Abenaki for "Together [with] the Ancestors," in honor of their legacy, while modern day Abenaki living in New England continue the traditions started many moons ago.
This blog focuses on the Abenaki Trails Project and intends to inform the reader of the culture, history, and people known as the Abenaki. Together, we will explore their Pre-Colombian times, discussing how they lived before Columbus and other European powers set foot on the shores of America, to the colonization of America by those European powers, all the way up to modern times.
For this entry, we will be discussing one of the many origin stories the Abenaki people have as well as some key figures in their tales. It is the goal of this blog to inform the reader of all aspects of the Abenaki people, and there is no better place to start than in the beginning.
But before we begin, there are some important figures we will need to know. Many stories are filled with amazing heroes and diabolical villains, and the traditions and stories of the Abenaki are no different.
Let’s take a look at some of the most well-known figures in their traditions. One of the most important figures in our stories is Gichi Niwaskw (pronounced Gih-chee Nih-wahsk) who was known as the Great Spirit. While never taking physical form in our tales, Gichi is an extremely important figure that is akin to other creator gods from other pantheons. Similar to Ra from Egyptian mythology, Gichi is the one the Abenaki credit with creating the world we live in. In Egyptian mythology, Ra sprouted from a lotus blossom in a sea of chaos and decided to shape the universe.
In Abenaki tradition, Gichi stared out into the void, seeing nothing but shadows and darkness, and wanted to craft a world of beautiful purpose and balance.
But we are getting ahead of ourselves.
There are still two more figures that we need to cover before we can really get into the story of Gichi creating the world. The next popular figure in our stories is known as Gluskabe, who was a benevolent hero credited with giving humanity various things, such as hunting, fishing, and weaving, to name a few. Gluskabe was made from the dust that had built up upon Gichi’s hands, as was his twin brother Malsum. Whereas Gluskabe was benevolent and gave many great things to the Abenaki (which we will cover in blog posts to come), Malsum was a malevolent being, causing harm to the humans and creating creatures that would torment the populace of Earth, such as snakes and biting insects. Malsum was said to have taken the form of a large wolf, and his name is also the Abenaki word for wolf.
We will cover these two figures more in depth in subsequent posts, but these three figures will be essential to understand the values of the Abenaki people and how their culture became what it was.
With our knowledge of Gichi, the Great Spirit, we will now begin our tale of how the Earth was created. In the beginning, there was nothing but shadows and stormy waters. The Great Spirit gazed upon this maelstrom, a void bereft of any color, sound, or beauty. The waters of the void were murky and dark, and as Gichi looked upon it he summoned his will, birthing the sparks of creation into existence. He called forth Tolba, the Great Turtle, who had made his residence within the waters, and requested that he become a canvas in which the Great Spirit could craft a world of perfection and balance. Tolba agreed, rising from the depths and resting on the surface, his shell peeking out over the waves. Setting right to work, Gichi began placing forests and greenery all over the shell of Tolba, lush vibrance spreading over it like moss on a rock. The Great Spirit breathed out over the Great Turtle, skies of blue and wispy white clouds forming over the growing creation of Gichi.
He was pleased with what he had created, gazing upon his work with a smile. But something was missing, and the Great Spirit began to ponder what that could be. Trees now stood where before there was nothing, pristine waters now resided where before there was nothing, and winds cascaded over both where before there was nothing. And it was then that he realized what was missing. There was no one to enjoy the fruits of his labor, and so Gichi sought out to create life to live upon Tolba. But what kind of life should he create? Would they be four legged or two? Would they live communally or isolated? What would their songs sound like? How would they create? Would they create? Would they love? He wanted paradise for those that would come but the questions only buzzed around the Great Spirit’s mind without answers until he eventually grew weary and fell asleep.
In his slumber, visions raged of a world filled with chaotic colors, strange plants, and a myriad of animals. The winds carried a cacophony of sound, birds chirping, dogs barking, and a strange creature on two legs huddled around a fire, their own barks seeming to weave a tale of life and hope. The world was full of chaos, with countless insects soaring through the air and consuming the plants and crops that grew. The longer he dreamed, the more and more Gichi became filled with sadness. Who would create such a world full of imbalance and chaos? Who would take the world he created and make it a world where no one had a purpose, where creatures would have to huddle around a fire just to feel safe? The dream he had had turned into a nightmare, and he saw the very world he never wanted. A world without purpose, without balance.
When the Great Spirit awoke, the first sight that came to his eyes was that of a beaver chewing on a stick. He observed the animal for some time, watching it carefully craft the material in its hand until it was suitable for its needs. Gichi watched as the beaver carried it over to a makeshift dam, placing it lovingly and with purpose into the structure. The Great Spirit continued to watch the beaver, observing three more heads pop out from beneath the water. It had a family, noted Gichi. He watched as the beaver played with its offspring, he watched as they took care of each other and protected one another. They had a purpose, and that made Gichi smile. It became evident to the Great Spirit that while he slept, his visions and dreams had manifested themselves into reality. The nightmare world he had dreaded was, in reality, the paradise he wanted. Every creature had a purpose, everything was in balance. The Great Spirit knew from then on not to question his dreams, for they were his creation.
And that is the story of how Gichi, the Great Spirit, crafted the world.
It is our hope that you enjoyed this entry, and we look forward to you coming back. Next post, we will discuss some of the feats and accomplishments of Gluskabe, and the various misdeeds of his brother. Our posting schedule for the blog will be every other Monday for the moment, but that could change to every Monday so keep an eye out. Also, we’d like to let everyone know that on July 9th and 10th, the Mt. Kearsarge Indian Museum will be having a Powwow, with members of the Abenaki Trails Project being there to demonstrate basket making and ash pounding.
Help support the community and have a great time. Intertribal! Everybody Powwow!
Sources for this entry:
A huge Star Wars nerd, Ethan Peasley has been writing for 15 years and enjoys various mythology and folklore. He's a self-proclaimed "lover of history" and is working on a modern retelling of Dante's Inferno with a few twists, in his spare time.
When Creator created the Abenaki people many spirits fell from the dust of Creator’s hands. One spirit stepped out to watch over the forests and animals. He is known worldwide as Big Foot, Yeti or many other names, but here in Abenaki lands, he is the Spirit of the Woods or Kchi Awas.
He shows himself to some people, but no one can catch him. They get a smell or a sound but he is a shapeshifter. Suddenly there is only a deer standing there.
Kchi Awas is important to the Nulhegan people, a band of the Abenaki. He protects sacred sites like Brunswick Springs in Vermont or Bradford Springs in New Hampshire. People travel far to be healed at these springs. In 1790 settlers in Bradford knew of Abenakis going to their springs for healing. Any attempt at profit is always destroyed.
An old Nulhagen once went to the spring to be healed when he saw the Spirit of the Woods. He was scared so he sang a lullaby to the spirit. He was thankful for his healing and wanted to sing if this was the end of his life. The Spirit lay down and fell asleep so he was able to steal away. The old man taught this song and told this story so this is the way Abenaki remember Kchi Awas to this day.
The Abenaki Trails Project presents Big Foot as a spirit as the Abenaki believe, not a monster. Still today many people throughout New Hamsphire claim to have seen a being like a large upright gorilla. A video from WMUR-TV interviewed Scott Lucas who heard loud sounds in the woods. He attended a town hall meeting in the north country where he says he learned over five hundred people believe in Big Foot.
Sightings continue throughout the state. Rebecca Courser reported a person she knew saw one at Tucker Pond in the Smith Corners region of Salisbury. In 1979 Peter Samuelson saw an unusual being while prospecting for minerals in the Ossipee Mountains on the ledges of Bald Mountain. He saw a small structure made of big stones “with hemlock boughs for a roof.” Through the door he saw a manlike creature about seven feet tall with his back to him “totally covered with tangled gray hair about three inches long.” His dog growled, and the creature made loud sounds showing it was upset.
“I can’t describe the noise,” Samuelson said. His girlfriends, Holly Swaffield, was very frightened and they left rapidly. A few months later she found an article from the 1890’s in the Wolfboro Library. A person living in a cabin on Connor Pond in the Ossipee Range saw a dog walk onto the pond and fall through the ice. A large hairy creature came out of the woods, rescued the dog and vanished.. This is in tune with the Abenaki belief in Kchi Awas as the protector of animals. A year later Samuelson came back to the site and found no sign of the shelter.
Artist Mike Eastman of Berlin saw his version of Kchi Awas ,who he calls Shy Man in 1973. He was sleeping on the porch of a cabin on Lake Umbagog when he awoke to a strong monkey smell. The massive being he saw checked out a boat at the dock and headed off across a swamp.
Since then Eastman has made an extensive study of Shyman. He has taped seventeen hours of the animal’s click/pop language, made plaster molds of his footprints, collected hair and painted pictures of his sightings.
Since 2015 he claims to have found areas in the woods where families of the secretive creatures live and found stick dwellings and subtle alterations of the landscape. In the manner of Abenaki people of past he has left tribute offerings of food, and observed them behind trees and rocks. He believes they live in families, and communicate with each other in their own language. He feels they need to be protected from the increasing impact of humans on their environment like any other rare species.
Archaeologist Dr. Goodby of Franklin Pierce University, when asked about a new species of mammal, says it is really easy to solve this mystery. “Find a body,” he says. But a spirit who protects the forest can never die.
Tara writes blog posts for the Abenaki Trails Project in collaboration with the Nulhegan Band Historic and Cultural Preservation Office. She is an alumni of U. of Michigan, Ann Arbor. Tara is the narrator of "Muskrat Stew and Other Tales of a Penobscot Life: The Life Story of Fred Ranco."