EDITOR’S NOTE: This story is the final installment in the “We have Always Been Here” series that examines where New Hampshire stands when it comes to acknowledgement of and support for its indigenous people, what steps other New England states have taken and what Abenaki people in the state have done on their own to build awareness of their heritage and contributions to the state.
During the evenings, Loudon resident Cheri Pernaw is focused on learning Abenaki, the language of her ancestors. Sometimes she attends a group with other students, and other nights she practices at home, flipping flashcards while her husband or grandchildren look at her skeptically. The language is challenging, but for Pernaw, the slow learning process is worth the hard work.
“The reason I want to learn Abekani, and I’m sticking to it, is that when I die, I want to be able to talk to my ancestors in their tongue,” said Pernaw.
Pernaw knows she will never use Abenaki practically, but when she flips the flashcards she feels a connection.
“I cannot pronounce the words, but when I read the words I understand them,” she said.
Although none of her three children or 11 grandchildren have taken to learning the language, simply practicing in front of them is meaningful for Pernaw.
“I don’t ever want them to feel like my father did in his generation, that there’s a part of your heritage that has to be a secret,” she said.
About 4,000 Granite Staters identify as Native American, according to census data. Many of them, like Pernaw, grew up keeping their identity a secret. Now, despite the lack of formal recognition by the state or federal government, more individuals like Pernaw are finding ways to integrate their heritage into their lives, preserve it for future generations and educate non-native people about Native Americans in New Hampshire.
“We’re still here and we have always been here,” said Sherry Gould, Bradford resident and tribal genealogist of the Nulhegan Band of the Coosuk Abenaki Nation, a Vermont-based tribe.
Reclaiming family history
Pernaw’s father, who died in 2014, always knew that he had Abenaki heritage. For him, the link was physical: in a family of light-eyed, blonde siblings, he had dark skin, hair and eyes. And yet, his family never explored the connections. Even when Pernaw was a child in the 1960s and 70s, being Native American wasn’t something that was talked about, she said.
Then, her father moved out to Tucson, Arizona. With more Native Americans around, he began to explore his roots. When he got his Abenaki citizenship, it “settled his wandering feet,” Pernaw said.
It was so meaningful, that he asked Pernaw to get her citizenship as well. But at the time she was preoccupied as a single mom supporting three children. Becoming officially Abenaki had no practical benefits for Pernaw, so she brushed it off.
Now, looking back, she can see how meaningful the formal recognition was to her father. Getting Abekani citizenship was one of only two things he ever asked her to do as an adult – the other was to move to Tucson to be nearer to him. After he died, Pernaw began exploring her heritage more, and got her Abenaki citizenship in 2019, at the age of 55. By then, she had time to explore the culture and get involved with the Native American community in New Hampshire. Today she is secretary for Koasek of Turtle Island, a nonprofit run by the Ko’asek (Co’wasuck) Traditional Band of the Abenaki Nation that helps organize services like education for tribe members and the larger indigenous community.
Pernaw was surprised to realize how aspects of Abenaki and Native American culture fit into her life. When she looked up Native American recipes, she found she had grown up eating native-inspired dishes like cornbread and beans. The nature-based spiritual aspects of the cultures complimented her Christian beliefs.
“There are moments where you go, this is where I belong. This is where I am,” she said. “That gives you peace.”
Language and a name take center stage
Like Pernaw, Lempster author and illustrator Christine Nih’shaw grew up knowing that she had Native American ancestry. But while her Irish and Scottish heritage were often centered, her Native links were brushed aside.
“I had a huge disconnect,” she said.
In her late teens, Nih’shaw began exploring her heritage more, learning about her mother’s Siksika (Blackfeet) ancestors and her father’s Iroquois links. As an adult, she began working with Native American tribes to write and illustrate children’s books in the tribal languages.
“Most books and stories had cheesy, stereotypical illustrations,” she said. “They wanted something unique to their culture.”
Nihshaw’s first book was written in conjunction with the Lakota Language Consortium. Since then, she’s completed or is working on books with Womponog, Lakota and Iroquois nations. Preserving native languages has become something of a calling for her.
“This is my mission and this is my platform,” she said. “When you lose your language you lose your culture.”
Having books in the language honors the richness of these cultures, especially for young people.
“It’s bringing in a lot of pride in who they are, who they were and who they want to be,” Nih’shaw said.
Nih’shaw recently legally changed her last name. After a divorce, she couldn’t decide what name to use. She settled on an Iroquois name to honor her father and make sure that their shared Iroquois heritage lives on.
A need for systemic recognition
For some Native Americans in New Hampshire, the personal connection to their heritage is at odds with a lack of recognition from the widespread public.
Gould recalled when the state government created the Commission on Native American Affairs in 2010. A legislator argued that Native Americans never lived in New Hampshire, that they simply passed through the land.
“It glared a spotlight on the ignorance,” Gould said. “We’ve done a lot of great things that we’ve really enjoyed and we’ve accomplished a lot of things in our lifetimes, but forming the Commission was an eye opener. People honestly don’t think Indians lived in New Hampshire? How can that be?”
Gould said that was a pivotal moment in which she and many other Native people realized just how much New Hampshire needed public education about the Abenaki – the people native to what is now New Hampshire, Vermont, Maine and southern Canada.
Today, Gould is an organizer with the Abenaki Trails Project, an initiative started in 2020 that partners with New Hampshire cities and towns to highlight Abenaki historical sites. The project’s goal is to honor and share a more complete Abenaki history by working with several sources.
“You can’t go to one historical society and get a very accurate picture — you need to look at the towns around it as well. One of the lessons of Abenaki Trails is that once you connect the bits and pieces that each town has, you get a much more complete picture,” Gould said.
Chief Paul Bunnell of the Ko’asek (Co’wasuck) Traditional Band of the Abenaki Nation has noticed more non-Native people approaching the tribe to seek things like educational resources and land acknowledgment.
“I’ve been doing that a lot lately, and it’s just amazing how many people are coming with this new wave of land acknowledgment that the land that they’re on is the Abenaki territory,” he said.
The band is developing a cultural center in Claremont, creating educational resources and building connections with people throughout the state. After a group of parents inquired about resources for their kids to learn more about the Abenaki, the band formed a Home School Committee and began putting out 30-minute lessons.
“To get mothers that came to us like that for the correct history, that was kind of an honor for us,” Bunnell said.
The state Commission on Native American Affairs shares this goal of public education. Chair Anne Jennison said one of the body’s top priorities is to make sure Granite Staters understand that Abenaki people still live here — regardless of recognition status.
“It just is a shame to me that there’s not more time allotted or more importance given to educating in the schools and the general public about the Abenaki people because it has had such active erasure,” Jennison said.
Homecoming for generations separated from their heritage
There’s a misconception among the public that unless a person is fully Native American, they can’t identify as such, said Pernaw. And yet, “there’s no such thing as a 100 percent Native American,” she said.
Debunking that myth is part of public education for Nih’shaw. She has had people ask about her blood quantum — the amount of Native American blood that she has — without realizing that the question is deeply personal and can be offensive.
“Blood quantum is not something you ask about,” she said. Yet when she tells people that, most are willing to learn, she added.
Surprisingly, modern technology is also helping connect people who may have been separated from their Abenaki heritage, says Denise Pouliot, head female speaker of the Cowasuck Band of the Pennacook Abenaki People.
“I like to call it a homecoming,” she says. After generations of Native children being separated from their culture through slavery, boarding schools, foster care, people are able to access digital files that connect them with their heritage.
“It doesn’t change the way they were raised because these people were still raised with indigenous heritage, but it’s just that they didn’t have a name for it,” Pouliot said. Now, they can name it as Native and more specifically, Abenaki.
For many families, there was trauma associated with being Native. But now, folks can “find their heritage and be proud of where they came from, and not just have that one terrible snippet of their history left,” Pouliot said.
“Reclaiming part of your history and part of your identity, helps bring us all closer together because the more we understand about our past and where we came from, we can understand a little bit better of where we’re gonna be going,” she said. “As a society, as a community, we want more for ourselves. And that includes a better environment. It includes conversations and communication with each other. It includes compassion and love for each other as humans.”
Expanding the community – and awareness of it – doesn’t dilute the connection, but makes it stronger.
“As indigenous people, I think we need to welcome back these people who have been lost for so long,” Pouliot said. “We need to open our doors and educate not just our lost relatives, but of the greater community as well. We’re all in one canoe and we’re in this canoe together.”
While not all Native Americans seek government recognition, most of those who spoke to the Collaborative for this story are in favor of it. Pouliot’s group, the Cowasuck Band of the Pennacook Abenaki People, has filed for federal recognition. Just as exploring personal lineage can be significant, there’s power in having people outside your heritage recognize your culture and ancestry.
“We’re slowly working towards that,” said Pernaw. “We are real people. We have assimilated, but we haven’t disappeared.”
These articles are being shared by partners in The Granite State News Collaborative as part of our race and equity project. For more information visit collaborativenh.org.