Wabanaki History

How did Maine Native American people live thousands of years ago, and how do we know? One of the ways we know how past people lived is by studying their oral tradition, or oral history. Some early cultures such as the Wabanaki passed on their knowledge orally, in stories. For thousands of years these oral traditions relayed important information about Wabanaki history and culture. Stories taught life lessons, recounted historical events, described generations of family relations, and explained Wabanaki beliefs about creation—all without pen and paper. [1]

Today, the Wabanaki are contemporary people—they use modern methods and technologies to capture their history and write their native languages alphabetically. Still, storytelling continues to be an important part of Wabanaki cultural beliefs and practices, as it has been for thousands of years.

The Wabanaki culture hero Glooscap (Koluskap) represents one central figure in Wabanaki stories. Part trickster, part hunter-shaman, the giant Glooscap had awesome power that he used to both protect the Wabanaki people and teach them difficult life lessons. Glooscap’s adventures even shaped the landscape of Pemetic, now called Mount Desert Island [2] (see sidebar below).

Journals, ship logs, and letters written by fisherman, explorers, and missionaries also help us know about Wabanaki life long ago. As early as the 1500s, European explorers described trading with coastal Wabanaki people. In 1604 Samuel de Champlain sailed the coast off Mount Desert Island to map the land for New France. In his log he describes his interaction with some Wabanaki:

Two canoes with savages in them came within musket range to observe us. I sent out our two savages in a boat to assure them of our good-will, but their fear of us made them turn back. On the morning of the next day they came alongside and talked with our savages. I ordered biscuit, tobacco, and other trifles to be given to them. These savages had come to hunt beavers and catch fish.

Champlain’s account reveals one of the problems with early European accounts of Native people—these descriptions usually reveal more about European viewpoints than Wabanaki culture. Early Europeans believed that Native people were inhuman and uncivilized and therefore used biased words such as “savage” when describing them. Wabanaki people had different ways of dressing, communicating, and hunting, for example, but that did not mean that they were inhuman or uncivilized. Unfortunately, many early European accounts include damaging, biased descriptions of Native people, which do not help us understand who Wabanaki people really were, or are, today.

Archaeology—the scientific study of past peoples based on the materials they left behind—presents another way of knowing how Wabanaki people lived long ago. By looking at the objects past people made—artifacts—we can learn a little about their daily lives. Archaeologists dig for artifacts in sites where they think past people did something—like set up camp or stop to sharpen a stone knife. By excavating sites where Native people camped seasonally for thousands of years, archaeologists learn about ancient Wabanaki tools, food, and even the time of year they visited the island.

Archaeology cannot answer every question about how Wabanaki people lived in the past. For instance, it can’t tell us what songs people sang, or what jokes people told! However, archaeologists, historians, and anthropologists are beginning to use other sources, like oral history, to help paint a more complete picture of what life might have been like for Wabanaki and other Native people long ago.

[1] Wabanaki people did create pictographs and petroglyphs, etch birchbark, and create other written symbols as one way of communicating.

[2] Asticou’s Island Domain, p.xv.


Sidebar: Koluskap and the Ash Tree Legend
In the beginning there was just the sea and the forest—no people and no animals. Then Koluskap came. He possessed great magic. Out of the rocks, he made the Mihkomuwehsisok, small people who dwelt among the rocks and made wonderful music on the flute. Next Koluskap made the people. With his bow he shot arrows into the trunks of Ash trees. Out of the trees stepped men and women. They were strong and graceful people with light brown skin and shining black hair. Koluskap called them Wabanaki, people of the dawn.

Adapted from The Algonquin Legends of New England by Charles G. Leland, 1884

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