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  • Illustration courtesy of ANDREW KNEZ JR.
  • Photo by DANA BENNER An Abenaki Fish Trap is shown at Echo in Burlington, Vt.
  • Photo by DANA BENNER A birch bark container is shown at the Amoskeag Fish Ladder in Manchester.
Sunday, February 21, 2010

Local Pennacook moved with the seasons in order to survive

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the second in an occasional series about the Pennacook Indians, who lived in this area before the city of Nashua was formed.

Some 400 years ago, there were no grocery stores or shopping malls. Everything you needed, whether clothing, food or tools, had to be gathered, grown or made.

Survival for the Pennacook Indians meant taking full advantage of what Mother Earth gave them. This often involved moving with the seasons, following game and harvesting wild crops – all the while keeping in mind that enough food needed to be secured to allow the village to survive the long New Hampshire winter.

The Pennacook ranged from the Connecticut River in the west to southern Maine in the east and from the Canadian border south to northern Massachusetts.

Spring

With the melting of the snow, life begins once again along the Nashua and Merrimack rivers. The days are warm and the nights are cold – perfect maple sugaring weather. All of the members of the village are busy gathering the firewood needed to boil the collected sap.

Arriving at the family stand of maple trees, the men inspect the hollowed-out logs that will be used to boil the sap, repairing or replacing the ones that are unserviceable. Once that job is done, the men grab their bows and head out looking for deer or moose. The need for fresh meat is great, as it has been a long winter.

While the men are out hunting, the women get to work collecting and boiling the maple sap. Once the sap is collected, it’s poured into the troughs made from the hollowed-out logs. Stones heated in the fires are put into the sap and the boiling process begins.

It’s a long process, but maple sugar is the only sweetener known to the Pennacook, and it’s used in many applications. Once the sap is boiled down, the thickened syrup is poured into bark cones, which are put in the snow to cool and harden. The preserved maple sugar is then stored in sealed bark containers for later use.

Once the sugaring is complete and the threat of spring floods has passed, the women prepare for gardening. The men have now returned from hunting, hopefully with the much needed fresh meat. Boys, too young for a long hunt, practiced their skills during this time, often bringing in small game such as squirrels and rabbits.

The men help prepare the fields by burning the underbrush. Once that’s done, the women and children plant corn, beans, squash and pumpkins. Along the rivers, the men keep a watchful eye for the first signs of shad and salmon making their runs upstream to spawn.

With the gardens planted, all hands are needed for fishing. Using nets woven from plant fibers and weighted down by stones, the women and older children wade in the shallows to catch the approaching fish. Men and women, using long-handled dip nets and spears, catch fish that made it past the nets.

On shore, elders and smaller children tend smoky fires. Once caught, the fish are cleaned and placed on racks near the fires, where they’re left to cure.

The fires serve two purposes. First, they help dry out and preserve the fish. Second, the smoke helps keep flies away from the fish. If the flies lay eggs in the fish, it would be ruined.

While some of the fish is eaten fresh during the season, most is preserved for later use.

Summer

The fish are caught, preserved and stored away; the gardens are planted and the first shoots are starting to appear; now is the time for the village to move toward the coast. Here, they’ll meet up with friends and relatives from other Pennacook bands.

Along the trail to the coast, the women collect herbs and wild edible plants to replenish their supplies and the men hunt constantly. Once at their camp, the women set up wigwams and prepare hides, which will later be made into clothing.

The women and children gather mussels, clams, crabs and lobsters from the shallows, while the men ply the coastal waters in large dugout canoes for striped bass, bluefish and other fish. A small whale, porpoise, seal or swordfish will be a bonus.

The fish and shellfish are prepared like the freshwater fish caught in the spring. There is much feasting and celebrating while at the coast, but all too soon, it’s time to make their way back inland.

Fall

Late summer and early fall is a busy time of year. It won’t be long before the first snows of winter will be upon the Pennacook.

The trees along the Nashua River are already starting to turn colors. The men are out in the forest trying to get as much meat as they can. The women and children are harvesting the corn, squash and pumpkins from their gardens. Other women, children and elders are in the forest harvesting blueberries, raspberries and blackberries. They’re also collecting acorns, walnuts and chestnuts.

The berries will be dried for later use and the nuts will be roasted and then ground into meal. Both will be used in cooking. Food stores are checked and double checked. If it was a good year, there will be plenty to see the People through the winter. If not, then many may starve. It’s all part of life for the Pennacook.

In the late, fall a grand celebration is held to thank the Creator for all they have. All the food that hasn’t been stored away is eaten in a great feast that may last for many days.

Soon, the village will break up into smaller family groups and head for their winter quarters. The Pennacook have learned over time that it’s much easier to feed many smaller groups than it is to feed one large group.

Before the first snows, the families leave. They won’t see each other again until spring, when the cycle will begin again.

Winter

With the coming of the first snows, wood is gathered for the fires needed to keep them warm. The hunters stay out in the woods for as long as there is game to hunt. Soon, the snows are deep and the wind is bitterly cold. Winter is the time to repair fishing nets and make baskets. It’s now that new arrows heads are knapped from pieces of flint or made from some of that fancy metal brought to them by the English.

Stories are told at night – stories that tell of previous lessons learned, of good places to hunt or where to find medicinal herbs. Some of the stories are about the history of the Pennacook.

If the days aren’t too cold or stormy, the men will go out hunting, using snowshoes to travel across the snow. They may go ice fishing if the ice is thick enough to support their weight. Men, women and children will all venture out to gather firewood to keep them warm and for cooking.

While the men will try to keep as much fresh meat coming as they can, most of their food will come from what they had stored up during the warmer months. Sometimes it’s enough; sometimes it is not. Every winter brings with it death.

It is all part of the life cycle of the Pennacook.