Indigenous Wetlands: Bogs, Swamps, & Marshes

By Paul W. Pouliot, Sag8mo, Cowasuck Band of the Pennacook-Abenaki People

Note: In the Abenaki language the “i” is the strong “e” sound. 8 = Ô or ô = nasal long “o” sound.

The Pennacook-Abenaki people or Aln8bak (Indigenous human beings) have multiple definitions and uses for wetlands. There are several Abenaki words that are used in reference to swamps and bogs: a coniferous swamp or bog is Meskagw, and the locative word form (referring to a specific location or place) is Meskagok. A swampy depression with water, a marsh, or a bog pond not connected with any stream is referred to as W8ljebagw, and the locative word form is W8ljebagok. An unspecified bog or swamp is called Mskagok.

Photo by JD Doyle on Unsplash

Indigenous people identify wetlands as gardens, highlighting the fact that these places are very important land and water spaces to gather and harvest various plants and plant parts for medicines, foods, and materials. This is further supported through etymology (the study of word origins and their development through time): the Abenaki root word for Water is Nebi and Medicine is Nebiz8n. A Medicine Field or Garden is Nebizonkik8n and the locative word form is Nebizonkik8nek

One of the most notable and prominent wetland plants is the Cattail or Arrow Plant (Typha latifolia) or in Abenaki, Bakwaaskw. The whole plant, including the pollen, is used for various foods, medicines, and fiber materials.

Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash

It is interesting to note that although Indigenous people used wetlands extensively, colonial settlers saw no value in them. The importance of these wetlands should not be understated. These locations are as important as the many cultivated river intervales where corn, beans, squash, sunchokes, tobacco, and other plants were grown. Wetlands are integral in Indigenous lifeways as a food, material, and medicine resource as well as a place to retreat to, to find safe hiding places from colonial aggressions.

Swamps as habitat areas were misunderstood by the English colonizers (Cronon 1983, 28). “Swamp” was not even part of the English vocabulary until 1624 when John Smith first used the word in his manuscript, The Generall Historie of Virginia, New England & the Summer Isles. In the colonial period, it was used as a verb to describe Tribal people hiding in swamps (Lepore 1998, 85-86). Roger Williams specifically described swamps as “Refuges for Women and children in Warre” (Williams 1643, 72).

Engraving of the Battle of Mystic Fort during the Pequot War, May 26, 1637. In July 1637, the Pequot War ended at the Great Swamp Fight, when English soldiers surrounded the swamp in which the Pequot had taken refuge.

The Indigenous people discouraged colonial settlers from going into these areas, using stories of man-eating swamp creatures and other unearthly phenomenon. One is about a mythological “Swamp Water” person or creature called Mskagwedemos. Another one was about “Ghost Fire” or Chibaiskweda which was marsh gas (methane) fires that were thought to be the ghost of an unburied corpse.

Cronon, William. 1983. Changes in the land: Indians, colonists, and the ecology of New England. Hill & Wang.
Lepore, Jill. 1998. The Name of the War: King Philip’s War and the Origins of American Identity. New York, NY: Knopf.
Williams, Roger. 1643. A Key into the Language of America, or, An help to the Language of the Natives in that part of America, called New-England. London: Gregory Dexter.

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