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.