Wabanaki Confederacy

Exploring the Wabanaki (People of the Dawn land) Confederacy

Thank you, Tom, for “sparking” this fiery discussion. Below is some very general information about the Confederacy. In preparation for their land claims, the Passamaquoddy did a lot of historical research. Their lawyer is a treaty scholar and has shared these little history booklets with us. If you would like to read a copy, please contact me!


The Basics

Five Nations of the Wabanaki Confederacy

Nation NameMeaningEnglish Name
Mi’kmaq (L’nuk)Family/Friends/My Brothers (the People) 
WolastoqeyPeople of the Beautiful, Bountiful RiverMaliseet (means slow talkers in Mi’kmaq)
PeskotomuhkatiyikPeople of the PollockPassamaquoddy
PenobscotPlace where the rocks open out (of the Penobscot River) 
AbenakiDawn Land 

The Wabanaki Confederacy formed around 1680 (some say earlier) in response to raids from the Haudenosaunee or Iroquois Confederacy (specifically the Mohawks) in Quebec and Ontario. The Confederacy fell dormant in the late 1800s after colonial Canada displaced Indigenous governance systems. Survival became the primary focus for the Wabanaki, who faced foreign diseases and forced expulsion from migratory routes. In 1993 the Penobscots, believing that the five nations needed to participate in the discourse around protecting Mother Earth and Aboriginal title, called on the nations to re-establish the Confederacy. They lit the council fire and elected a Grand Chief. The council fire has burned ever since!

Current Grand Chief: Ron Tremblay, Wolastoq Nation. Grand Chief Ron Tremblay lives about five minutes away from NBCC's corporate office!

Council Fire:
In Wabanaki governance, the Council Fire is a metaphoric and literal fire. The fire represents the spirit of peace and friendship between the nations. Like a fire, diplomatic relationships require work and effort to keep burning. It is the responsibility of all Confederacy members to maintain these relationships. The fire (responsibility) is passed from nation to nation to tend and to call the annual Confederacy together. Annual or biennial gatherings reinforced the the history of the confederacy though oral recitations. These oral history “lessons” could last several hours or several days depending on the particular event. Wampum belts were actually memory aids in this process – old school memes!

You can find a basic history of the Wabanaki Confederacy on Wikipedia.

A Deeper Look

News Articles

Journal Articles and Books

  • The Eastern Algonkian Wabanaki Confederacy by Frank Speck (American Anthropologist, 1915) Anthropologist Frank Speck lived and worked on the Eastern seaboard at the turn of the 20th century. He wrote extensively about Wabanaki traditions, governance and ways of life. Speck was not always accurate with his information and favoured the so-called “sophistication” of the neighbouring Haudenosaunee (Iroquois Confederacy). We should read his work carefully for biases and misinformation. Nonetheless, he does offer a window into the way that Wabanaki life functioned such as this paper describing Wabanaki governance.
  • Passamaquoddy ceremonial songs: Aesthetics and survival by Ann Morrison Spinney (2010) Boston College ethnomusicologist Ann Morrison Spinney’s book on Passamaquoddy ceremonies is an important look at worldview, culture and ceremony as expressed through songs. Ms. Spinney lived and worked with notable Passamaquoddy families in Maine and recorded the songs and ceremonial traditions. This book tells of ceremonies that have been passed down and that are still happening today. We have this book in our Saint Andrews library.
  • Reclaiming the ancestors: decolonizing a taken prehistory of the far Northeast by Frederick Wiseman (2005).  Abenaki archaeologist Frederick Wiseman blends a scientific approach with cultural understandings of Wabanaki traditions. He examines the politics of cultural appropriation when others speak about Indigenous nation traditions and looks at Wabanaki history from the Ice Age based on stories and archaeological evidence. This is a fascinating read about an archeologist’s personal journey through his culture and his profession. You can find this book at the UNB Library.