situated, each tribal group has its own distinctive identity and history. A better way to examine Indian tribal history is to look at small groups or confederations of tribes which, due to their close proximity to one another, share similar histories, social customs and cultures. The Dawnland People represent one such distinct group, distinguishable from all others.

Wabanaki and Abenaki
The common name given for the People of the Dawnland is Abenaki. The word simply means "people of the east" or "easterners" (Whipple, 34), so named because the rays of the sun at dawn hit first on that northeastern part of the country where they lived. The Eastern Abenaki of Maine included the Penobscot, Androscoggin, and Wawenock; the Western Abenaki of New Hampshire and Vermont included the Pennacook, Winnipesaukee, Pigwacket, Sokoki, Cowasuck and Missisquoi (Calloway, Abenaki, 14). The names Abenaki and Wabanaki, although both meaning Dawnland People, are subtly different in group representation. The Wabanaki people were a confederation of Indian tribes which included both the Eastern and Western Abenaki, the Passamaquoddy of Maine, the Micmac of Nova Scotia and the Maliseet of eastern Maine and New Brunswick (Calloway, Abenaki, 14). The Wabanaki belonged to the Algonquin group of language speakers, which meant they shared similar cultural and social practices, as well as a language dialect (Whipple, 36). For purposes of this paper, the focus is on the Wabanaki (but not including the Western Abenaki of New Hampshire and Vermont).

           |  		 |		   |		 |  	  |
 Western Abenaki  Eastern Abenaki    Passamaquoddy    Micmac   Maliseet

The Wabanaki homeland encompassed a very large area. Calloway suggests that before the Europeans arrived ("pre-European contact") (c. 15th Century), this area included "most of Northern New England, from the Atlantic coast in Maine to Lake Champlain in the west" (Abenaki, 15). Whipple also identifies New Brunswick and Nova Scotia in Canada as being Wabanaki territory (34). Most of the state of Maine is ancestral Wabanaki territory (see map) (Whipple, 27).

Population Estimates
Wabanaki population estimates for pre-European contact vary widely. In Wabanakis, the author tallies the Wabanaki population c.1600 to be about 32,000 in Maine and Canada (A-5). In Abenaki, Calloway estimates that the Wabanaki population declined 75% after European contact, due to factors such as disease and war (45).

Historically, the Wabanaki were hunters, gatherers and fishers. Most groups within the Wabanaki settled near bodies of water, not only because means of travel was facilitated by the use of the birchbark canoe, but also because food from rivers, lakes and the sea provided an important staple to the Wabanaki diet (Wabanakis, A-2, A-3). They hunted animals, such as deer, moose, beaver and bear, as well as ducks, geese, partridge, wild turkey and passenger pigeons (Calloway, Dawnland, 7). Although there was some harvesting of the land, like corn, beans and squash, it appears that this harvesting was only secondary as a food source. Agriculture offered only minor sustenance to the Wabanaki, in part due to the short growing season and the harsh northern New England climate. During the cold winter months, the Wabanaki stored food in dug out holes lined with birch bark, in order to keep themselves from starving when game became scarce (Calloway, Abenaki, 18-19).

The Wabanaki lived in small villages consisting of wigwams (cone shaped and covered with birchbark) or longhouses. The villages of longhouses were much more permanent then those of the wigwams, which were highly mobile. The wigwams could easily be disassembled, allowing them some mobility. The Wabanaki were by no means wanderers or nomads (Calloway, Abenaki, 20). Their movement was based on a seasonal pattern and they often returned to their permanent longhouse structures.

The Wabanaki have a rich cultural history. Weddings and funerals, for instance, were celebrated with feasts, dances and songs. Exchanges of gifts to families occurred during wedding celebrations. During funerals, the deceased one was buried in his or her finest clothes, along with all of his or her possessions (Calloway, Abenaki, 35). The Wabanaki then wrapped the deceased one in birchbark and buried him or her in a seated position. Friends and family also put gifts into the grave. As much respect was paid to the dead as was paid to the living (Wabanakis, A-6).

The Wabanaki told many wonderful stories. Whether one thinks of them as myths, legends or historical accounts, the stories told by the Wabanaki served three important functions: they entertained; they preserved memories; and they taught right from wrong (Calloway, Abenaki, 23). Since the Wabanaki had no written history at that time, stories were passed on orally from generation to generation, much like the manner in which Western fairy tales passed on. Of vital importance to maintaining Wabanaki tradition, these stories explained the harmonious relationship between them and the universe (Calloway, Abenaki, 25).

Religion and Universal Harmony
The first Europeans to come across the Wabanaki believed them to have no religion, and thus the Europeans called them primitive and savages. This was simply not true. Wabanaki religion played a major role in their daily lives (Calloway, Abenaki, 23). The shamans, who were believed to be closer to the spiritual world, gave spiritual guidance to all who sought it (Calloway, Abenaki, 22). With regard to the hunt, the Wabanaki entered into relationships with the animals they killed. The Wabanaki did not choose to kill the animal - the animal chose to give itself to the Wabanaki, so that the Wabanaki could survive. In turn, the Wabanaki gave the utmost respect to the animal by never exploiting the animal or the hunt (Wabanakis, A-11). As Calloway expresses in Dawnland, there was a "natural balance and symbiotic relation with the animal world" (7). The harmonious balance achieved between the animal and the Wabanaki led to a harmonious relationship with the universe.

Tools and Crafts
The Wabanaki used tools made out of stone, wood and bone for craft-making and other uses during pre-European contact. After the Europeans arrived, the Wabanaki traded with them for metals to construct their tools with (Whipple, 12-13). Crafts of the Wabanaki included clothing decorations, moccasins, wampums and basketry. Wabanaki basketry is unique, in that it is fashioned from birch or ash and sweetgrass (Calloway, Abenaki, 31, 33, 37). The Wabanaki also made snowshoes and canoes out of birchbark.

Social Activities
Of course the Wabanaki spent time having fun and relaxing. They sang, told stories, made riddles and played word games. They even played what we today call the game of lacrosse (Calloway, Abenaki, 29-30). Families shared everything. Cooperation among the Wabanaki was documented many times in the journals of priests and traders. Most noteworthy was the generosity and hospitality of the Wabanaki. (Calloway, Abenaki, 27).

Wabanaki chiefs maintained village harmony by cooperation and negotiation (Calloway, Abenaki, 29). A Wabanaki might become a sakom (leader) through his abilities as a hunter or healer, through his wisdom, or by the number of family ties he had. Political decisions were not made by force or coercion, but rather by universal consensus of both men and women (Wabanakis, A-13). Leadership was based upon voluntary obedience and consensus (Calloway, Dawnland, 6).

Familial Relationships
Europeans often remarked about the relationships and family unity of the Wabanaki. The strength of the family was the backbone of Wabanaki society. Adults taught their children restraint and self-control and consideration for all others. Families looked out for one another. After marriage, the man went to live with his new wife's family. The family took care of the elders as well as the young (Calloway, Abenaki, 27, 28, 35). The Wabanaki measured their wealth not by how many material objects they owned, but rather by how many family ties and friends they had. With a vast network of close ties, a Wabanaki always had someone to rely on in times of hunger and war (Wabanakis, A-7).

Gender Roles
Men and women's roles differed quite substantially. The men thought that the women possessed special powers because they could bear children. During times of menstruation, when women's powers were thought to be great, women went to separate dwellings so as not to diminish the power of the men (Whipple, 15, 16). Women traditionally worked the crops, cooked, made crafts and decorated clothing. Men hunted, participated in warfare and built dwellings (Calloway, Abenaki, 31). Young men made vision quests, seeking an animal or bird vision while fasting - one which would guide him throughout his life. (Whipple, 23).

Eventually the arrival of the Europeans in great numbers drastically changed the lives of the Wabanaki. Trade, alcohol, disease and the resultant population decrease and environmental changes turned the lives of the Wabanaki upside down. All North American Indian groups experienced such destruction. Nevertheless, the Wabanaki survived and their culture and history lives on.

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Calloway, Colin G. The Abenaki. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1989.

Calloway, Colin G., ed. Dawnland Encounters. Hanover: University Press of New England, 1991.

The Wabanakis of Maine and the Maritimes. Bath: 1989.

Whipple, Chandler. The Indian and the White Man in New England. Stockbridge: Berkshire Traveller Press, 1976.

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