Place-names Divide Indigenous Communities in New England

Map by INHCC’s co-conspirators: Paul Pouliot and Alix Martin

Prepared by Paul Pouliot, Svetlana Peshkova, and Caitlin Burnett

It is important to remember that tribe is a concept created and promoted by colonial scholars, not Indigenous peoples themselves. Many of the existing tribal names in New England do not reflect how Indigenous peoples saw themselves and an ecological (human and non-human) environment around them. Paul Pouliot (2020), a sag8more of the Cowasuck Band of the Pennacook Abenaki People, reminds us that “it is very important not to define our People (sic.) by place and group names in the broadest historical context,” because the majority of these names were given to Indigenous communities by colonizers. When using Indigenous names in any land acknowledgment or otherwise, we must exercise the utmost care to not perpetuate harmful stereotypes and colonial paradigms.

Before European contact, Indigenous extended families in N’dakinna (present-day Northeastern U.S.) referred to one another as “our relations” and to themselves as “aln8bak” (human beings). According to an Indigenous historian, Lisa Brooks (2018, 9) Tribal nations, which English colonial settlers referred to as “Indians” in the region of “New England,” “called themselves simply ‘the people,’ the human beings (alnôbak [sic.] in Abenaki)” residing in N’dakinna. (1) Although aln8bak “would have acknowledged the families and places to which they ‘belonged,’ when introducing themselves, like James Printer’s town of Hassanamesit, in the Nipmuc or ‘freshwater’ interior, or Weetamoo’s homeland of Pocasset, on the coast,” referencing the place did not signal Tribal designation or affiliation (Brooks 2018, 9). Rather, referencing belonging to the land signaled the community’s current residence and stewardship of the area’s resources and not a different Tribal name. When signaling their “belonging” to the place or waterways, Indigenous peoples referred to the “interdependent relationship with a diverse environment” and the responsibility of individuals towards their community and human and non-human others (Brooks & Brooks  2010, 14). 

Belonging to the land was belonging to the extended family and not to a different Tribe. Indigenous belonging to the land was also radically different from owning it. Brooks (2018,17) describes an Indigenous community as “a ‘gathering’ of extended families bound to each other through longstanding inhabitation, intermarriage, and interdependent relationships… whose ties reached back through oral tradition and kinship to time immemorial, as well as others… who had been incorporated through marriage or adoption.” Hence, belonging to a place “entailed not only residency but kinship to a particular place and people, of which the sôgamo [sic.] (sagamore or sachem) or sôgeskwa [sic.] (saunkskwa) was the symbolic leader” responsible for a fair redistribution of resources (Brooks 2018, 17, Brooks & Brooks 2010, 15). This redistribution was not limited to one’s village but had to be ensured “between villages, through a well-established ceremonial and economic system of trade” (Brooks & Brooks 2010, 15). 

Since the 1500s-1600s, European colonial settlers in N’dakinna named the Indigenous extended families they encountered by the location — a place at which the Indigenous group was residing at the time. In N’dakinna (and elsewhere), the colonial settlers’ confusion over Indigenous peoples’ political organization was responsible for a number of “instances in which the English identify any group of Abenaki (even family bands) as a tribe” (Ghere 1993). This naming construct continued for centuries, until the late 19th century when the Smithsonian Institution Bureau of Ethnology formalized many of these “place-names” to identify the aln8bak of N’dakinna as separate Tribes. Following in the footsteps of colonial settlers, the now-scholars and academics created and perpetuated such classificatory systems (also known as taxonomies) applied to Indigenous peoples in the Americas. As a result, using place-names as labels for separate Indigenous tribes continues into the present day. For example, in the 1978 Handbook of North American Indians, Dean Snow uses “Arosaguntacook as the name for the Indians living along the Androscoggin River in the text and on the map showing tribal areas” (Ghere 1993). “Tribes,” as a term, got adopted into the daily vocabulary. Many of us continue using the term “tribes” when referencing Indigenous peoples in North America in general.  

Ethnohistorian David Ghere (1997, 514) argues that in N’dakinna, “English and French had different concepts of Abenaki political organization and varying terminologies for Abenaki subgroups. The English perceived separate Tribes, each inhabiting a river valley, with a ‘headquarters’ at the major village; the French recognized one large linguistic group, with subgroups identified by the mission villages that served their religious needs. The confusion was increased by warfare and migration between 1675 and 1725 as well as by the establishment of new villages and the merging of refugees into old ones.” 

This confusion and misnaming made it difficult to figure out who was Abenaki or not and who belonged to which group or territory, thus perpetuating artificial divisions. Hence, in N’dakinna, the colonial taxonomy rarely reflected the names Indigenous peoples used themselves as the terms of self-reference. Consequently, the same peoples and relations — the term referring to extended families and kin — came to be known by different names: the names often connected to the territory on which the colonial settlers encountered Indigenous peoples. This place-name identification process divided Indigenous family groups and fostered tribalism and group competition.

As much as non-Indigenous communities changed overtime, Indigenous communities too adapted to the colonial context and changed in the process. As an Indigenous artist, researcher, and educator, Judy Dow (2019) reminds, for Indigenous peoples’ “tradition” is about adaptation. Reducing Indigenous belonging to static tribal categories does not reflect a dynamic nature of Indigenous survivance (Vinzor 2008). (2) Ghere (1997) also points out that this colonial categorization of local Indigenous peoples in N’dakinna — New England —  has contributed to confusion about local demographics. For example, it was very difficult, if not impossible, to accurately estimate the number of the Abenaki people in the first part of the 18th century in N’dakinna. At the time, unable and unwilling to use Indigenous knowledge, colonists, scholars, and administrators failed to see that “the fluctuations in village populations,” reflected “the fluid nature of Abenaki society and the gradual migration of Abenaki families between New England and Canadian villages” (Ghere 1997, 530). In other words, English and Eurocentric assumptions of a static tribal organization failed to grasp the dynamic nature of local Indigenous relations and lifeways. 

The inappropriate and disrespectful use of Indigenous names has the potential to do more harm than good. In the 1990s, Native American place names and their use and abuse became a matter of research and reflection by the Smithsonian anthropologist Ives Goddard (1990). Goddard (1990) argued that  “American Indian names on the map… [are] marred by the perpetuation of stereotype views and folklore about Indian languages and cultures.” The author cited a “newspaper hoax” regarding the name of a lake in Massachusetts which, rather than honoring Indigenous culture and identity, spread a false understanding of Indigenous communities. Goddard (1990) also pointed out that using fraudulent Indigenous (place) names or using literal word-by-word translations can spread stereotypes of Indigenous cosmology and self-identification as “simple-minded.”

Pouliot (2020) recounts, “In the early days most of our people were probably concentrated in villages along the major rivers and lakes closer to and along the seacoast. The first colonial settlers gradually forced us inland to the major lake areas.  Eventually the colonial militia drove us out of the coastal waterways and watersheds. The Jesuits set up ‘safe refuges’ for Indigenous people on the river watersheds of the St. Lawrence – hence the St. Francis’ mission at Odanak and Wolinak for the New England Wabanaki of NH, ME, and VT (as well as some Wampanoag, Nipmuc, and other displaced relations).  Those that took up permanent residence within mission settlements referred to the land south of the St. Laurence missions as Sowanakik (the Southlands) and those that remained south of Odanak referred to themselves as Sokoki (meaning “those from the southlands”). I believe that even a short distance from Odanak – like those still living in the Lake Memphremagog area along the U.S./Canadian border (VT-NH) – were at one time called Sokoki. Over time, any Wabanaki that were fighting the colonists in NH and MA who came from villages or missions further north came to be called ‘Sokoki’… These southern Sokoki groups were probably made up of warrior groups (currently, some people like to identify with this construct). The same paradigm exists with the Missisquoi (Lake Champlain – Swanton, VT) that was on the battle front with the Mohawk. I believe that it was really a warrior settlement, at first, because the most notable warriors claimed this as their place. Any permanent family and village living there came later when Indigenous peace was forced upon them by the French and English of Canada.”    

According to Pouliot (2020), place-naming references and constructs should not imply different tribal or political affiliations among aln8bak. In the Appendix below, he offers a list of place-naming constructs used historically in reference to the larger group of the same Algonquin language speaking families within aln8bak groups: “There are over 60 place-names attributed to us…these are places we lived at but we did not call ourselves these names” (Pouliot, 2020; see Appendix). 

Pouliot (2020) also argues that similar colonial constructs have been applied to the Abenaki language, creating an artificial division between “Eastern” and “Western” Abenaki language (before it was referred to as Canadian Abenaki). (3) Since the 1980s, he argues, “linguists, academics, and profiteers were entrusted with ‘saving;’ and in doing so, they re-shaped Indigenous language and associated oral traditions and stories often for their personal objectives” and reflecting colonial understandings and classificatory systems (taxonomies) (Pouliot 2020). He points out that not Indigenous people, but often non-Indigenous scholars introduced and perpetuated this artificial and arbitrary division. “Western” and “Eastern” Abenaki division is also prevalent in several researchers’ work; yet, these distinctions had less to do with linguistic differences and more with the location of the base camps in the first part of the 18th century (Pouliot 2020; also see Ghere 1997). This lack of awareness of ethnocentric assumptions of “colonial observers and the misunderstandings of early historians” contributed to the “disappearance” of local Abenaki (aln8bak) from the history of New Hampshire and New England (Ghere 1993). 

It is important to note that in terms of linguistic research, Gordon Day, one of the “experts” on Abenaki language, used familial conversations based on 20th century audio tapes from the Dartmouth collections of prominent native speakers and linguists’ families: the Mastas and Laurents. (4) Their names are rarely mentioned in scholarly literature.  The indigenous linguists, including Henry Masta, Joseph Laurent, and Stephen Laurent documented the Abenaki language from the late 19th century until the death of Stephen Laurent in the 1990s (Perry 1987).  While using these tapes and interviews from Odanak (an Abenaki village in Quebec), Day changed some of the letters and vocal sounds to fit his own perspective of what he heard. Changes that Day introduced were not consistent with the other historically validated works of the aforementioned Indigenous linguists/native speakers and others. In fact, even Day initially recognized that there might have been but one language closely connected to Penobscot (Proulx 2003, 99; see Aubery & Laurent 1995). In the later works attributed to people like Father Aubery, the Indigenous speakers and linguists like Stephen Laurent are mentioned only as secondary authors of their native language, its dictionaries, and documentation. (5) Considering colonial history and Eurocentric analysis surrounding existing classificatory systems when it comes to aln8bak in N’dakinna and their language, from Pouliot’s (2020) perspective, the division of one and the same language into “Western” and “Eastern” categories, only contributes to creating an alternative “colonized” version of the original language. He argues that “the true Abenaki, ‘Aln8badwa,’ and the Penobscot should be one in the same. There could be a variety of dialects, but it is one and the same language.” (Pouliot, 2020). (6)

         We welcome your comments and rebuttals!  


(1) Different spellings of the same word are part of the colonial history of Indigenous language. Colonial gender order that prioritizes male speakers over female ones too fails to capture intricacies of the elaborate gender and power structures in indigenous communities. 

(2) Vizenor’s (2008) concept of survivance emphasizes the agency of Indigenous people challenging the colonizers’ power over their existence. Survivance, hence, is also a practice, not just a concept. Vizenor describes survivance as “an active sense of presence, the continuance of native stories, and not a mere reaction, or a survivable name…Native Survivance stories are renunciations of dominance, tragedy, and victimry” (Vizenor 2008, vii).

(3) The dialect that was spoken over much of the Northeast was a “Pennacook” Algic L dialect.

(4) For Gordon Day’s research and papers see, (Accessed April 22, 2020).

(5) For Stephen Laurent’s Obituary see, (Accessed April 22, 2020).

(6) In the Euro-linguistic taxonomy this would be the Pennacook (Algic L) dialect as the “Latin” or proto- Algonquian of all Algonquian languages.


Aubery, Joseph and Stephen Laurent. 1995. Father Aubery’s French Abenaki Dictionary. Portland, Me: Chisholm Brothers.

Brooks, Lisa and Cassandra Brooks,  2010. “The Reciprocity Principle and Traditional Ecological Knowledge: Understanding the Significance of Indigenous Protest on the Presumpscot River.” In International Journal of Critical Indigenous Studies. 3(2): 11-28.

Brooks, Lisa. 2018. Our Beloved Kin: A New History of King Philip’s War. Yale University Press. 

Dow, Judy, 2019. “Going Through the Narrows.” Potash Hill. Spring 2019. (Accessed July 10, 2020). 

Ghere, David. 1993. “The ‘Disappearance’ of the Abenaki in Western Maine: Political Organizations and Ethnocentric Assumptions.” In American Indian Quarterly 17(2):193-207.

Ghere, David. 1997. “Myths and Methods in Abenaki Demography: Abenaki Population Recover 1725-1750.” In Ethnohistory 44(3): 511-534.

Goddard, Ives. 1990. “Time to Retire an Indian Place-Name Hoax.” ProQuest Historical Newspapers: The New York Times with Index pg. 22. See (Accessed March 30, 2020). 

Perry, Emma. 1987. “Keeping Indian Memories Green.The Irregular (newspaper). North Convey: NH. Wednesday, July 29, 1987 (pp. 1-2).

Pouliot, Paul. 2020. Personal Communications with Paul Pouliot, Sag8mo of the Cowasuck Band of the Pennacook-Abenaki People. March 2020.

Proulx, Paul. 2003. A Review of “Father Aubery’s French-Abenaki Dictionary.” In International Journal of American Linguistics. 69(1): 98-100.

Vizenor, Gerald R. ed. 2008. Survivance: Narrative of Native Presence. Lincoln: University of Nebraska State. 

For more information on the Masta and Laurent families, see &


Below is the list of place-naming constructs, which, according to Pouliot (2020) are used in reference to the larger group of Algonquin (Algic ISO 639-3) (“L” Dialect – Pennacook)-speaking families within the Abenaki and Pennacook or Aln8bak groups. This list does not exclude or include any group or groups that may be historically mis-identified or now identified with another “Eastern” Abenaki group:

Abenaki (Abnaki, Abenaqui, “eastern” Abenaki, “central” Abenaki, “western” Abenaki), Aberginians, Accominta (shoreline), Adirondack (Wawobadenik – white mountains), Agawam (fish curing place), Almouchiquios, Amaseconti (Amesokanti, Anmissoukanti – abundance of small fish), Amoskeag (one takes small fish), Ammatoscoggin, Androscoggin (Amariscoggin, Amerascoggin, Ameriscoggin – rock shelter place), Anasagunticook, Arosaguntacook (Arosaguntacook, Arrosaguntacook), Aucocisco, Bashaba, Canibas, Cochecco, Cowasuck (Cahass, Cohassiac, Coos, Coosuc, Koes, Eastern Woodland People, Northeastern Woodland People – at the white pines), Etchemin, Green Mountain Band, Kennebec (Caniba, Sagadahoc, Kanibesinnoak, Nurhantsuak,Kinibeki), Kik8ntegok (river of fields – Chaudiere River), Loup (Wolves), Massapuag, Merrimac, (Merrimacks – at the bottom of the “sand” hill), Missisquoi (Mezipskwik Missiassik, Missisiak, Mazipskoik, Misiskuoi, Missiassik, Missique, Missisco – place of flint), Morattigan (Monchiggan), Musketaquid, Nashoba, (Nashua, Nashaway – the land between), Natacook (Naticook), Naumkeag (Naumkeg, Naimkeak, Naamkeek, Namaoskeag, Namaske), Nechegansett, Norridgewock (Newichawawock, Newichawannock, Newichawanoc, Norridgewock, Naridgewalk, Neridgewok, Noronjawoke – people of the still water between rapids), Odanak (our village – St. Francis Jesuit mission), Odana (village on the Connecticut River at or near the Ox Bow in the Cowass – Coos), Ondiakes (Ondiakee) colonized version of “people of a village,” Onegigwizibok (otter river – Otter Creek), Ouarastegouiak, Oppenangoes, Ossippe (Ossippee – lake made by river widening), Otonic, Ouragie, Owaragees, Patsuiket, Pawtucket, Pequawket (Pigwacket, Pegouakki, Peguaki, Pequawket – at the hole in the ground), Pemigewasset, Rocameca (on the land upstream), Pejypscot, Pechiepsacut, Pemigewasset, Pennacook (Penakuk, Panukkog, Peenecooks, Penagooge, Penakook, Penecooke, Penicoock, Penicook, Penikook, Pennacokes, Pennacooke, Pennagog, Pennecooke, Pennekokes, Pennekook, Pennokook, Penny Cook, Penny-Cooke, Pennykoke, Pinnekooks, Pnoacocks, Ponacoks, Sagadahoc, Saco (south place), Soheg, Sokoki (Assokwekik, Ondeake, Onaiake, Onejagese, Ossipee, Sakukia, Sokokiois, Sokoquios, Sokoquis, Sokokquis, Sokoni, Sokwaki, Soquachjck, Zooquagese – people at the outlet / people who separated), Spirit Bear Band, St. Francis (St. Francis du Lac), St. Joesph de Colraine, Souhegan (Souheyan, Nacook, Natacook, Natticook), Squamscot (Squam, Squamsauke, Wonnesquam, Msquamsauke), Salmon-Mskuamagw, Sunapee, Suncook (Senikok – at the rocks), Wachuset (at the small / middle sized mountain), Wamesit (fishing place), Washucke, Wataunick, Wawenock, (Wawenoc, Wewenoc, Ouanwiak, Sheepscot, Wawenock, Wawnock) (people of the bay country), Weshacum, Winnecowet, Winnicunnet, Winnipisauki (Winnepiscogee, Winnipesaukee, Winnepiseogee, Maunbisek, Muanbissek – the land around lake), Winnisemet, Winoski (Winoskik – onion place people), Wioninebesek, and, Wolinak (village at the bay – two villages – Becancour, PQ and coastal Maine).