Abenaki - Economy

Subsistence and Commercial Activities. The late prehistoric subsistence system probably featured family excursions from the main village to coastal camps during the warm months to hunt and gather maritime resources. Spring and fall runs of migratory fish were harvested from the main Villages, which were located mainly at strategic points on major estuaries. Families dispersed upstream to traditional areas along the tributaries of the main streams in the colder months. There were probably midwinter reunions at the main villages when families returned to exchange canoes and other fall hunting equipment for snowshoes, toboggans, and other equipment appropriate for hunting over snow and ice. After 1600, the development of a regular fur trade led to the conversion of traditional family hunting areas into more carefully defined family hunting and trapping territories. As the human and beaver populations shrank, the demand for furs and the importance of their trade for the acquisition of manufactured goods increased. By the nineteenth century, family territories had grown to about a hundred square miles each. The fur trade collapsed and the Penobscot gave up most of their interior lands by 1818. Thereafter they worked in lumbering and the production of splint baskets and canoes for cash income.

Industrial Arts. Birchbark was perhaps the single most important aboriginal material and was used to make shelters, canoes, moose calls, trays, and containers, among other things. Baskets made from ash splints and sweetgrass, for which the Abenaki are still known, provided an alternative source of income. The technique was apparently introduced by European settlers on the Delaware River in the seventeenth century and spread outward from there as it came to be adopted by Indian craftspeople in one community after another. Penobscot men were known as skilled canoe makers, and it is no accident that the Old Town canoe manufacturing company got its start across the Penobscot River from Indian Island. Other crafts were typical of the Eastern Algonkians of New England.

Trade. Although some limited trade with other nations probably occurred prehistorically, the clan system that facilitated trade elsewhere in the Eastern Woodlands was not developed among the Abenaki. After 1600, however, trade flourished with Europeans as the Abenaki were drawn into the world economic system as an important source of beaver pelts. Copper pots replaced native bark containers and earthenware, guns replaced bows, and glass beads replaced porcupine quills very quickly in these decades. Both French and English trading posts were established in and around Abenaki territory, and these led to the construction of forts designed to protect these trading interests through and between the colonial wars.

Division of Labor. Primary distinctions were made on the basis of age and sex. Men were hunters, fishermen, leaders, and shamans. Women were gatherers, hide workers, followers, and curers. Boys and girls aspired to and practiced at these roles.

Land Tenure. Land ownership was not an issue before the development of the fur trade and the historic establishment of farming. By the early nineteenth century, the Abenaki were aware of the advantage of the exclusive ownership of trapping territories and knew from experience the consequences of conveying title to Europeans. Yet by 1818 the disappearance of the fur trade made the ownership of the Maine forests appear useless to them, and they gave up everything but the right to hunt, fish, and collect ash splints over most of their former territory. Meanwhile, the ownership of individual plots became more important for managing gardens and house lots on remaining reservation land.

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