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On land that is a homeland for the Wabanaki

I live and work on land that is a homeland for the Wabanaki. I honor with gratitude the Indigenous people before me and among me.

This is my land acknowledgement. The short version is the two sentences above. The long version is a brief telling of some local Indigenous history, below.

The text below is from a message given by Doug Bennet to my Quaker Meeting on January 17, 2021, adapted with Doug’s permission. Our Meeting has been exploring the indigenous history of our region and Doug has been taking a lead.

And I want to acknowledge that this history (below) is told by a person of settler descent. For an indigenous account of the history, please read a book called Alnobak written by Indigenous author Nancy (Coffin) Lecompte (aka Canyon Wolf). The book is available from the Androscoggin Historical Society


If you look up the story of any Maine town, it’s likely to begin with its first settlers. Yet the story always begins way before that. It is a story we should also know and remember.

What went before are the thousands of years of indigenous peoples living in the Androscoggin River valley — and up and down the Atlantic Coast and across the Americas. The coming of the Quakers and others of European descent tore apart the communities of these indigenous peoples. It’s that longer story, the story of peoples on this land, that I want to tell today. It’s an unhappy story in many ways. It is a story of disease, disruption and dispossession.

In their own telling, the indigenous peoples of New England and the Maritime Provinces (as we call them today), were placed here at the beginning of time by Glooskap, a trickster god who still watches over these peoples. The way of knowing we call archeology tells us that indigenous peoples filtered north into Maine following the retreating glacier, the last glacier to cover this terrain, about 12,000 or 13,000 years ago.

When European explorers and fishermen first intruded, the indigenous people they encountered numbered, perhaps, 20,000 people in what is now what we call Maine.

These people lived in villages and encampments. They followed the seasons harvesting the fruits of the forest, the rivers and the sea when and where these were most abundant. They grew corn and some other vegetables. They were a mobile people moving often across the land in a rhythm with the changing seasons.

They travelled by waterways using birchbark canoes. The rivers were their highways. They had ‘carrying places’ where they portaged between streams or around waterfalls. They lived in wigwams or teepees and long houses that could be moved seasonally.

On the Androscoggin, there was a large year-round village at Canton Point near the town we call Livermore Falls. On the Kennebec there was a village on Swan Island and a larger village at Norridgewock, near the town we call Skowhegan. When the fish ran in the rivers, the alewives and salmon, they camped near the falls, like the ones at Brunswick/Topsham and at Lewiston/Auburn.

The Indigenous people who lived in what is now Maine were all part of a broad grouping of Eastern Algonquian people. Those who lived in southern and mid-coast Maine we now call Eastern Abenaki. We can call the people who lived in the Androscoggin Valley the Arosaguntacook. (That’s a name from which the word Androscoggin was probably derived. In their language it means “rocky flats flow” or “a river of rocks refuge.”) Later, in the 1680s, they joined together with other indigenous people in what is now Maine and the Maritimes to form the Wabanaki Confederacy, a word with the same language root as Abenaki. It is a word root that means Land of the Dawn. They were the first people on this continent, the world they knew, to see the dawn each new day.

What became of these people when Europeans intruded? Again, this is a story of disease, disruption and dispossession.

Disease. Many of us have an image in our heads of armed conflict or warfare between these indigenous peoples and the European settlers. And there was such conflict, but there is a different and deadlier image we should put earlier than that. From the moment of first contact, the indigenous peoples were exposed to diseases carried by the Europeans, diseases such as smallpox, diphtheria, plague, chickenpox, measles, cholera, syphilis, typhoid and typhus. Those diseases proved enormously deadly to indigenous peoples because they had no immunity to these diseases whatsoever.

Perhaps 75% of the population died in the first decades after contact – that is, in the early 1600s. These epidemics had their most deadly effect before there were colonial settlements. The mere intrusion of Europeans — fishermen or trappers — set off epidemics. The years from 1616 to 1619 – that is, before the Mayflower — are spoken of as ‘the Great Dying’ because in those years, especially in Massachusetts, the deaths were so numerous. Whole villages were wiped out. The arrival of Europeans was lethal to the indigenous people already living here.

The diseases did not just kill people, they also tore apart their ways of living. It deprived them of able-bodied people. It wiped out their leaders. It weakened their confidence in themselves, in those they trusted, and in what they knew.

Disruption. The diseases that the Europeans carried were one kind of disruption, and there were others. The European intruders brought goods with them that the indigenous people did not know. They brought metal goods useful for cooking and for hunting. They drew the indigenous peoples into trading relationships – for beaver pelts, for example. The Abenaki began to hunt not just for their own use but to trade with the Europeans. These new relationships began to change their way of life.

The Europeans also settled themselves on the land in ways that disrupted the more mobile ways of the indigenous peoples. English intruders built a fort at the lowest falls on the Androscoggin, where the building we know as Fort Andross now stands. It was a wooden fort then, but it was a powerful indication that the intruders meant to dominate that site, make it their own. The intruders fished at the falls not just for their own subsistence, but to send salted fish back to Europe for trade and profit. The Abenaki were pushed out.

These were uneasy times. There were insults and thefts, kidnappings and killings. At times the two groups, the intruders and the Abenaki, managed to live near one another without much conflict. But after several decades of the Abenaki trying to live with the European intruders there came to be full-scale war between them. Beginning about 1675 (that’s about 100 years after the first intruders) and lasting for about another hundred years, there was war in this part of Maine that involved the Abenaki. These wars go today by a series of names of our making: King Phillip’s War, King William’s War, Queen Anne’s War, Dummer’s War, the French and Indian Wars. They involved the French as well as the English intruders: these wars were part and parcel of a long struggle between the English and the French for domination of these lands, and each found allies among the indigenous peoples.

In the early stages of these wars, the English settlers were largely driven out. But when these wars were concluded, in the 1760s, it was the Abenaki had been driven out of southern and mid-coast Maine. They had been driven inland, north and east – scattered and decimated.

Today, the eastern Abenaki are not a group that is recognized as having continuing existence by the U.S. federal government. They are a recognized group by the Canadian government in a settlement on the St. Lawrence River in present day Quebec. And, of course, some Abenaki live among us, drawn to living more like we do, but also holding as they can to their long-established ways.

The written and taught history of many Maine communities starts where those wars end. With the Abenaki largely pushed out of southern and mid-coast Maine, the land was open to settlement by European newcomers. Among those newcomers were the original members of this Quaker Meeting. In these parts, the wars ended in the mid-1760s, and this Meeting began just a few years later, in 1775.

Dispossession. What became of their land? There were treaties by which the intruders took possession of large tracts of land. We know those treaties were seen differently by the indigenous people and the intruders. The Abenaki and other indigenous people did not think of land ownership the way we do. And, of course, most of these treaties were not respected – especially not respected by the intruders. Promises were not kept.

The history of land titles in our part of what we now call Maine is full of disagreement and ambiguity and quite complex. But we can say that most of the land we on which we live, work and play, those of us live near Durham Friends Meeting, were legally secured by Richard Wharton in 1684, in a deal with six members of the Abenaki that Wharton, at least, considered ‘Sagamores’ or leaders. Whether the Arosaguntacook (the Abenaki in this Androscoggin valley) saw these six as leaders with powers to trade away their land is very much open to doubt. But we can say that this Wharton Deed (it’s also called the Warumbo Deed after one of the Sagamores) contains this provision:

“Provided Nevertheless yt nothing in this Deed be Construed to deprive us ye Saggamores Successessors [?] or People from Improving our Ancient Planting grounds nor from Hunting In any of s’d Lands Comgo [?] not Inclosed nor from fishing or fowling for our own Provission Soe Long as noe Damage Shall be to ye English fisherys,”

It’s likely that every current deed of land within the bounds of this Wharton Deed derives from the deal that was struck that day. And we should remember that in their understanding the Abenaki never after gave up that crucial legal proviso: to have use of the land for planting, fishing and fowling for their own provision. But as the intruders crowded in, the Abenaki were dispossessed. The animals were driven out, their habitat destroyed. Forests were cut and the rivers were poisoned. The land was fenced in and built upon. Roadways replaced waterways. These lands were no longer ones familiar to the Abenaki. The lands no longer sustained their way of life.

Something like this is what we mean when we say “on land that is a homeland for the Wabanaki.”

Perhaps we can remember they had a life here.

Perhaps we can remember that some still live among us.


See also What is a land acknowledgement?, written by Craig.

13 thoughts on “On land that is a homeland for the Wabanaki

  1. Hi Folks,
    So much gratitude to those who have written comments.
    Thank you for sharing your own passions and views.
    It’s been really great reading all this.
    And someone sent me this: an interactive map that helps you identify indigenous nations and tribes. Go ahead. Type in the name of your town. It’s a start.

  2. Thank you Craig for raising the question of land acknowledgement. Each time I am in a gathering that begins with “we are meeting on the land of the Abanaki” I am touched and I am grateful. Like others above, I don’t know of anything that would make this Right. And, I believe the more of us who know it may come to something, like “herd knowledge”. We may all come to know and acknowledge the generosity of the people sharing this land with us. I do believe a full out public acknowledgement to the “people of the dawn” and living with consciousness in our care of the land might begin to open us to eatch other. Something like thanking the land, the rivers, the ocean, the mountains, the trees, the wildlife and waterlife. If Indigenous people could be honored for their belonging here, I would hope they would feel more like we can live here together.

    I appreciate the honor to live here in this beautiful place and acknowledge that is the homeland of the Wabanaki.

  3. I struggle constantly to ascertain how those of us of European decent can atone for our racism, theft, murder, and genocide. Our way of life seems to have spread all over the world at the world’s expense. The Wabenaki story so well summarized here is too typical. Thank you Craig for sharing.

  4. I just wanted to acknowledge the land acknowledgement – I have often thought about what this country looked like before we thought we had the right to eminent domain to rip up and pollute it. Thank you for acknowledging the people who lived here before we invaded. I am not a person of indigenous descent, but I have always been a supporter of our indigenous people – we have so much to learn from them.

  5. I personally have very mixed emotions about land acknowledgments. I think it is important to acknowledge the fact that the land was taken without due process, but I think it is also important to commit sincerely to stop abusing the environment–otherwise, it’s just “virtue signaling”. I have lived in both the US and Canada, and I am a dual citizen. Land acknowledgments are common in Canada, even though the Crown owns all mineral rights and has unlimited authority to sell them to any prospector that wants them. If an oil company or mining company wants to “prospect” on indigenous lands or reserves and has a license from the government, no one can stop them. They do not have to repair the environmental damage they do. The same is true for pipelines and mining in the USA. Corporations operate with impunity. To my mind, it’s like squatting in someone’s house, thanking them for the opportunity, and then stealing everything on the way out. Acknowledgements are fine and can be good, but only if there is a sincere commitment to righting the injustice that continues.

  6. Thank you, Craig. This history is important for all of us to understand, especially those who live on these lands.

  7. A message much appreciated Craig.

    Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, Creek Mary’s Blood, Black Elk Speaks are some other books that give vivid recounting of the terrible history that was perpetrated on the Native Americans. These books informed my young mind and have left scar tissue in my heart.
    As I walk through the beauty of the Maine woods, paddle it’s rivers …I do think of their great loss and wonder how they can bear it.
    Thank you for bringing these thoughts to the forefront.

    1. another highly recommended book detailing what was happening on the 0ther side of the continent : An American Genocide : the United States and the California Indian Catastrophe, 1846-1873 by Benjamin Madley. When the State of California (under Gov Leland Stanford, of Stanford University) placed a statewide bounty on killing native people. I have seen actual vouchers (like contemporary the tear-off tags on grocery store bulletin boards)

  8. Thanks for this interesting and revealing article, Craig! If there are reparations to be made, certainly America’s indigenous people should be at the top of the list.
    Stay safe!

  9. Thanks for bringing up this small but significant step in truth telling, Craig. My choral group leader (Misty Mountain Singers) often starts our concerts with an acknowledgement and honoring of the native land we are standing on. She keeps it short, simple, undramatic, but it’s impact is all the more powerful. I’m encouraged to hear the practice is spreading.

  10. Thanks for sharing this history. Your meeting’s journey is an encouragement to our meeting to start the process of learning and unlearnng. As our town, Vassalboro,celebrates its 250th since incorporation, I look for ways we may acknowledge the Wabanaki people who made this their home.

  11. Yes! to acknowledgments. A good start on a long journey to recognize the racism our country is built on. Thanks, Craig.

  12. Thank you Craig for this share, it’s very helpful. Finding the right words in a concise manner is a real art.

    I recently attended a webinar in which Dr. Linda Shi, Cornell graciously did the same in her opening remarks and also acknowledged the Atlanta spa shootings.

    Look forward to seeing you all again. Be well.

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