Maine: An Encyclopedia

Native Americans

Social and Political Organization

An important unit of social organization was the band, a loosely organized collection of people, frequently related family members, who occupied a particular tract of land, moved and camped together, and felt a common identity, including a name for themselves.

Several bands comprised a tribe, which, like the band, was loosely organized and which in many parts of the area was not so much a political unit as a cultural one–a group of people who spoke a common language and had similar customs.

Although chieftainships often were inherited, personal ability was the basis for the influence that was exercised by a chief, sometimes termed sachem. The man, or sometimes woman, who had the requisite abilities was chosen to succeed.

Particularly important to a chief was his ability to persuade. As one result, oratory was highly valued and developed into a fine art; even in English translations, the power of Indian oratory is evident. Typically, the councils of the Indians involved the making of speeches, although the intent of this oratory was not to impress others with mere rhetoric but to find a solution to the issue at hand. If unanimity was not achieved, no action could be taken. The dissidents would either continue to express their opposition or withdraw; in either case, the effectiveness of the group would be weakened.

American Indian Population 2000

Abenaki Nation of Missiquoi 320
Apache 133
Blackfeet 260
Canadian and Latin American 228
Cherokee 830
Chippewa 123
Houlton band
Iroquois 298
Aroostook Band
Passamaquoddy 2,133
Penobscot 1,442
Sioux 134
Tribe not Specified 532
Total American Indian
and Alaskan Native

Source: U.S. Census. Census 2000 PHC-T-18. American Indian and Alaska Native Tribes in Maine: 2000, Table 34. Includes those reporting membership in two or more tribes.

The Maliseets, with tribal offices in Houlton, provide an array of social services to their members.

Sign: Maliseet Tribal Offices (2003)

Sign: Maliseet Tribal Offices (2003)

Sign: Maliseet Tribal Offices in Houlton (2003)

Sign: Maliseet Tribal Offices in Houlton (2003)

In 1924, Congress enacted the Indian Citizenship Act, which granted citizenship to all Native Americans born in the U.S. However, until 1957, some states barred Native Americans from voting. In a WPA interview from the 1930s, Henry Mitchell describes the attitude toward Native Americans in Maine, one of the last states to comply with the Indian Citizenship Act:

One of the Indians went over to Old Town once to see some official in the city hall about voting. I don’t know just what position that official had over there, but he said to the Indian, ‘We don’t want you people over here. You have your own elections over on the island, and if you want to vote, go over there.”

‘”The Life of Henry Mitchell,”
Old Town, Maine,
Robert Grady, interviewer,
circa 1938-1939.
American Life Histories, 1936-1940

in Maine have been documented since the seventeenth century through oral traditions and written observations by Europeans.

Members of the Algonquian language family in Maine have been known as “Wabanaki” and “Abenaki” people. The term means “Dawnlanders” or “People of the Dawn.” The broad notion of Wabanaki includes Micmac, Maliseet and Passamaquoddy in the east, Penobscot along the river of that name, and the Abenaki and Pennacook further west. The term “Abenaki” usually excludes the three easternmost groups and refers to members of the Algonquian branch of the Algonquian-Wakashan linguistic stock.

The name Abnakis (or Abenakis) was given to them by the French, but it has been spelled Abenaques, Abenaquiois, Wapanachkis, Wabenakies, and Wobanahis. According to one source, the name derives from woban, “daybreak,” and ki, “earth, land,” and has been variously interpreted as those “living at the sunrise,” “a person from the land where the sun rises,” or “an easterner.”

The Abnakis lived mostly in what is now Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont. Abnaki legend has it that they came from the Southwest, but the exact time is unsure. One historian estimates that about 13,000 were in Maine in the early 17th century, divided among four tribes: the Sokokis on the Saco River; the Anasagunticooks on the Androscoggin; the Wawenocks east of Merrymeeting Bay; and the Kennebecs on the river of that name.

Stone Artifacts at the Maine State Museum

Stone Artifacts at the Maine State Museum

The Maine State Museum in Augusta exhibits many artifacts left by Native Americans in the 12,000 years of their living in the state. These include arrow and spear heads, along with other implements for hunting, fishing, cooking, and everyday living.

The Abnakis were in settled villages, often surrounded by palisades, and lived by growing corn, fishing, and hunting. Their name for their conical huts covered with bark or mats, wigwam, came to be generally used in English.

The Wabanaki Confederation of Penobscots, Passamaquoddies, Micmacs and Maliseets encompassed the major tribes of the area. Formed to reduce conflict and foster cooperation, this Confederation relied on procedures and traditions which, while varied with time and circumstance, maintained a basic model of tribal integration. (This is distinct from the Caughnawaga Confederacy that included the Wabanaki members in addition to other eastern tribes.)

The Wabanaki Confederation played a role in the selection of tribal chiefs. When a new chief was to be selected, delegates from the other tribes attended the ceremonies and formally approved the locally elected candidate. This not only gave the chiefs status within their own tribes but also insured harmony among the tribes. Various European governments attempted to use the Confederation against their opponents.

Though they lived in peace with each other, Maine tribes feared their traditional enemies the Iroquois and the Mohawks, often engaging in warfare. However, they did treat the first Europeans, French and English, with friendship until the English antagonized, mistreated, and exploited them. Samoset and Squanto (or Squando) did, after all, assist the Plymouth Pilgrims during difficult times.

According to Bolton, Connecticut Town Historian, Hans DePold,

Three primary European groups began to arrive in the early 1600s to trade and establish enclaves. From a Native American perspective the first colonies looked like tribes with intermarrying family units and warriors. The “White” tribes appeared similar in many ways to the native “bronze” tribes and alliances immediately formed between them. The Mahigan and Pequot allied with the Dutch, and the Mohawk and Mohegan allied with the English. The Abenaki were caught between warring tribes, helped and then fought the English, and eventually allied with the French and American nation. Most of the intrigue centers in the northern colonies where there was competition among the white tribes. At first the white tribes fought each other for exclusive contact with the bronze tribes. The white tribes initially traded many fine weapons and tools for furs and other native artifacts. But then they began to seek ever more land.

The Mohawk, whose name means destroyers, terrorized many other tribes but had made peace with the Mohegans. The Mahican and Mohegan were different tribes whose names in their own languages mean Wolf. The Pequot name also meant destroyers, and the Abenaki name meant ‘people of the dawn’. The Abenaki were noted to be individualistic and difficult even for their Sachems to command. The Mohegans were at the other end of the spectrum, well organized under the mighty sachem Uncas, a brilliant strategist and a wise leader.

The white tribes had lived with diseases from every corner of Europe, Asia, and Africa. The survivors were more resistant but still suffered and carried the diseases. Communal living in Europe ended and clothing and adequate separate shelters became the norm. But the bronze tribes lived closely in cold lodges and wore little more than a blanket in winter. Once sick, their living conditions offered them little hope of surviving. From 1616-1619 an epidemic spread through the bronze tribes called “The Great Dying” and an estimated 70-90% of the Native population died from European diseases ranging from diphtheria, influenza, smallpox (the fever), the plague (putrid fever), to tuberculosis (blood vomiting). There was no microbial theory of disease but Father Biard reported of the Indians,

“They are astonished and often complain that, since the French mingle with them and carry on trade with them, they are dying fast, and the population is thinning out.”

The trade with the Europeans ultimately led to fundamental changes in the Native American culture and lifestyles.  With the acquisition of the modern weapons for hunting, and the increasingly valuable commerce in furs and animal meat, traditional notions of property and hunting rights began to erode.  The once plentiful animals, such as moose and beaver, that supported the needs of native people, quickly became scarce.

In June of 1675, Native Americans under the leadership of King Philip, began attacking European settlements in an attempt to drive them from native lands. “King Philip’s War” lasted until 1676 when King Philip was killed in battle and both natives and Europeans were exhausted.

The Norridgewock Indian Village was attacked by the British in 1695, fearing French influence in the area. The killing of Father Sebastian Rasle, a French missionary, is memorialized at the site.

After a series of bloody conflicts with British colonists, the Abnaki and related tribes (the Malecite, the Passamaquoddy, the Pennacook, the Penobscot, and others) withdrew into Canada, where they received protection from the French.

The British hope to keep peace with the Indians, to no avail. In 1766, Andrew Worth of Nantucket was issues a “license to carry on trade with the Indians” with the admonition that “you deal on Trade, with that Justice, good Faith and Kindness that may conciliate them to his Majesty’s Government and serve to fix them in their Obedience and subjection to it.”

During the Revolutionary War, the Penobscots, and especially the Passamaquoddies and Malecites, had used their strategic leverage to play British and Americans against one another, but peace deprived them of their military significance. They were seen by the white population to be obstacles to expansion and economic development.

After the war, Massachusetts “tried to reopen the old issue of Penobscot Indian land claims in an effort to stimulate white settlement in (Maine). Surprised and angry, the Penobscots refused to negotiate, at first insisting that in 1775 the Massachusetts Provincial Congress had recognized their claims to lands six miles on both sides of the Penobscot River above the head of tide.”

By persistence and division among the Indians, in 1796, as professor Leamon notes, “the Penobscots gave up almost 190,000 acres . . . in exchange for an initial supply of ammunition, food, clothing, and rum, to be followed by annual amounts of such provisions.” In 1818 the tribes sold ten more townships. They were now poverty stricken and wards of the state.

The Office of Land Agent was created in 1824, with duties to superintend and manage the sale and settlement of the public land, including Indian lands. A 1929 law gave administration of the Indian tribes to the Department of Forestry. In 1933 another law transferred jurisdiction of the Indian Tribes to the Department of Health and Welfare. Forestry records at the Maine State Archives include information about lumbering in Indian Township and sale of lots in Indian Township (1890-1918).

However, largely unknown to the Massachusetts authorities, the new federal government had, in 1790, prohibited trade with the Indians and acquisition of their land without government approval. This was the basis, almost 200 years later, for legal action in which the Indians of Maine succeeded in obtaining compensation for the illegal loss of land under the federal Trade and Intercourse Act of 1790.

During the 1970’s, Maine tribes asserted rights to vast lands based on early treaties with the federal government. The Indian Land Claim Settlement was the result. In 1980 the Penobscot, Passamaquoddy, and Saint John Indians received an award of $27 million as a trust in addition to $54.5 million more to purchase 300,000 acres of land.

Louis Sockalexis (1871-1913) of Indian Island was the first Native American to play major league baseball. Andrew Sockalexis, also of Indian Island, was first Mainer to compete in an Olympic event, finishing fourth in the 1912 marathon in Sweden.

Molly Spotted Elk, her stage name, also of Indian Island, was a well-known dancer and movie actress. Molly Mathilde (c1665-1717) was named Pidianiske at birth. Her father, Madockawando, arranged her marriage to Jean Vincent, second son to the French Baron of St. Castin to secure the friendship of the French against English raids on the Penobscot River. Molly Ockett was born to the Pigwacket tribe, along the banks of the Saco River, in approximately 1740. She lived amidst French, English and Indian conflicts, narrowly escaping with her life.  Molly Molasses (1775-1867) was an early 19th century Penobscot woman who strove to live an autonomous life in an era in which there were numerous hindrances and hardships associated with womanhood.

Maine Indians received the right to vote in federal elections in 1934. By 1977 they were using the legal system to demand compensation for the taking of their traditional lands asserting claims to a large portion of the state.

In 1984 Frank Siebert drafted a dictionary of the Penobscot language.

Historian Samuel Eliot Morison characterized the seasonal habits of the Abnaki who visited Mount Desert Island:

” . . . always near the tidal flats where the clam flourished, they set up their birch-bark lodges for the summer season. [The women dug clams and] gathered sweet grass and peeled birch bark to make baskets and boxes. . . . In early October [they] packed their dried clams and berries and smoked fish, and all returned to their home village to greet Grandpa and Grandma and harvest the corn crop. During the winter the women, children and old men stayed at home while the young men and big boys went hunting on snowshoes for deer and moose, and set traps for beaver from whose pelts they made most of their clothes.” p.5

Several huge shell heaps, or middens, have been found along the coast.  They developed after thousands of years in which the Native Americans deposited shells before returning inland at the end of summer.  One such midden is located in Damariscotta.

See more on Native Americans at Leeds and Standish.

Additional resources

Films, Movies

Calloway, Colin G. The Abenaki. Indians of North America Series. New York: Chelsea House Publishers. 1989.

Calvert, Mary R. Dawn over the Kennebec. Lewiston, Me. Twin City Printery. c1983.

Cronin, William. Changes in the Land: Indians, Colonists, and the Ecology of New England. New York. Hill and Wang. 1983.

DePold, Hans. “Washington-Rochambeau Revolutionary Route.” WRRR Newsletter No. 28. Accessed November 6, 2003.

Eckstorm, Fanny Hardy. Old John Neptune and Other Maine Indian Shamans. Orono: University of Maine Press, 1980.

Hudson Museum. “Maine Indians: A Web Resource List for Teachers.” (accesssed January 30, 2012)

Leamon, James S. Revolution Downeast: The War for American Independence in Maine. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press. 1993.

McBride, Bunny. Women of the Dawn. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1999.

Morison, Samuel Eliot. The Story of Mount Desert Island. Boston: Little Brown. 1960.

Pawling, Micah A. Wabanaki Homeland and the New State of Maine. Amherst, MA. University of Massachusetts Press. 2007.

Speck, Frank G. Penobscot Man. Orono: University of Maine Press, 1997.

Starkey, Glenn Wendell. Maine: Its History, Resources, and Government. Boston: Silver, Burdett and Company. 1920.

Thoreau, Henry David. The Maine Woods. (there are several editions.)

The Wabanakis of Maine and the Maritimes. Bath: American Friends Service Committee, 1989.

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