Abenaki language

Abenaki, or Abnaki, is an endangered Algonquian language of Quebec and the northern states of New England. The language has Eastern and Western forms, which differ in vocabulary and phonology, and are sometimes considered distinct languages.

Native toCanada, United States
RegionQuebec, Maine, Vermont, New Hampshire
Ethnicity1,800 Abnaki and Penobscot (1982)[1]
Native speakers
14 Western Abenaki (2007–2012)[2]
Last fluent speaker of Eastern Abenaki died in 1993.[2]
Language codes
ISO 639-3Either:
aaq  Eastern Abenaki
abe  Western Abenaki
Glottologeast2544  Eastern Abenaki[3]
west2630  Western Abenaki[4]
Traditional Abenaki Indian territory

Eastern Abenaki languages are spoken by several peoples, including the Mi'kmaq, Maliseet, Passamaquoddy, and Penobscot of coastal Maine. The last known natively fluent speaker of Penobscot, Madeline Shay, died in 1993.[5][6] However, several Penobscot elders still speak Penobscot, and there is an ongoing effort to preserve it and teach it in the local schools.[7] Other dialects of Eastern Abenaki, such as Caniba and Aroosagunticook, are documented in French-language materials from the colonial period.

By 2006 five speakers of Western Abenaki were recorded.[1]


In Reflections in Bullough's Pond, historian Diana Muir argues that Abenaki neighbors, the pre-contact Iroquois, were an imperialist, expansionist culture whose cultivation of the corn/beans/squash agricultural complex enabled them to support a large population. They made war primarily against neighboring Algonquian peoples, including the Abenaki. Muir uses archaeological data to argue that the Iroquois expansion onto Algonquian lands was checked by the Algonquian adoption of agriculture. This enabled them to support their own populations large enough to have sufficient warriors to defend against the threat of Iroquois conquest.[8]

In 1614, six years before the Mayflower, an English captain, Thomas Hunt, captured 24 young Abenaki people from what would later become Massachusetts and took them to Europe to sell as slaves.[9] As a result, when the Mayflower landed and the English began to establish colonies in the southern end of Abenaki territory, relations between the English and natives remained guarded. Especially, the religious leaders of the Massachusetts Bay Colony discouraged social interaction with the natives. By contrast, the French had already planted the colonies of New France in the northern part of Abenaki territory, and maintained reasonably cordial relations with the natives. Intermarriage between the French and natives gave rise to the Métis people. Over the next hundred years, European conflicts between the French and the English often included their colonies and their respective native allies. The French treated their Abenaki allies with some respect; in 1709, Louis XIV knighted Chief Assacumbuit for his service, thus elevating him as a member of the French nobility.

Facing annihilation from English attacks and epidemics of new infectious diseases, the southern Abenaki started to emigrate to Quebec around 1669. The governor of New France allocated two seigneuries (large self-administered areas similar to feudal fiefs). The first was on the Saint Francis River and is now known as the Odanak Indian Reservation; the second was founded near Bécancour and is called the Wolinak Indian Reservation.

Abenaki wars

When the Wampanoag under Metacomet, also called "King Philip", fought the English colonists in New England in 1675 in King Philip's War, the Abenaki joined the Wampanoag. For three years there was fighting along the Maine frontier in the First Abenaki War. The Abenaki pushed back the line of white settlement by devastating raids on scattered farmhouses and small villages. The war was settled by a peace treaty in 1678.

During Queen Anne's War in 1702, the Abenaki were allied with the French; they raided numerous small villages in Maine, from Wells to Casco, killing about 300 settlers over ten years. The raids stopped when the war ended. Some captives were adopted into the Mohawk and Abenaki tribes; older captives were generally ransomed, and the colonies carried on a brisk trade.[10]

The Third Abenaki War (1722–25), called Dummer's War, erupted when the French Jesuit missionary Sébastien Rale (or Rasles, 1657?-1724) encouraged the Abenaki to halt the spread of Yankee settlements. When the Massachusetts militia tried to seize Rasles, the Abenaki raided the settlements at Brunswick, Arrowsick, and Merry-Meeting Bay. The Massachusetts government then declared war, and bloody battles were fought at Norridgewock (1724), where Rasles was killed, and at a daylong battle at Pequawket, an Indian village near present-day Fryeburg, Maine, on the upper Saco River (1725). Peace conferences at Boston and Casco Bay brought an end to the war. After Rale died, the Abenaki moved to a settlement on the St. Francis River.[11]

The Abenaki from St. Francois continued to raid British settlements in their former homelands along the New England frontier during Father Le Loutre's War (see Northeast Coast Campaign (1750)) and the French and Indian War.


The development of tourism projects has allowed the Canadian Abenaki to develop a modern economy, while preserving their culture and traditions. For example, since 1960, the Odanak Historical Society has managed the first and one of the largest aboriginal museums in Quebec, a few miles from the Quebec-Montreal axis. Over 5,000 people visit the Abenaki Museum annually. Several Abenaki companies include: in Wôlinak, General Fiberglass Engineering employs a dozen natives, with annual sales of more than $3 million Canadian dollars. Odanak is now active in transportation and distribution. Notable Abenaki from this area include the documentary filmmaker Alanis Obomsawin (National Film Board of Canada).[12]

United States federal tribal recognition

The Penobscot Indian Nation and the Passamaquoddy Tribe

These two tribes are officially listed federally recognized as tribes in the United States.[13] the Passamaquoddy Tribe of Maine was recognized by the federal courts as a tribe, but not having a land trust with the government[14] since never entering into a formal treaty. This launched the very long legal battle that paved the way for many other tribes across America to file suits regarding asset mismanagement. After winning the landmark case, similar cases were filed in 2006 by 60 tribes from throughout the United States. Among the Passamaquoddy’s assets was $13.5 million in federal funds that were allocated to the tribe in 1980 through the Maine Indian Claims Settlement Act, which was settled for $81.5 million.[15]


In 2006, the state of Vermont officially recognized the Abenaki as a people, but not a tribe. The state noted that many Abenaki had been assimilated, only small remnants remained on reservations during and after the French and Indian War, and later eugenics projects further decimated the Abenaki people of America through forced sterilization and questionable "miscarriages" at birth.[16] As noted above, facing annihilation, many Abenaki had begun emigrating to Canada, then under French control, around 1669.

The Sokoki-St. Francis Band of the Abenaki Nation organized a tribal council in 1976 at Swanton, Vermont. Vermont granted recognition of the council the same year, but later withdrew it. In 1982, the band applied for federal recognition, which is still pending. Four Abenaki communities are located in Vermont. On April 22, 2011, Vermont officially recognized two Abenaki bands: the Nulhegan Band of the Coosuk-Abenaki and the El Nu Abenaki Tribe. On May 7, 2012, the Abenaki Nation at Missisquoi and the Koasek of the Koas Abenaki Traditional Band received recognition by the State of Vermont. The Abenaki who chose to remain in the United States did not fare as well as their Canadian counterparts. Tribal connections were lost as those Abenaki who were tolerated by the Anglo population were assimilated into colonial society. What familial groups remained were often eradicated, in the early 20th century, through forced sterilization and pregnancy termination policies in Vermont. There were over 3,400 reported cases of sterilization of Abenaki having been performed, many of which involved termination of an unborn fetus. No documentation of informed consent for these procedures was found. After this period the only Abenaki that remained in the United States were those who could pass for white, or avoid capture and subsequent dissolution of their families through forced internment in "schools" after their sterilization. At the time, many of the children who were sterilized were not even aware of what the physicians had done to them. This was performed under the auspices of the Brandon School of the Feeble-Minded, and the Vermont Reform School. It was documented in the 1911 "Preliminary Report of the Committee of the Eugenic Section of the American Breeder's Association to Study and to Report on the Best Practical Means for Cutting Off the Defective Germ-Plasm in the Human Population."[16][17]

The Vermont Elnu (Jamaica) and Nulhegan (Brownington) bands' application for official recognition was recommended and referred to the Vermont General Assembly by the Vermont Commission on Native American Affairs on January 19, 2011, as a result of a process established by the Vermont legislature in 2010. Recognition allows applicants to seek scholarship funds reserved for American Indians and to receive federal "native made" designation for the bands' arts and crafts.[18]

On April 22, 2011, Vermont officially recognized two Abenaki bands: the Nulhegan Band of the Coosuk-Abenaki and the El Nu Abenaki Tribe. On May 7, 2012, the Abenaki Nation at Missisquoi and the Koasek Traditional Band of the Koas Abenaki Nation received recognition by the State of Vermont.

New Hampshire and minority recognition

In New Hampshire the Abenaki, along with other Native American groups, have proposed legislation for recognition as a minority group. This bill was debated in 2010 in the state legislature. The bill would have created a state commission on Native American relations, which would act as an advisory group to the governor and the state government in general.[19] The Abenaki want to gain formal state recognition as a people.

Opponents of the bill feared it could lead to Abenaki land claims for property now owned and occupied by European Americans. Others worried that the Abenaki may use recognition as a step toward opening a casino. But, the bill specifically says that "this act shall not be interpreted to provide any Native American or Abenaki person with any other special rights or privileges that the state does not confer on or grant to other state residents." New Hampshire has considered expanding gambling separate from the Native Americans.[20]

The council would be under the Department of Cultural Resources,[19] so it would be in the same department as the State Council on the Arts. The bill would allow for the creation and sale of goods to be labeled as Native-made, to create a source of income for the Natives in New Hampshire.

The numerous groups of Natives in the state have created a New Hampshire Inter-tribal Council, which holds statewide meetings and powwows. Dedicated to preserving the culture of the Natives in New Hampshire, the group is one of the chief supporters of the HB 1610; the Abenaki, the main tribe in the state, are the only people named specifically in the bill.[21]

Language-revitalization efforts

A new generation is actively preserving and revitalizing the language.[22] Fluent speakers Joseph Elie Joubert from the Odanak reservation and Jesse Bowman Bruchac lead partial immersion classes in the language across the northeastern United States. They have created several books in and about the language as well as audio, video and web-based media to help others learn the language.[23] In July 2013, the Penobscot Nation, the University of Maine and the American Philosophical Society received a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities to expand and publish the first Penobscot Dictionary.[24] Throughout time, Abenaki language has been made to thought it was unimportant and with the fading of generations, the Abenaki language became more and more scarce. Abenaki language was as low as twelve native speakers as of 2015, but with recent focus and extra efforts in the Abenaki community, this number seems to be growing. Today, there are some passionate Abenaki, and non Abenaki people, like Jeanne Brink`[25] of Vermont, who are trying to revitalize the Abenaki culture, which includes their language and their basket making traditions. Today, there are about 12,000 people of varying Abenaki heritage in the Canadian and New England regions, all varying in their connection to their language. In Maine, there are about 3,000 Penobscot Native Americans, and this is a large driving force of the language resurrection.[26]

Among Brink and others, Jesse Bruchac is a loud voice in the Abenaki culture. Along with writing and publishing various Abenaki books, he created a movie and sound piece telling the Native American side of Thanksgiving while spoken in Abenaki. In this film, called Saints & Strangers, the three actors not only memorized the lines in Abenaki, but also learned the syntax behind the language and learnt from filming.[27] This revitalization of the famous Thanksgiving story from a new tongue and perspective offered a more original and full version of what Thanksgiving might have really been like so many years ago.

In Bruchac's novel, L8dwaw8gan Wji Abaznodakaw8gan: The Language of Basket Making Bruchac notes that Abenaki is a poly-synthetic language, which makes the ways to express oneself in Abenaki is almost limitless. Abenaki language consists of dependent and independent grammar, which address the gender of the speaker. Abenaki also uses nouns, pronouns, first, second, third, and indefinite parts of speech, and verbs, and adjectives. If the noun is animate or inanimate alters the structure of the sentence or phrase.[28]

Although written primarily in English, Aln8bak News helped to preserve the Abenaki language through the inclusion of Abenaki words and their translations throughout each newsletter. Aln8bak News was a quarterly newsletter that discussed cultural, historical, and contemporary information regarding the Cowasuck Band of the Pennacook Abenaki. It was started in 1993, by Paul Pouilot, Sagamo of the Cowasuck Band of the Pennacook Abenaki.[29] The word, Aln8bak (pronounced like Alnôbak) is often used as a synonym to Abenaki. Initially the newsletter was called Aln8ba8dwa National News (Aln8ba8dwa or Alnôbaôdwa means "Abenaki speaking").[30] Issues of the quarterly newsletter from 2003-2010 were published by the Cowasuck Band of the Pennacook Abenaki on their website.[31] According to a statement made by the Band, after 2010, they stopped publishing the newsletter on their website due a lack of financial support from online readers.[32] Aln8bak News included community-related information such as updates on governance issues, notices of social events, and obituaries. The newsletter also included Band history, genealogy, language lessons, recipes, plant and animal studies, books reviews, and writings by Band members.[29]

The English word "skunk", attested in New England in the 1630s, is probably borrowed from the Abenaki seganku.[33] About 500 Penobscot words are "still being used in the community in everyday language," such as "Muhmum" for "grandpa", and "nolke" for "deer".[24]

The 2015 National Geographic Channel mini-series Saints & Strangers, telling the story surrounding the foundation of Plymouth Plantation and the celebration of the "First Thanksgiving", contained a considerable amount of dialogue in the Western Abenaki language. Several actors, including Tatanka Means (Hobbamock), and Raoul Trujillo (Massasoit) spoke the language exclusively throughout the series, and Kalani Qweypo (Squanto) spoke both Abenaki and English. Western Abenaki language teacher Jesse Bruchac of Ndakinna Education Center was hired as a language consultant on the film.[34]


Eastern Abenaki dialects included Penobscot, Norridgewock, Caniba, Androscoggin, and Pequawket.

Western Abenaki dialects are or were Arsigantegok, Missisquoi, Sokoki, Pennacook, and Odanak.


The following description is for the two Abenaki dialects.


Front Central Back
Near-Close ɪ~i ʊ~o
Mid e ə
Open mid nasal ɔ̃
Open a~ɑ


  Bilabial Alveolar Palatal Velar Labio-
Glottal Labio-
Plosive p  b t  d   k  ɡ   ɡʷ  
Affricate t͡s  d͡z
Fricative   s  z     h
Nasal m n      
Lateral approximant   l      
Semivowel j w


Linguists studying Abenaki have called it a language of verbs because of its high degree of inflectional complexity. Although the language does not use gender, nouns are divided into two categories: noble and ignoble. Although there may be occasional exceptions, noble words pertain to living things, and inanimate objects are considered to be ignoble words.[35]


pèsəkʷ = one
nis = two
nahs = three
yew = four
pálenəskʷ\nαn = five
nə̀kʷətαsw = six
tὰnawαs = seven
nsὰsək = eight
noli = nine
mə̀tala = ten

Other words

sénαpe = man
p[e]hènəm * = woman
mikʷan = feather

* letters in square brackets often lost in vowel syncope.

See also


  1. Eastern Abenaki at Ethnologue (16th ed., 2009)
  2. Eastern Abenaki at Ethnologue (18th ed., 2015)
    Western Abenaki at Ethnologue (18th ed., 2015)
  3. Hammarström, Harald; Forkel, Robert; Haspelmath, Martin, eds. (2017). "Eastern Abenaki". Glottolog 3.0. Jena, Germany: Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History.
  4. Hammarström, Harald; Forkel, Robert; Haspelmath, Martin, eds. (2017). "Western Abenaki". Glottolog 3.0. Jena, Germany: Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History.
  5. "Penobscot". Native Languages of the Americas. Retrieved October 25, 2011.
  6. "Eastern Abenaki language". Ethnologue. Retrieved October 25, 2011.
  7. "Abbe Museum: Penobscot". Archived from the original on March 20, 2016. Retrieved February 21, 2016.
  8. Muir, Diana, Reflections in Bullough's Pond, University Press of New England.
  9. Bourne, Russell (1990). The Red King's Rebellion, Racial Politics in New England 1675-1678. p. 214. ISBN 0-689-12000-1.
  10. Kenneth Morrison, The Embattled Northeast: The Elusive Ideal of Alliance in Abenaki-Euramerican Relations (1984)
  11. Spencer C. Tucker, ed. (2011). The Encyclopedia of North American Indian Wars, 1607–1890: A Political, Social, and Military History. ABC-CLIO. p. 249. ISBN 9781851096978.
  12. "Administration". Cbodanak.com. Archived from the original on July 20, 2012. Retrieved October 30, 2012.
  13. "Tribal Directory". U.S. Department of the Interior, Bureau of Indian Affairs. Retrieved December 26, 2012.
  14. Roessel, Faith. "Federal Recognition - A Historical Twist of Fate" (PDF). NARF Legal Review. Native American Rights Fund. Retrieved September 12, 2019.
  15. Walsh, Tom (April 2, 2012). "Passamaquoddy tribe awarded $11.4 million in asset mismanagement dispute". Bangor Daily News. Retrieved September 12, 2019.
  16. "Vermont: Eugenics: Compulsory Sterilization in 50 American States". University of Vermont. Retrieved December 31, 2014.
  17. Henrik Palmgren. "The Horrifying American Roots of Nazi Eugenics". Redicecreations.com. Retrieved October 30, 2012.
  18. Hallenbeck, Terri. Abenaki Turn to Vermont Legislature for Recognition Burlington Free Press January 20, 2011. Retrieved January 20, 2011
  19. "HB 1610-FN – As Amended by the House". NH General Court. Retrieved March 22, 2010.
  20. "Gambling Bill Would Create 6 Casinos, Allow Black Jack". WMUR.com. March 4, 2010. Retrieved March 22, 2010.
  21. "The New Hampshire Inter-Tribal Native American Council: Mission Statement". Retrieved March 22, 2010.
  22. "Native Languages of the Americas: Penobscot (Eastern Abnaki, Penawahpskewi, Penobscott)". native-languages.org. Retrieved November 11, 2012.
  23. "Western Abenaki Dictionary and Radio Online: Home of the Abenaki Language". Retrieved November 11, 2012.
  24. McCrea, Nick (July 11, 2013). "Penobscot Nation, UMaine win grants to help revive tribe's language". Bangor Daily News. Retrieved 23 July 2013.
  25. Lindholm, Jane. "Preserving Abenaki Language Culture". VPR. Vermont Public Radio. Retrieved April 17, 2017.
  26. "Abnaki-Penobscot (Abenaki Language)". Native Languages of the Americas. Retrieved April 18, 2017.
  27. Johnson, Scott (November 17, 2015). "Telling Thanksgiving's Story in a Vanishing American Language". NationalGeographic.com. Retrieved April 18, 2017.
  28. Bruchac, Jesse; Brink, Jeanne; Joubert, Joseph (January 31, 2011). L8dwaw8gan Wji Abaznodakaw8gan: The Language of Basket Making. lulu.com. pp. 1–4, 34–39. ISBN 978-0557632107. Retrieved April 19, 2017.
  29. "Digitizing Tribal Newsletters". Dawnland Voices 2.0. Dawn Land Voices. Retrieved April 17, 2017.
  30. "Aln8bak News Vol 2003 Issue 1 January February March 2003". Cowasuck Band of the Pennacook Abenaki People. COWASS North America. Retrieved April 17, 2017.
  31. "Ethnic and Alternative Newspaper Collections - Online: Native North Americans". University of Kentucky Libraries. University of Kentucky. Retrieved April 17, 2017.
  32. "Aln8bak Quarterly News Special Announcement". Cowasuck Band of the Pennacook Abenaki People. COWASS North America. Retrieved April 17, 2017.
  33. A Concise Etymological Dictionary of the English Language, Walter William Skeat, Harper & Brothers, 1882, p. 440
  34. "TV". National Geographic.com. Retrieved September 12, 2019.
  35. Heald, B. (2014). A History of the New Hampshire Abenaki. Charleston, South Carolina: The History Press.


  • Day, Gordon M. 1994a. Western Abenaki Dictionary. Volume 1: Abenaki to English. Hull: Canadian Museum of Civilization, Mercury Series, Canadian Ethnology Service Paper 128.
  • Day, Gordon M. 1994b. Western Abenaki Dictionary. Volume 2: English to Abenaki. Hull: Canadian Museum of Civilization, Mercury Series, Canadian Ethnology Service Paper 128.
  • Harvey, Chris. "Abenaki". Language Geek. Retrieved 2007-03-12.
  • Heald, B. (2014). A History of the New Hampshire Abenaki. Charleston, South Carolina: The History Press.
  • 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 978-1-897367-18-6
  • Voorhis, Paul. 1979. Grammatical Notes on the Penobscot Language from Frank Speck's Penobscot Transformer Tales.
  • Warne, Janet. 1975. A historical phonology of Abenaki.
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