The Wabanaki Confederacy

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The Indigenous people who lived in the future Atlantic Provinces were the first to deal with the changing world of European arrival. A century or more before those changes reached the people of the prairies, the Mi’kmaq, Abenaki, Maliseet, and others were dealing with the massive ramifications of the European arrival.

The official Wabanaki Confederacy was formed in the 1680s to deal with the new common enemy of the English, but the roots of the Confederacy go back much farther. Made up of the five principal nations, the Confederacy was formed to deal with the raids being conducted by the Iroquois, specifically the Mohawk, into the lands of the Atlantic Indigenous people.

Before we get into the Confederacy itself, I want to look at the nations who formed the core of the organization. Each group is more than just a part of the Confederacy, with their own culture, beliefs, and histories. I want to touch on each somewhat.


The Mi’kmaq People have occupied the Atlantic region, specifically Nova Scotia, for centuries and long before the arrival of Europeans. Archeological evidence dates land use and resource cultivation as far back as 4,000 years, with canoe routes being used for thousands of years by Indigenous like the Mi’kmaq moving from the Bay of Fundy to the Atlantic Ocean. There is evidence and oral history that shows the Mi’kmaq living in the area for more than 10,000 years.

Prior to the arrival of Europeans, the Mi’kmaq people lived in a relationship with the environment that involved subsistence fishing, hunting, and gathering, with small settlements scattered throughout the region. The most important animal for the Mi’kmaq was the moose, which provided meat for food, skin for clothing, tendons for cordage and bones for tools.

Their territory traditionally covered part of eastern Quebec and the Maritime Provinces east of the Saint John River. The land would form many of the beliefs and stories of the Mi’kmaq. It was said that Glooscap, a cultural hero of the Mi’kmaq, created the Annapolis Valley when he slept across Nova Scotia, using Prince Edward Island as his pillow. His evil twin brother was said to want to make rivers crooked and mountains impassable, something Glooscap fought against. According to the oral tradition of the Mi’kmaq, the world was created in seven stages. The Creator made the sky, then the sun, then Mother Earth and then the first humans. Those humans were Glooscap, his grandmother, nephew, and mother. Glooscap then made a fire and the sparks from the fire created seven men and seven women, the founding families of the Mi’gma’gi Districts.

The Mi’kmaq were one of the first groups of Indigenous to meet the Europeans and their territory was the first portion of North America to be exploited by Europeans at length for resource extraction. John Cabot and Jacques Cartier brought back news of the bountiful fishing in the area, which would send Spanish, French, Portuguese and English fishermen and whalers to the area. By 1578, less than a century after first contact, it is estimated that 350 European ships were operating in the area, changing the Mi’kmaq way of life forever. It is estimated that from 1500 to 1600, 50 per cent of the Mi’kmaq population was lost due to European diseases entering the land.


Also known as the Maliseet, the Wolastoqey have occupied the area of the Saint John River valley in New Brunswick for thousands of years, surrounded by their future allies in the Confederacy.

Prior to contact, the Wolastoqey were primarily hunters and fishers, but also practiced agriculture, growing corn, beans, squash, and tobacco. The Wolastoqey lived in wigwams in walled villages and used natural products such as stone and wood to make tools, weapons, utensils and more. Their culture was governed by one or more chiefs on a tribal council that represented various families. They were, and still are, well known for their artistry including creating beadwork, basket-weaving, carvings, and quillwork.

The origin story of the Wolastoqey refer to A Great Spirit called Gici Niwaskw, who is a benevolent and abstract being that does not interact with humans. Gici Niwaskw created the entire world, but the tasks of transforming, taming, and maintaining the landscape fell to the hero Gluskabe. Many stories tell of Gluskabe and he is the equivalent of Glooscap. Not a god, but a hero and trickster with the ability to manipulate the world to make it more habitable for humans, he tempered the winds, tamed the animals, and managed the waters.

When Europeans began to settle in their lands during the 1700s, it pushed them off their traditional agricultural territory until they were pushed to reserves. At first, there was a stable relationship for a century between the Wolastoqey and the Europeans but as time went on, hostilities with the French and English increased due to encroachment on lands.


Occupying the lands of the Bay of Fundy, Passamaquoddy Bay, the Gulf of Maine and elsewhere, the Passamaquoddy would move with the seasons, spending summers near the coasts and winters farther inland where they would hunt. During the summer months, their food was primarily marine mammals, mollusks, and fish. There is evidence that shows their inhabitation of the area for up to 10,000 years, forming a deep connection with the land.

Their name comes from the traditional way they would catch pollock fish with a spear, with fishing being extremely important to their culture.

Villages typically consisted of conical dwellings with a large council house. Tribal councils consisted of a war chief, civil chief and representatives from each family that came together to decide on important matters. War matters were decided by the entire council.

Navigation through the region was done using the many lakes, portages and rivers to trade with other Indigenous tribes across the region.

When Europeans started to arrive, the Passamaquoddy were repeatedly pushed off their lands by European settlers, to an accelerating degree in the 1700s and into the 1800s. By the early-1800s, some pockets of the Passamaquoddy were reduced to only a few hundred people.


For roughly 11,000 years, the Penobscot are believed to have lived in the Atlantic region of Canada and into what would be Maine. With a hunting and gathering lifestyle, they hunted moose, beaver, otters, fish, seafood, birds and even seals. Some agriculture was practiced but not to the extent seen where it was more temperate.

The name comes from a mispronunciation of the traditional name they had for themselves, which was Penawapskewi, which means descending ledges. The Penobscot would travel along the Penobscot River, which descended from their sacred mountain, Mount Katahdin, down to Penobscot Bay. Along the way they would seasonally relocate, taking advantage of the bounty of the ocean in the summer, and going inland to hunt moose and deer when the weather turned colder.

Primarily a peaceful group, they would band together with other Indigenous to fight against raids.

The social structure of the society was grouped around villages, each that had a chief and a shaman. Tribal chiefs had limited power, usually acting as a representative of the tribe during ceremonies, resolving disputes or dealing with visitors and outsiders.

 In 1524, the first European would reach the Penobscot, named Estevao Gomes from Spain. Samuel de Champlain would follow in 1605.

When the Europeans arrived, the Penobscot began to trade with them, taking advantage of the European desire for furs to get items such as metal axes, guns and more. Along with these items, the Europeans also brought diseases that the Penobscot had no resistance to. It is estimated that in the early 17th century, the Penobscot numbered 10,000 but within 200 years that number was down to 500.


The homeland of the Abenaki covered most of New England and parts of Quebec and the southern Canadian Maritimes. The Abenaki called themselves Alnobak, which means real people, while Abenaki means people of the dawn. The culture was made up of smaller bands and tribes who shared cultural traits, making the Abenaki a linguistic and geographic group rather than a single tribe. There were also two geographic groups. The Western Abenaki lived in the areas of future New England, while the Eastern Abenaki concentrated in areas of New Brunswick and Maine.

Prior to the arrival of Europeans, the Abenaki were a thriving culture with expansionist tendencies and a reliance on the cultivation of corn, beans and squash. This allowed the culture to have a large population and this helped to keep the Iroquois at bay from going too far into their land. The Abenaki also subsisted on hunting, fishing and trapping. In addition, they were known to produce baskets made of ash and sweet grass and boil sap to make syrup. They would travel using birchbark canoes and lived near waterfalls on major rivers during the summer to capture migratory fish.

In their culture, they speak of Gici Niwaskw, also called The Great Spirit or Creator, who much like other cultures in the area, is seen as a benevolent being that does not interact with humans. In their origin story, Gici Niwaskw created the entire world when there was no sound or colour. The Creator filled the empty earth with life and light and commanded Tolba, the Great Turtle, to emerge from the water and create the land. Gici then created the mountains and valley’s on Tolba’s back, and the clouds above his head. Gici then slept, envisioning different animals and when he awoke, he saw they were all a reality now. Glooscap, known as Gluskabe, appears in their stories as well.

Prior to the arrival of Europeans, the Abenaki numbered about 40,000 but by the time Europeans arrived and started to settle, the Abenaki had lost 75 per cent of their people through various diseases.

The Confederacy

Small scale confederacies were once located in the future Wabanaki Confederacy in the post-Viking European contact world. The earliest known confederacy to occupy the area was the Mawoosheen Confederacy, which had its capital, Kadesquit, near Bangor, Maine. These early confederacies would play a huge role in the creation of the future Wabanaki Confederacy.

When Samuel de Champlain arrived in the area, he reported that the people of the region, those who I have already mentioned, had several European goods. These had come over with the Vikings 500 years previous and had been traded over and over through the centuries.

Around 1680, possibly earlier, the Iroquois Confederacy, specifically the Mohawks, were raiding the lands of the future five nations of the Confederacy. To put these raids to an end, the Confederacy formed to form a cohesive political and military organization that could defend the various lands of the Atlantic area. Another big reason for the creation of the Confederacy was the First Abenaki War, which lasted from 1675 to 1678. Fought along the border of New England and Acadia, with the Indigenous that would make up the Confederacy fighting with Jean-Vincent d’Abbadie de Saint-Castin. The tribes would engage in annual campaigns against English settlements in New England in each of those years. The English in response would go north and attack the Mi’kmaq in Acadia. For the Abenaki, the war was highly profitable. Records show that villages such as Scarborough, Cape Neddick, Casco and Arrowsick were destroyed by the Abenaki and 260 English were killed or captured. In addition, the war cost the colonial government £8,000.

In 1675, the Abenaki raided English settlements along the border, killing 80 colonists and burning several farms, causing a sharp reduction in English expansion. In 1676, the English were forced to retreat to Salem with the Abenaki and their allies destroying several farms. The Mi’kmaq also became involved in that year after they were attacked by the English. In 1677, more English settlements were raided on the border, once again blunting English expansion at the time.

With the Treaty of Casco, the war ended, and the English promised to pay a symbolic fee of a peck of corn for every English family, and the recognize the sovereignty of the people the future Atlantic Provinces. In return, the Indigenous recognized the English property rights in southern Maine and coastal New Hampshire.

Around this time, the Caughnawaga Council was being held every three years as a neutral political gathering in Mohawk territory, consisting of the Indigenous people of the east coast, Saint Lawrence River and Great Lakes. From this council, the Mawooshen Confederacy was formed, allowing those member nations to challenge the Iroquois along the Saint Lawrence River. This Confederacy allowed for the free movement of Indigenous through member lands, and as a formal union against the encroachment of the English on their lands.

From this idea and example, the Wabanaki Confederacy was formed. Wabanaki means Land of the Dawn and within the Confederacy, symbols and ceremonies kept it alive. The wampum was especially important with each wampum belt having a design on it as a message from one nation to the Confederacy, or from the Confederacy to a member nation. These belts were kept showing past exchanges among the nations and were often read aloud at meetings.

One wampum record tells of why the Confederacy was created:

“Long ago, the Indians were always fighting against each other. They struck one another bloodily. There were many men, women, and children who alike were tormented by these constant battles …. It seemed as if all were tired of how they had lived wrongly. The great chiefs said to the others, ‘Looking back from here the way we have come, we see that we have left bloody tracks. We see many wrongs. And as for these bloody hatchets. and bows, arrows, they must be buried forever. Then they all set about deciding to join with one another in a confederacy”

Wampum Record

The Passamaquoddy wampum record tells of the event that took place at a Caughnawaga Council that led to the formation of the Wabanaki Confederacy.

It said:

“Silently they sat for seven days. Every day no one spoke. That was called “The wigwam is silent” Every council had to think about what he was going to say when they made the laws. All of them thought about how the fighting could be stopped. Next, they opened the wigwam. It was now called “Every one of them talks” and during that time they began their council. When all had finished talking, they decided to make a great fence and in addition they put in the centre a great wigwam within the fence and they also made a whip and placed it with their father.  Then whoever disobeyed him would be whipped. Whichever of his children was within the fence – all of them had to obey him. And he always had to kindle their great fire, so that it would not burn out. This is where the Wampum Laws originated. That fence was the confederacy agreement…. There would be no arguing with one another again. They had to live like brothers and sisters who had the same parent…. And their parent, he was the great chief at Caughnawaga. And the fence and the whip were the Wampum Laws. Whoever disobeyed them, the tribes together had to watch him.

Within the government, there was a council of elected sakoms, who were respected listeners and debaters, rather than rulers. Typically, they were older members of extended families who were known to have the ability to settle disputes. The politics of the Confederacy was rooted on reaching a consensus on all issues, and this often resulted in a lot of debate. As a result, those sakoms who were skilled at debating were highly influential within the Confederacy. Regular conventions at various seats of government in the Confederacy were held with the sakoms, whenever there was a need to come together. At a council fire, as the seats of government were called, each member sat in a rectangle so that everyone could face each other. Each sakom would get a chance to speak and be listened to, and they were expected to listen to others.

Within the Confederacy, there was never a single leader, and never a single seat of government, resulting in the Confederacy being decentralized throughout its history so that no member tribe would have more power than any other. The various member tribes, which fluctuated beyond the core five in number, were not completely independent of each other. Sanctions could be placed on a tribe for creating a problem, and if a sakom died, the newly elected sakom would be confirmed by allied tribes in the Confederacy who would visit following a year of mourning. The effort to appoint a new sakom was a long process that took weeks.

It is described as such:

“Upon the death of the chief the people went into mourning for a year. At the end of the year of mourning the council of the bereaved tribe would send messengers to the other allies inviting them to come raise up a new sakom in the place of the deceased.”

Terms such as brother, father and uncle were used to describe the other tribes in the Confederacy. The Penobscot were called “our elder brother”, while the Passamaquoddy, Maliseet and Mi’kmaq were called “our younger brother depending on their order of tribe age rank in comparison with the Caughnawaga Council. For example, the Maliseet called the Penobscot and Passamaquoddy “elder brother” and the Mi’kmaq “younger brother.” The Ottawa were called “father” for their role as a leader in the council and in being the tribe that issued binding judgements to help maintain order in the Wabanaki Confederacy. It is important to state though that this did not mean that the members of the Wabanaki were subservient to the Ottawa, but that they recognized them as founders to the Confederacy in some ways.

Each of the Wabanaki tribes had their own council house for meetings in the Confederacy. The Penobscots was at Old Town, the Passamaquoddy had theirs at Pleasant Point, the Maliseet’s at the St. John Valley and the Mi’kmaq had theirs near Digby, Nova Scotia.

The Confederacy also had roles for men and women. While the women did not have an overt part in decision making, they did have veto power. One interesting aspect of this was that the departure of embassies was delayed out of custom. The host tribe would take out a wampum, the one meant for delaying departure, and read it, saying “our mother has hidden your paddle. She is granting you a very great favour.” This meant they were not allowed to leave, and the women were central to granting that permission.

There were many customs and protocols in the Confederacy. It is described as such regarding the Mi’kmaq.

“When the messengers come to the country of the Mi’kmaq and the Mi’kmaq see a canoe coming carrying a flag the chief gathers his soldiers. He says to them. Those who are coming arrive here as messengers. Then all of them, children and women and men, walk down the hill to greet them.”

On the military side of the Confederacy, it played a key role in several important conflicts. In all, the Confederacy played a part in seven major wars between 1675 and 1763 when the British defeated the French in North America. This includes the Mi’kmaq War that I had talked about on a previous episode, and the French and Indian War of 1754 to 1763. During the American Revolution, under the Treaty of Waterton signed in 1776, the Wabanaki Confederacy played a key role in supporting the Americans. As a result of this treaty, members of nations that were part of the Wabanaki Confederacy in Canada can join the US military to this day and have done so all the way up to Iraq War.

By the end of the American Revolution, the population of the Wabanaki Confederacy had been decimated by epidemics, war, and famines. The people of the Wabanaki Confederacy would also lose much of their land during the period after the Revolution. Black Loyalists were resettled, as many as 3,000, by the British for serving in the Revolution against the Americans. They were settled on the historic territory of the Wabanaki.

Due to the British suppression of the Acadian, Mi’kmaq, and Black people in the Atlantic Provinces, this often caused them to be allies in various matters and intermarriage was common.

The Wabanaki Confederacy would continue until 1862 when the Penobscots withdrew amid the British forcing the disbandment of the Confederacy within Canada, followed by the others by the early 1870s.

The Wabanaki Confederacy was not to disappear forever. A gathering was held in 1993 and the sacred Council Fire was lit again and embers from that fire have been burning on a continuous basis since then. The new Wabanaki Confederacy brought together the Passamaquoddy Nation, Penobscot Nation, Maliseet Nation, Mi’kmaq Nation and Abenaki Nation. In 2010, after the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, the member nations began to re-assert their treaty rights and work to preserve the ecological attributes of their land, and deal with health issues among member nations.

Information comes from Canadian Encyclopedia,, New Brunswick Canada, LegendsofAmerica, Wikipedia, Genealogy First, Main University,

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