The Abenaki Today

At the turn of the century the Abenaki tribe lived in poverty and prejudice. The majority of the white New England public viewed them as welfare recipients who were a burden on society rather than natives of the land who were struggling to preserve their culture.  Even those who felt sympathetic toward the Abenaki, thought that they should try to assimilate into the American culture rather than try to preserve their own.  Abenaki children were forced to go to schools that were designed to replace their native language and culture with American. 
Photo courtesy of  The Original Vermonters; Haviland and Power
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It was not until the 1950s and 1960's that the Abenaki people began to fight back.  Tribal meetings were held to make plans about how to revive the old traditions and way of life.  They also demanded that they be officially recognized as a separate nation.  By the late 50's, the states began to take the Natives' demands seriously. In 1959, Maine granted free fishing and hunting licenses to all the Members of the Penobscot and Passamaquoddy living there.  In the 60s, the Abenaki still faced a high unemployment rate of about 75%.  Those who did have work earned very low wages. 
In the 1970s, the Abenaki still felt that their demands were not being taken seriously by the United States government and many fought to be heard by means of violent protests and lengthy court battles.
The Abenaki decided it was time to force the government to notice and take their needs into account. 1976 was a controversial year in Vermont. A petition was started proposing that the Abenaki no longer be restricted by the state's fish and game regulations. The petition collected thousands of signatures from both native and non-native Vermonters.  This was the first major effort by the Abenaki to make their presence  visible in the state. 

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Photo courtesy of The Abenaki; Calloway

The effort angered many Vermonters who believed that the supply of wild game would be wiped out if such a law was passed.  In August of 1976, the state formally recognized the Abenaki, but it took years before it granted them the right of hunting and fishing without a license.
Several Abenaki councils have been established to help the tribal members maintain their identity.  The Tribal Council has its headquarters in Swanton along with a service agency called ASHAI  (Abenaki Self Help Association, Inc.).   Registered Abenaki's are given identification cards.  ASHAI is federally funded and works to aid its community through food Co-ops, community gardens, crisis relief, job development, and literacy programs for both children and adults.  As a result of their work, the number of high school dropouts has gone down drastically in the past few years and over 20% of graduates go on to college.

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Photo courtesy of the Abenaki Artworks website


Today, the Abenaki population in Vermont is growing and there are at least 20 tribal  groupings throughout the state.  The largest Abenaki community is located near St. Albans.  The group is organized in the traditional extended family groups with a designated leader, usually the oldest male.  Also, there has been a major effort by the Abenaki people to relearn the lost arts and skills of their ancestors.  Many have researched techniques for basket and rattle making, bead work and traditional dancing.