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The Invisible People [archive]

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Nancy Lecompte and her group, Ne-Do-Ba are trying to discover "The Invisible People" among us.

The term Abenaki means "People of the Dawn Lands" and refers to natives who inhabited the Northeastern United States and Southeastern Canada prior to European colonization. Here in Maine, Abenaki Indians include Penobscot, Malacite and Passamaquoddy tribe members. Nancy Lecompte's organization, Ne-Do-Ba tries to help bring people together and raise awareness of Abenaki Indian culture.

Culturally, most Abenaki were "Semi-nomadic wanderers" planting in the spring, fishing and hunting through the summer, and harvesting in the fall, following food and opportunity over lands with no boundaries. "They were family bands that wandered around." Lecompte says, gathering together into larger groups when circumstances warranted. Their lack of a written language means most information about the Abenaki culture today comes largely through accounts of European reporters.

Initially, European settlers and Abenaki natives were tentatively cordial. As the European immigrants began to compete for resources with native populations, and native groups got tied up into European conflicts, war took its toll.

"From 1675 to 1763 it was pretty much one war after another," says Lecompte. Early settlers had brought European diseases with them, so when the struggle to dominate New England began, the Europeans were facing an opponent whose population was greatly reduced by disease, and who had a distinct disadvantage in both resources and technology.

According to Lecompte, many nomadic Abenakis simply moved into southern Quebec, near French allies, rather than continue endless conflict with English settlers. Over the years, many Abenaki descendants assimilated into the European culture.

"They didn’t really disappear though. They just started their own little family farms here and there. Some of them continued wandering around and trying new things. They were peddlers; they made baskets and peddled them to settlers when the settlers started coming in…lots of different ways that they survived," explains Lecompte.

In the process, they intermarried with both French and English settlers. "The history books don’t talk about it," Lecompte says, "But our family histories tell us differently." Names show up in records, but they seem to be French or English names, with no indication of native ancestry.

Lecompte says native heritage is celebrated today, but in years past, people didn’t advertise their heritage. "But if you have an elder in your family who says you’re part Indian, they’re not making that up."

Marge Bruchac, a scholar at Amherst College in Massachusetts, has called these individuals "The Invisible People." In the late fifties, scholars started looking at what happened to this population.

Lecompt’s organization is dedicated to helping people rediscover their native roots, researching family histories and sharing them throughout the organization, to read between the lines of history and assemble what is known about the "invisible people" and where their ancestors have gone.

Ne-Do-Ba means "Friend" in the Abenaki language. In a brochure, the group urges Abenaki descendants to "Step forth from the shadows" and share what they know of their heritage with others. At the same time, Ne-Do-Ba is trying to eliminate negative stereotypes and raise awareness of the Abenaki contributions to the culture of Western Maine with educational programs.

The group maintains a web site at Lecompte says she gets several e-mails every week from people who are looking for more information about their heritage. Many are chasing old family stories and Lecompte offers what help she can, but acknowledges, "It will be a frustrating adventure finding it." The absence of records can make that kind of genealogical search difficult, if not impossible.

--written by Chad Gilley

Additional Reading

 Abenaki Nation
 Abenaki Words
 Abenaki Legends
 Maine Tribal Maps

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