In writing my history of Dover, I had to face up to the problems of the word “Indian,” which can refer to someone from the Asian subcontinent as much as it does to an Indigenous person of North America. In the end I decided to avoid it altogether unless it was part of a direct quotation or traditional title.
The fact is, the Native tribes themselves can differ widely in their language, customs, and culture, so a generalized label can be downright misleading. And in a particular place, the same people may have been referred to by different labels, depending. You know, the way a Daytonian was also an Ohioan, Midwesterner, or even Buckeye, though not necessarily an Ohio State football fan.
In addition, the tribes themselves may have been much more fluid in their associations than the English and American authorities could comprehend, insisting instead on a more rigid classification.
That was the case with the Passamaquoddy and Penobscots in Maine.
In the Dover history, I ran up against that when some sources called the local Natives Abenaki, while others called them Cochecho or Penacook or something else.
As the Wabanaki Confederacy explains, though, all Abanaki are Wabanaki, but not all Wabanaki are Abanaki.
That said, let’s take a quick look at the Wabanaki.
- It’s not a tribe. Rather, the confederacy today is an official alliance of four East Algonquian nations remaining in Maine – Mi’kmaq, Maliseet, Penobscot, and Passamaquoddy.
- Historically, it was a looser alliance of tribes stretching from Newfoundland and Prince Edward across Nova Scotia, Cape Breton Island, New Brunswick, and part of Quebec in Canada on to the Western Wabanaki in the Merrimack Valley of New Hampshire and Massachusetts and perhaps beyond into Vermont.
- Native names for the affiliation included “convention council” or “orator council,” “be related to one another,” “those united into one,” and “completely united.”
- The tribes formed their council after a rise in raids by their ancient enemy the Iroquois League, especially the Mohawks.
- In the colonial era, many members aligned with the French, who called the region of Maine the Wabanaki inhabited “Acadia.” Many of the Natives converted to Roman Catholic faith. The defeat of the French in 1763 proved costly for the tribes.
- For thousands of years, Mount Desert Island – in today’s Acadia National Park – was a summer gathering place, where they arrived by seaworthy birchbark canoes.
- They didn’t live in tepees. They lived in small round bark-covered buildings called wigwams.
- Most of them grew squash, beans, and corn, and also harvested berries and other wild fruit.
- They didn’t dress like the High Plains Natives out west. They had their own distinctive style.
- They loved storytelling and legends. Mount Katahdin, for instance, was inhabited by a half-human, half-bird winged spirit called Pamola who could make the night wind blow or generate snowstorms. And the Maliseet had tales about the little people, who were like brownies or leprechauns.