Abenaki Language


[ab-uh-nak-ee, ah-buh-nah-kee]

The Abenaki (or Abnaki) are a tribe of Native American and First Nations people belonging to the Algonquian peoples of northeastern North America, located in area the Eastern Algonquian languages call the "Wabanaki" (Dawn Land) Region, known by English speakers as New England, Quebec and the Maritimes. The Abenakis were one of the five members of the Wabanaki Confederacy.


The Abenaki people call themselves Alnôbak, meaning "Real People" (c.f. Lenape language: Lenapek). In addition, when compared to the more interior Algonquian peoples, they call themselves Wôbanuok meaning "Easterners" (c.f. Massachusett language: Wôpanâak). They also refer to themselves as Abenaki or with syncope: Abnaki. Both forms are derived from Wabanaki or the Wabanaki Confederacy, as they were once a member of this confederacy they called Wôbanakiak meaning "People of the Dawn Land" in the Abenaki language — from wôban ("dawn" or "east") and aki ("land") (compare Proto-Algonquian *wa·pan and *axkyi)—the aboriginal name of the area broadly corresponding to New England and the Maritimes. It is, therefore, sometimes used to refer to all the Algonquian language speaking peoples of the area — Western Abenaki, Eastern Abenaki, Wolastoqiyik-Passamaquoddy, and Micmac — as a single group.


Historically, the Abenakis are divided by the ethnologists into groups: Western Abenaki and Eastern Abenaki. Within these groups are the Abenaki Bands:

  • Western Abenaki
    • Amoskeay
    • Cocheco
    • Coos
    • Missiquoi
    • Nashua
    • Ossipee
    • Pemigewasset
    • Penacook
    • Pequaket
    • Piscataqua
    • Souhegan
    • Winnibisauga

  • Eastern Abenaki
    • Amaseconti
    • Androscoggin
    • Kennebec
    • Ossipee
    • Penobscot (now considered a separate tribe)
    • Pigwacket
    • Rocameca
    • Wewenoc
    • Wôlinak

However, due to erroneous use of the word "Abenaki" to mean "Wabanaki," all the Abenakis together with the Penobscots are often described as "Western 'Abenaki'" peoples, while the Mi'kmaq, Maliseet and Passamaquoddy are described as "Eastern 'Abenaki'" peoples.


The homeland of the Abenaki, known to them as Ndakinna, which means "our land", extended across most of northern New England, southern Quebec, and the southern Canadian Maritimes. The Eastern Abenaki's population was concentrated in portions of Maine east of New Hampshire's White Mountains. The other major tribe, the Western Abenaki, lived in the Connecticut River valley in Vermont, New Hampshire and Massachusetts. The Missiquoi lived along the eastern shore of Lake Champlain. There were also the Pennacook along the Merrimack River in southern New Hampshire. The maritime Abenaki lived around St. Croix and the Wolastoq (St. John River) Valleys near the boundary line between Maine and New Brunswick.

The settlement of New England and frequent wars caused many Abenakis to retreat to Quebec. Two large tribal communities formed near St-François-du-Lac and Bécancour. These settlements continue to exist to this day. Three reservations also exist in northern Maine, and seven Wolastoqiyik (Maliseet) reserves are located in New Brunswick and Quebec. Other groups of Abenaki, without reservations, are scattered across northern New Hampshire and Vermont.

The Penawapskewi (Penobscot) have a reservation with 2,000 people on Indian Island at Old Town, Maine. The Pestomuhkati (Passamaquoddy) currently number about 2,500 across three different Maine reservations: Pleasant Point, Peter Dana Point, and Indian Township. The Houlton Band of Maliseet Indians have close to 600 tribesmembers, whereas there are seven Wolastoqiyik (Maliseet) bands in Canada, 470 in Quebec and 2,000 in New Brunswick. Four hundred Wôlinak Abenakis live on a reserve near Bécancour, Quebec (across the river from Trois-Rivières), and almost 1,500 live at Odanak, only 30 miles to the southwest of Trois-Rivières. The remaining Abenaki people are scattered within Quebec, New Brunswick, and northern New England, living in multi-racial towns and cities. About 2,500 Vermont Abenaki live in Vermont and New Hampshire, chiefly around Lake Champlain.


There are two primary dialects of Abenaki: Western Abenaki, the language of the Abenaki community at Odanak, and Eastern Abenaki, represented by the modern language of the Penobscot tribe and the Abenaki linguistic materials of the colonial French missionaries.

The Abenaki language is closely related to those of their neighboring Wabanaki tribes such as the Mi'kmaq, Wolastoqiyik (Maliseet), and Pestomuhkati (Passamaquoddy), as well as with other Eastern Algonquian languages. There were numerous cultural differences between the Algonquian tribes and those of the Five Nations, with linguistic and spiritual differences being the most noticeable.

There are very few native speakers of the original Abenaki language still alive. There are active Abenaki communities in Quebec, Vermont, Maine, and New Hampshire.

Their language has been preserved in the monumental Abenaki-French dictionary of Sebastian Râle, in Joseph Laurent's 1884 grammar, and in the 1994 dictionary by Gordon Day. Other dictionaries are Chief Henry Lorne Masta's 1932 Abenaki Legends, Grammar, and Place Names, Odanak, Quebec; and Joseph Aubery's 1700 French-Abenaki Dictionary, translated into English and reprinted in 1995 by Chief Stephen Laurent (son of Joseph). Fluent speaker Joseph "Elie" Joubert also has language lists of words, available via Alnôbak News, Franklin, MA.


The first record of their encountering Europeans was in 1603, when the English explorer Martin Pring set dogs on them. In 1604, George Weymouth kidnapped a group and took them to England. In 1614, Thomas Hunt captured twenty four young people and took them to England.

The Abenakis were traditionally allied with the French; one of them, Chief Assacumbuit, was declared a noble under the reign of Louis XIV.

Facing annihilation from English attacks and epidemics, they started to emigrate to Quebec around 1669, where two municipalities were given to them. The first was on the Saint Francis River and is nowadays known as the Odanak Indian Reservation; the second was founded near Bécancour and is called the Wolinak Indian Reservation. When their principal town, Norridgewock, was taken, and their missionary, Father Sebastian Râle, killed in 1724, many more emigrated to the settlement on the St. Francis River where other refugees from the New England tribes had come to earlier. As of the early 1900s, they were represented by the Wolastoqiyik ("People of the good river" – Maliseet) on the St. John River, New Brunswick, and Quebec (on the bay of that name, in Maine (300); the Penobscots, at Old Town, Maine (400), and the Abnakis at St. Francis and Bécancour, Quebec (430).

Abenakis are not a federally recognized tribe in the United States. In 2006, Vermont officially recognized the Abenaki as a People, but not a Tribe. This is in recognition of the annihilation or assimilation of the Abenaki and subsequent isolation of each small remnant of the greater whole onto reservations during and after the French and Indian War well before the US government began acknowledging the sovereignty of native tribes in the late twentieth century. Facing annihilation, the Abenakis began emigrating to Canada, then under French control, around 1669 where they were granted two seigneuries. The first seigneurie was established on the Saint-François river and is now known as the Odanak Indian Reserve; the second was established on the river Bécancour and is now known as the Wôlinak Indian Reserve.

A tribal council was organized in 1976 at Swanton, Vermont as the Sokoki-St. Francis Band of the Abenaki Nation. Vermont recognition of the council was granted that same year but was later withdrawn for unknown reasons. In 1982, they applied for nation recognition which is still pending. In 1980 two small councils united to form the Northeast Woodland-Coos Band, now known as the Koasek Traditional Band.


There are a dozen variations of the name Abenakis, such as Abenaquiois, Abakivis, Quabenakionek, Wabenakies and others.

They were described in the Jesuit Relations as not cannibals, and as docile, ingenious, temperate in the use of liquor, and not profane.

All Abenaki tribes lived a lifestyle similar to the Algonquin of southern New England. They cultivated crops for food, locating villages on or near fertile river floodplains. Other less major, but still important, parts of their diet included game and fish from hunting and fishing, and wild plants.

They lived in scattered bands of extended families for most of the year. Each man had different hunting territories inherited through his father. Unlike the Iroquois, the Abenaki were patrilineal. Bands came together during the spring and summer at temporary villages near rivers, or somewhere along the seacoast for planting and fishing. These villages occasionally had to be fortified, depending on the alliances and enemies of other tribes or of Europeans near the village. Abenaki villages were quite small when compared to the Iroquois'; the average number of people was about 100.

Most Abenaki settlements used dome-shaped, bark-covered wigwams for housing, though a few preferred oval-shaped long houses. During the winter, the Abenaki lived in small groups further inland. The homes there were bark-covered wigwams shaped in a way similar to the teepees of the Great Plains Indians. During the winter, the Abnaki lined the inside of their conical wigwams with bear and deer skins for warmth. The Abenaki also built long houses similar to those of the Iroquois.



The Abenaki elected chiefs called Sachems, who usually served for life but could be impeached. They had little actual power, but European colonizers still treated them like monarchs, resulting in many miscommunications and oversimplifications.

Population and epidemics

Before the Abenaki — except the Pennacook and Micmac — had contact with the European world, their population may have numbered as many as 40,000. Around 20,000 would have been Eastern Abenaki, another 10,000 would have been Western Abenaki, and the last 10,000 would have been Maritime Abenaki. Early contacts with European fisherman resulted in two major epidemics that affected Abenaki during the 1500s. The first epidemic was an unknown sickness occurring sometime between 1564 and 1570, and the second one was typhus in 1586. Multiple epidemics arrived a decade prior to the English settlement of Massachusetts in 1620, when three separate sicknesses swept across New England and the Canadian Maritimes. Maine was hit very hard during the year of 1617, with a fatality rate of 75%, and the population of the Eastern Abenaki fell to about 5,000. Fortunately, the Western Abenaki were a more isolated group of people and suffered far less, losing only about half of their original population of 10,000.

The new diseases continued to cause more disaster, starting with smallpox in 1631, 1633, and 1639. Seven years later, an unknown epidemic struck, with influenza passing through the following year. Smallpox affected the Abenaki again in 1649, and diphtheria came through 10 years later. Once again, smallpox struck in 1670, and influenza again in 1675. Smallpox affected the Native Americans again in 1677, 1679, 1687, along with measles, 1691, 1729, 1733, 1755, and finally in 1758.

The Abenaki population continued to decline, but in 1676, they took in thousands of refugees from many southern New England tribes displaced by settlement and King Philip's War. Because of this, descendents of nearly every southern New England Algonquin can be found among the Abenaki people. Another century later, there were fewer than 1,000 Abenaki remaining after the American Revolution.

The population has recovered to nearly 12,000 total in the United States and Canada.


The Abenaki are featured in Jodi Picoult's Second Glance and in the film Northwest Passage, based on the novel by Kenneth Roberts. They also feature prominently in Charles McCarry's novel Bride of the Wilderness, and they play a protagonist role in Joseph Bruchac's novel The Arrow Over the Door.

Notable people



  • Bourne, Russell, The Red King's Rebellion, Racial Politics in New England 1675-1678, 1990, ISBN 0689120001


  • Laurent, Joseph. 1884. New Familiar Abenakis and English Dialogues. Quebec: Joseph Laurent. Reprinted 2006: Vancouver: Global Language Press, ISBN 0-9738924-7-1
  • Masta, Henry Lorne. 1932. Abenaki Legends, Grammar and Place Names. Victoriaville, PQ: La Voix Des Bois-Franes. Reprinted 2008: Toronto: Global Language Press, ISBN 978-1-89736-718-6
  • Maurault, Joseph-Anselme; Histoire des Abénakis, depuis 1605 jusqu'à nos jours, 1866
  • Moondancer and Strong Woman. 2007. A Cultural History of the Native Peoples of Southern New England: Voices from Past and Present. Boulder, CO: Bauu Press, ISBN 0-9721349-3-X

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