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Unit 2 Plan: The Abenaki Before 1600

Unit Summary

New Hampshire’s first human inhabitants, the Abenaki have lived in this region for over 12,000 years. During that period, their culture and society has continually changed and adapted to the environment in which they live. For many millennia, the Abenaki relied on the resources available to them in nature (plants, animals, water, stone) and not forged metal tools or implements. Abenaki culture and heritage has had a profound impact on the development of New Hampshire and continues to be reflected in the Granite State today. Each lesson in this unit incorporates a traditional Abenaki legend that connects to the main idea of the lesson as well as time to discuss and reflect on the importance of that story in Abenaki culture. Oral traditions are essential in preserving and sharing Abenaki culture. The unit covers the history of the Abenaki from roughly 3,000 years ago up to the year 1600, or the eve of the European colonization of this region.

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The Big Picture

The Abenaki lived throughout what is today northern New England and southeastern Canada. The many groups of Abenaki living in this region shared a common language and cultural practices. The Abenaki had a profound impact on the history of this region. The following points are explored in greater detail in the educator overview that follows:

  • The larger classification of Abenaki peoples were actually subdivided into several different groups of indigenous people, which were connected to one another through matrilineal family relations defined by the relationships between mothers, grandmothers, daughters, aunts, and cousins.

  • Gender roles varied greatly and were fluid and interchangeable. The Abenaki hunted game and fished, as well as grew crops and gathered fruits and berries growing in the wild.

  • The Abenaki migrated seasonally between several encampments to take advantage of the resources available to them. Rotating seasonal encampments over the course of several years ensured that no area became depleted of its resources. Abenaki society was based on the idea of sustainability, not expansion.

  • They lived in villages near sources of water, constructing wigwams for warm weather shelter and longhouses for cold weather shelter. The villages usually contained several interrelated families, living under the guidance of leaders, referred to as sachems, or revered elders who advised them on all matters. Decisions were made by building consensus within the group rather than by the edicts of the one leader. Abenaki society valued compromise over force to settle conflicts.

  • The Abenaki relied on the world around them to produce all the tools and materials they needed to survive, using plants, animals, water, and stones to produce shelter, clothing, means to prepare and store food, and decorative items.

  • Abenaki life was organized seasonally, and the Abenaki believed there was an integral connection between the spiritual and physical worlds: in fact, that these were not separate entities. All plant and animal life, as well as waterways, mountains, and other geographical features were imbued with a spiritual essence, which required harmony and balance.

  • Abenaki culture was shared through oral tradition that emphasized the belief that the physical and spiritual worlds were closely intertwined.

  • The Abenaki continued to shape New Hampshire during its colonial period, which will be explored in later units, and remain a cultural presence in the state today.


The first people to live in what is now New Hampshire were indigenous peoples known as the Abenaki. They were descendants of early humans who likely traversed a land bridge from Asia to Alaska roughly 30,000 years ago. Recently discovered archaeological evidence suggests there may have been other routes between Asia and the Americas, but the land bridge across the Bering Straits was the primary means of migration. Moving south and east in the millennia that followed, these early humans and their descendants spread throughout North, Central, and South America, following big game and more temperate climates.

As the last ice age began to recede about 12,000 years ago, groups of these peoples arrived in New Hampshire. Given the span of time the indigenous peoples lived here, it is unsurprising that their culture changed and evolved, adapting to new environmental and social conditions and developing new methods of living in the world around them.

The indigenous peoples living in northern New England were part of the Algonquian language group, which encompassed many of the peoples living in what became the northeastern United States and Canada, including the Abenaki. The Abenaki were based in what is today Maine, Vermont, and New Hampshire, although bands of Abenaki also lived as far south as what is today northern Massachusetts and as far north as what is today the province of Quebec in Canada. The name Abenaki roughly translates as “people of the dawnland,” “easterners,” or “people of the first light,” referring to their geographical placement as the people first touched by the rising sun’s rays. Collectively, all the groups living in this area are referred to as Abenaki even though it is important to realize that there was great diversity among them.

How do modern scholars organize the history of indigenous peoples in New Hampshire during this long period of time?

The Abenaki’s history during these thousands of years is divided into three periods:

  • Paleo-Indian period (circa 12,000 years ago to 9,000 years ago): As the region that became New Hampshire was just emerging from an ice age during this period, the Paleo-Indians endured a harsh climate and survived on limited natural resources compared to what would be available to them in the later periods. They generally hunted large game, which no longer exists, such as wooly mammoths, and lived in various shelters to protect them from the elements.

  • Archaic period (9,000 years ago to 3,000 years ago): As the climate warmed and plant and animal life returned, the Abenaki pursued smaller game, like moose and deer, and became more dependent on vegetation that could be gathered, like berries and fruit.

  • Woodland period (3,000 years ago to 400 years ago): The Abenaki developed a more settled way of life cultivating fruits and vegetables, working stones and clay for tools and art, including making pottery and creating elaborative decorative arts from the natural resources around them.
This unit focuses on the Abenaki who lived in the land we call New Hampshire during the Woodland period up to the point of contact with European colonists in the early 17th century. Abenaki cultures are remarkably diversified between different groups and over long spans of time. There may have been some cultural differences even among the bands of Abenaki who lived in the area that became New Hampshire. No one description will fully represent their ways across the thousands of years they lived in this region. The way their lives changed since the arrival of Europeans will be explored in later units.

The Abenaki Way of Life

Where did the Abenaki live in New Hampshire?

N’dakinna, meaning the world and way of life of the Abenaki, covers a huge swath of land encompassing much of northern New England, from Maine’s Atlantic coast to Lake Champlain in the west, and possibly extending even farther. Abenaki lived throughout the land we call New Hampshire, from the north along the Androscoggin River, to the Connecticut River basin in the west, following the Merrimack River south and over to the seacoast in the east.

The bands of Abenaki subdivided by geographical region. Many of New Hampshire’s present-day place names are based on words from the Abenaki language, used for thousands of years to describe mountains, lakes, rivers, ponds, and other physical features. The Connecticut, Piscataqua, and Nashua rivers, Mount Monadnock, Lakes Winnipesaukee and Ossipee, and many others are verbal reminders of the people who lived here first and how they experienced and organized the land.

During this period, Abenaki lived in bands, which were large, extended family groups. Each band had a long-established and defined area for hunting, fishing, and agriculture. The whole band would move within this area throughout the year and depending on the season. In addition, there was generational movement as well, with bands migrating among certain sites for many years and then shifting to a different set of sites. A long-used village site would therefore be left unused for 25 to 50 years before being settled again. This movement allowed the Abenaki to adapt to changing seasonal and environmental conditions, which in turn allowed for re-growth of the plant and animal life that provided food and materials for the Abenaki to meet their needs. Avoiding depletion of a certain area’s resources allowed the Abenaki and the land to thrive.

How were Abenaki communities structured?

A band consisted of several related family groups. Strong family relationships were essential to the health and success of Abenaki communities. Possessions were shared, and meals were communal. Abenaki children were raised not just by parents but also with the guidance of aunts, uncles, and grandparents. Sharing, generosity, respect for elders, and self-control were the habits of mind valued most by the Abenaki, and they were taught to Abenaki children by example and through stories. Children, too, were treated with respect and were welcome to speak during council meetings. Though bands were not governed by a central authority, a leader, called a sachem or sagamore, was essential in resolving any tension between individuals or groups of people. Usually a revered elder, the sachem was responsible for mediating conflicts and building consensus among those gathered. Sachems could be either men or women, but they had no authority to issue commands or enforce their will; rather the sachem’s authority came from the respect in which he or she was held by others.

How did the Abenaki meet their basic needs in New Hampshire?

The Abenaki worked almost constantly throughout the year, using the resources provided by the land and water to meet their basic needs of food, shelter, and clothing. Within the processes they developed over millennia to hunt, fish, build dwellings, and make tools and clothing are traditions of storytelling, spiritual belief, and decorative arts. These components are so intertwined and interdependent that it is somewhat misleading to separate them by category. However, a closer look reveals connections and patterns. The roles and responsibilities assigned to men and women to meet these basic needs were fluid. Generally, men were expected to hunt, fish, cut down trees to make canoes and living structures, and defend their bands during times of war. Women’s responsibilities centered around processing and cooking food, making clothes, cordage and baskets, and tending crops grown near the villages. Children began learning their respective tasks early in their lives, often developing skills through games and by watching and helping elders.

In what type of dwellings did the Abenaki live?

The need to move seasonally in order to hunt, fish, and gather food and materials also created a need for two different types of shelter. For much of the year, Abenaki lived in villages containing hundreds of people that were established on flat plains near a water source, like a lake or river, and were suitable for growing crops and treating food that could then be stored for the winter. While in these villages, they resided in small dwellings called wigwams that were easy to set up and break down. Constructed of a frame of interlocking sapling poles woven with birch or elm bark, these dome or cone-shaped structures were intended for sleep or privacy, with most activities occurring outside. They usually held 6–8 people. Inside, bedding made of spruce branches covered with tanned furs, soft deerskins, and mats made of cattails were the extent of furnishings. Wigwams were warm-weather dwellings, and there were no heat sources other than possibly heated rocks. Skin bags and bark containers were hung from the saplings bent to create the wigwam’s frame. The soft bark on the exterior might have been painted with geometric designs or a family’s symbol.

In the winter months, families would combine and move into longhouses, which were permanent structures that provided shelter from the long, harsh winters. Longhouses could be up to 200 feet long, with a fire pit running down the center and multiple sleeping platforms on either side. They housed several families.

What did the Abenaki eat, and how did they find their food?

Much of Abenaki life was dedicated to securing adequate food and creating the tools and materials needed to process and store food. Abenaki living in the north of the region experienced more extreme weather conditions and tended to rely heavily on hunting and fishing. In the south, where temperatures supported a variety of plant growth for a longer period of the year, hunting and fishing were supplemented by growing a few crops and gathering wild berries and grains.

The Abenaki charged with hunting and fishing used a variety of methods including traps, bows, spears, and snowshoes to hunt an array of game. Moose calls, horns made of birch bark, and grass-filled bird skins lured unsuspecting prey closer to the hunters. Deer, moose, turkey, partridge, bear, woodchuck, fisher cat, red fox, and bobcat were plentiful in the forests and thickets of the uplands. In the marshes, beaver, muskrat, otter, and box turtle could be found. For a long time, Abenaki along New Hampshire’s coast could hunt porpoises, seals, and small whales. The skies provided waterfowl and the once-prevalent passenger pigeon. Hunting was a group activity, with the game going to feed all the people of the village.

The same went for the catch from fishing, which provided the Abenaki with the majority of their sustenance. The Abenaki developed weirs, or fenced corrals, to trap fish, who were then captured with nets and spears. After sunset, the light of birch torches lured fish to the surface of ponds and lakes. Light, flexible birch bark canoes, used primarily on rivers and small lakes because they could be moved easily overland when necessary, and heavy dug-out canoes, made from white pine trees and used on large lakes and even the ocean, helped the Abenaki become proficient fishermen. The process of creating each type of canoe took weeks, and these essential vehicles were used for many years. Dugout canoes were often filled with rocks and sunk in the shallows of ponds to preserve them during the winter. A portion of the meat and fish captured was smoked in the village, preserving it for the long winter months when food became scarcer, a task that was often shared by men and women.

In the southern part of New Hampshire, fruits and vegetables comprised a substantial portion of the Abenaki’s diet. Until about 2,000 years ago, the region was far too cold to depend on crops. Even after temperatures warmed enough in the southern reaches to support crops, the Abenaki did not depend on agriculture alone. The three main crops—corn, beans, and squash—have become known as the three sisters. In addition, each season provided a variety of food that could be gathered wild. Raspberries, blueberries, pigweed and false buckwheat seed arrived in summer. Fall was the time of the nut harvest when butternuts, black walnuts, hazelnuts, hickory nuts, and acorns were gathered and used for their oil or pounded to create a flour to mix with cornmeal. Early spring was the time when the sap began to run from the sugar maples, and the Abenaki developed a means to tap the maple trees that were so prevalent in the region and boil down the sap to make maple syrup, which contributed to diets year-round.

The Abenaki also made extensive use of the practical and medicinal properties of the available flora. Naturally sterile due to its boggy habitat, sphagnum moss was mixed with antiseptic balsam fir sap to make poultices for healing broken bones and wounds. Birch bark, another naturally antiseptic material, was used to create food-storage containers and lined food-storage pits. Strong and pliable plants like basswood, spruce root, milkweed, and nettle were all gathered for the constant production of cordage. Flexible soft barks were woven to make baskets of all shapes and sizes.

The Woodland period is characterized by a major technological development that impacted both the processing of food and the decorative arts traditions. About 3,000 years ago, Abenaki began collecting clay from stream bed deposits and mixing it with water to shape pots. The pots were then “fired” by placing them in pits surrounded by hot coals, which essentially served as early kilns. The innovation of pottery changed how the Abenaki cooked. Precious, painstakingly hollowed-out, incredibly heavy stone bowls and easily combustible birch containers were replaced by clay pots that could be filled with water and heated over a fire. They were lighter to transport, easier to make, and more reliable.

How did the Abenaki make tools and clothing?

The plants gathered and animals hunted for food and used to create shelters also provided the materials for tools and clothing. The remains of animals after the meat was processed for consumption were used in as many ways as possible to create essential tools such as awls, hand axes, gouges, adzes, and knives. Deer bones became sharp levers for opening clam shells. Beaver teeth were used as knives to create intricate wood carvings. Half a clam shell attached with a piece of cordage to a wooden handle created a garden hoe. Fish remains became fertilizer for fields. Nearly every part of an animal had a use.

Creating clothing that provided comfort as well as protection from the elements was a time-consuming task, often completed during the cold winter months when there were no crops to tend. Hides from bear, moose, dear, and beaver were cleaned with stone scrapers, tanned, and then stitched together using bone needles that pulled leather strips through holes bored with an awl. Light clothing like breechcloths were worn in the warm summer months. Cloaks made of hides and fur, leather shirts and leggings, and moccasins provided necessary coverage for the extreme winters.

Abenaki Culture

What was the Abenaki’s belief system?

As with many indigenous cultures, the Abenaki adopted a holistic approach to the world around them, believing that spirits inhabited all the elements (wind, sun, rain), features (mountains, lakes, rivers), and plant and animal life of the world. Just as the Abenaki sought to resolve peacefully their differences with one another in a spirit of fair play, they also believed that the natural world required respect, balance, and harmony to allow them to live in peace.

Human life was organized to follow the cyclical rhythms of Earth. Seasons of birth, growth, and death were recognized as guides for when certain activities should or should not happen in what was understood to be the spirit of the circle. If a family respected and followed the spirit of the circle, they would be rewarded with enough to eat. This way of thinking is why the Abenaki hunted only what they needed, used as much of an animal as possible, and moved around in their territory to give the earth time to replenish itself. This yearly cycle of rhythms is also understood as a cycle of thirteen moons, a number that equates with the large scales on a turtle’s back. Each moon represents a time for certain activities and expected natural events.

A village’s large meeting space would be decorated with amulets and painted symbols of animals chosen by families to be their guides through the natural world. The chosen animal had a certain quality with which the family identified or perhaps served as a major source of food and materials. Sometimes, families that adopted the same animal joined together to share a hunting territory.

Healers helped the Abenaki negotiate spiritual life. Healers, who could be male or female, were believed to exercise some control over the weather and the natural world, including the provision of medical care, which was seen as spiritual as much as biological. Healers were also thought capable of communing with the spirit world, including those who had died and the spirit force of all living things.

How did the Abenaki share and preserve their cultural traditions?

With a culture heavily reliant on oral tradition, stories played an essential role in sharing culture and history, as well as teaching morality. Tales of the hero Gluskabe, who created the first humans out of loneliness, and Azban, the trickster raccoon, were some of the stories told year round. These stories explained how and why certain natural phenomena came to be: how maple syrup came to be made in early spring, why the skunk has two white stripes, and how people were created. The stories also taught lessons about morality and why to avoid habits that were destructive to one’s character or the natural resources. Members of family bands would gather after the communal evening meal in a central location to listen to a storyteller, particularly during the winter months when nights were long. Word for word, the history of the people and their genealogy would be passed along from one generation to the next. The power of stories was so great that there were some that could only be told in the cold winter months. These sacred stories served as important bridges between the everyday and the spiritual world.

Music and dancing were also popular among the Abenaki, who developed a number of means of making music from animal and plant materials. Hand drums made with stretched skins, rattles made of dried hollow gourds, and wooden flutes were joined by the human voice to create songs that served a variety of ceremonial and joyful purposes. These creative animal-based instruments contributed to a fairly complex musical heritage. Spring and fall were times of gathering and celebration, when bands would reunite to share these traditions.

Animal and plant life was also used extensively in the Abenaki’s decorative arts, particularly baskets, which were both beautiful and extremely useful. Like the outside of wigwams and clay pots, clothing was another surface for meaningful decoration. A porcupine, surprised by a deer skin thrown over it, would release quills into the skin that were then collected, sorted by size, washed, and colored with dyes created from ash (yellow), alder and hemlock (red), moosewood (green), berries (purple), and beech (blue). Woven like thread, the quills created intricate designs also used to adorn boxes. Those same dyes could be used to create paint, which was another medium for tracing familiar animal emblems and geometric patterns, such as zig zags, triangles, and connected loops. Though glass beads were not introduced until the arrival of Europeans, Abenaki did create small beads from shells. Wampum, which are beads made from the striking purple-and-white quahog shells, were also popular decorative elements. Wampum was used for ceremonial purposes, as the order in which the beads were displayed represented a person or a family’s history. They were not used as a mechanism of trade until Europeans arrived in the 1600s and considered them as a form of currency.


How did the Abenaki interact with other groups of people?

Abenaki bands did not live in isolation. They were connected to each other and other groups by an ancient network of trails that crisscrossed the region. They met up at major fishing grounds such as Amoskeag Falls in present-day Manchester. Their trade for materials connected them with groups living as far west as the Great Lakes, who would travel to a main settlement at Sugar Ball Bluff on the shore of the Merrimack River in pursuit of the Abenaki’s pottery. People from what is today Ohio, Kentucky, New York, and Quebec provided the Abenaki with chert and quartzite used to make stone points for darts and spears. Marginella and columella shells arrived from people living as far south as the Carolinas.

About 3,000 years ago, the Abenaki became aware of a new group, the Iroquois, which was settling on land they previously used. They had to work with the Iroquois to establish a new boundary, though violent altercations over this border persisted into the eighteenth century. The Abenaki more often sought balance with others rather than war.

The Abenaki way of life had a variety of powerful impacts on those who arrived later searching for new lands to explore and cultivate, as will be covered in later units. The Abenaki played a vital role in shaping New Hampshire throughout the colonial period, maintaining a complex and complicated relationship with the Europeans who came to the region beginning in 1603. Without the assistance of the Abenaki, Europeans would likely not have survived long in this area.

The end of the Woodland period, marked by the arrival of Europeans, brought great and often tragic changes for the Abenaki, but their perceptions of the world and the way they used the materials provided by the earth still persist today in a myriad of ways, including language (particularly place names), material objects (canoes, snowshoes, weaponry), food (corn, squash, pumpkins, maple syrup, as well as techniques of crop rotation and management), sport (lacrosse), and philosophy (a deep understanding of nature and the need for sustainable environmental balance).

Although the Abenaki’s presence in New Hampshire was much reduced by the time of the American Revolution, they continue to live in the state up to the present day. They preserve their culture through traditional crafts, music, storytelling, and other oral traditions. As we explore how New Hampshire developed over the centuries following European settlement, we will also explore evidence of the Abenaki’s persistence.

Focus Questions for This Unit

Lessons in this unit are geared towards students answering the unit focus questions comprehensively through a variety of methods. This unit’s focus questions are:
  • 1
    How did where the Abenaki live impact how they lived?
  • 2
    How did Abenaki traditions reflect their way of life and beliefs?

Essential Questions for This Unit

Essential questions are designed to be answered repeatedly throughout the entire curriculum. This unit particularly addresses two of the curriculum’s essential questions:
  • 1
    How has New Hampshire come to be the way it is?
  • 2
    How has New Hampshire been shaped by many voices?

In the unit “The Abenaki Before 1600,” which covers the time from 12,000 years ago to 1600, students encounter an Abenaki story in each lesson to help them see the natural and moral lessons implicit in their oral tradition. In the first two lessons, students learn about where the Abenaki lived and their beliefs as well as how they used the land to meet their needs. In the third and fourth lessons, students investigate Abenaki oral traditions and arts and culture. The final lesson is a summative project in which students choose an Abenaki recipe and complete a set of tasks to trace how food is interwoven in Abenaki life.

Lesson Plan 1: People of the Dawn

Students investigate the Abenaki through seeing where they lived, their influences on place names today, and how they categorized the months, as well as listening to an Abenaki story.

Lesson Plan 2: Using the Land

After listening to an Abenaki story, students learn about solutions used by the Abenaki to meet their needs through natural resources and play a networking game.

Lesson Plan 3: Oral History in Abenaki Communities

Students compare the experience of oral and written storytelling through examining the lessons founds in the oral traditions of the Abenaki and telling a prepared story to an audience.

Lesson Plan 4: Abenaki Arts and Culture

Students use mind maps, an Abenaki story, and primary source videos to organize their thinking about the place and qualities of music in Abenaki traditions.

Summative Assessment: An Abenaki Recipe

After selecting an Abenaki recipe, students complete a set of tasks like investigating the ingredients, preparation, or tools used to prepare the recipe.

Please note that a printable vocabulary list with definitions is accessible to students in the Learn It! section of this unit.

Vocabulary in This Unit


(noun) Name used to refer to the indigenous people of the land now called New Hampshire


(noun) The practice of growing specific crops during specific seasons for food

birch bark canoe

(noun) A lightweight boat used for travel in rivers and streams; made by stretching an outer layer of birch bark over a wooden frame


(adjective) Something shared by members of a group


(noun) When a group of people come to agreement about an issue

dugout canoe

(noun) A heavy boat used for fishing; made by using fire and a stone tool to hollow out the trunk of a large tree


(noun) Saying words or parts of words clearly


(noun) Hand or body movements that show ideas


(noun) The central figure in many Abenaki legends; a kind and helpful figure with magical powers


(adjective) When something grows or occurs naturally in a place

indigenous people

(noun) The first people who lived in an area before people from other cultures arrived


(noun) A long, narrow structure with a single interior room; built of wood and used during winter to house families


(noun) The movement from one location to another for a specific purpose such as seasonal food-finding


(noun) Words and actions that reflect good and honorable human conduct


(noun) The word the Abenaki use to refer to their homeland

oral tradition

(noun) The practice of sharing knowledge through word of mouth and storytelling


(noun) How quickly one moves or speaks


(noun) Objects made from clay


(noun) Supplies used by people to meet their needs


(noun) A respected elder in a tribe who guides decision making


(noun) Unseen powers, both good and evil, believed to surround and influence human life


(noun) Speaking in a way to show a particular emotion


(noun) A well-known belief or custom shared by a group of people over many years


(noun) Beads made from the inner shells of quahog clams


(noun) Underwater fences used to trap fish


(noun) A shelter built by stretching birch bark over a frame of bent trees; used throughout much of the year for housing

The Abenaki
By Colin G. Calloway
For Educators. Includes the history and culture of the Abenaki and describes their interaction with European settlers.
A Time Before New Hampshire: The Story of a Land and Native Peoples
By Michael J. Caduto
For Educators. History of the land now called New Hampshire, starting with the formation of physical features and describing the history and traditions of the Abenaki people.
Wind Eagle
By Joseph Bruchac
For Students and Educators. Collection of traditional stories from acclaimed Abenaki storyteller Joseph Bruchac, illustrated by Kahionhes.
The Faithful Hunter: Abenaki Stories
By Joseph Bruchac
For Students and Educators. Second collection of traditional stories from acclaimed Abenaki storyteller Joseph Bruchac.
Abenaki Arts and Education Center
Vermont Abenaki Artists Association
For Educators. This website, created by Abenaki educators, scholars, and culture bearers, includes resource suggestions, videos, online exhibitions, and study guides for classroom use that reflect current scholarship about Abenaki heritage.
Our Beloved Kin: A New History of King Philip's War
By Lisa Brooks
For Educators. A groundbreaking new look at Anglo-Indigenous relations in 17th century New England that reshapes traditional depictions of Abenaki culture
The Voice of the Dawn: An Autohistory of the Abenaki Nation
By Frederick Matthew Wiseman
For Educators. Written by a scholar of Abenaki heritage, it explores the belief system and oral traditions of the Abenaki.
The Hunter's Promise: An Abenaki Tale
By Joseph Bruchac and Bill Farnsworth
For Students. A traditional Abenaki story about keeping a promise to one’s family and the proper relationship of humans to the natural world.