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Ne-Do-Ba's Response to Fred Wiseman's
Decolonizing the Abenaki

Written 1-Sep-2010
updated 2-Sep-2010


Ne-Do-Ba recently received a copy of Fred Wiseman's paper entitled Decolonizing the Abenaki: A methodology for detecting Vermont Tribal Identity. This paper was submitted to the State of Vermont as part of the S.222 § 853 Recognition Criteria, along with the documentation of four organizations seeking recognition as Abenaki in Vermont. Mr. Wiseman participated in creating the petition documents. The groups are 1) Elnu Tribe of the Abenaki; 2) Nulhegan Band of the Coosuck; 3) St. Francis Sokoki Band/Abenaki Nation at Missisquoi; 4) Lower Cowas (Northern Sector) Koasek Traditional Band of Koas Abenaki Nation. These documents are all now part of the public record.

Mr. Wiseman's Error

In this paper, Mr. Wiseman made a statement about what this organization believes concerning Abenaki family names and genealogy. His statement is completely false! We would like to take this opportunity to inform the public and the Vermont Legislature along with it's various committees and commissions, that Mr. Wiseman does not speak for this organization and should not presume to know where we stand on any issue without first discussing it with us. We caution everyone to please be very careful in accepting this material without first verifying it against external resources.

In the copy of the Decolonizing paper we received, Mr. Wiseman makes his statement concerning our organization on the bottom half of the 3rd page of text (it does not have page numbers so I can not properly cite it!). In this section of his paper, Mr. Wiseman is discussing what he refers to as a "Catch-22" concerning a genealogy requirement and a continuous residency requirement in the recognition process that was unfolding at that time in Vermont.

Mr. Wiseman erroneously claims;

"An excellent example promoting this fallacy are the "Ne-do-ba" and "Abenaki Justice" websites (; and The Ne-do-ba website clearly states that (except perhaps for the Missisquoi Valley "Robertson's Lease" which is too early for analysis of "1780-2009" historical and geographic continuity), the only satisfactory name-origin is from accepted Indian communities scores or hundreds of miles distant from VT."

Excuse us, Mr. Wiseman, but no where on the page you show a link to nor anywhere else on our website (both the new site and the original site) do we make any such statement. In fact, it is our belief that a large number of Abenaki People never lived at a reservation/reserve community or if they did, they were not there long enough to be recorded. In turn, we believe there are indeed many family names we are not yet aware of. It is part of the mission of this organization to try to document all Abenaki families, but most importantly those who where not recorded at the historical communities. The fact we have not been highly successful in documenting the off reservation/reserve families should not be seen as proof they did not exist or that we do not believe they exist. It is our opinion that the States of Vermont, Maine, New Hampshire, and New York as well as Quebec and New Brunswick very likely have historical Abenaki populations not found in the records at any of the official communities.

Vermont Recognition Criteria

So, if they are not documented at a recognized community, how do we document them? Here, at Ne-Do-Ba, we consider a large number of items as "circumstantial or collaborating evidence" of Native heritage. But, without a solid genealogical component involved in the process, such evidence is questionable at best. Without something (most commonly genealogy) linking the pieces together, most other evidence must be discounted since circumstantial evidence can often be explained by a number of valid possibilities. In no case do we simply accept what someone says, without some reasonable collaborating evidence. This is exactly why our web site does not contain data on these self-identified Vermont family names - we have seen no material evidence to collaborate the oral claims.

We want to point out, these petition documents where prepared for the purpose of demonstrating to the State of Vermont the groups in question are historical communities that have endured in Vermont and maintained a portion of Abenaki culture and tradition. The specific Vermont criteria being addressed are worded "§ 853, (b)(3) Documented traditions, customs, and legends that signify Native American heritage" and "§ 853, (b)(8) An enduring community presence within the boundaries of Vermont that can be documented by archaeology, ethnography, physical anthropology, history, genealogy, folklore and/or other applicable scholarly research."

In order to meet these requirements for recognition, we would anticipate a need to connect any evidence to the specific families (and/or their ancestors) in question - that is, the evidence must be connected in some definitive manner to current members of the organization seeking recognition in order to be proof of the group's claims of an enduring community. We would also anticipate the exclusion of any so called evidence that is only oral in nature (with no other evidence to collaborate it), since the criteria makes no specific mention of oral history as acceptable documentation. Certainly, we must discount anything said or reporting on from the 1970s onward (when it became fashionable to be Abenaki in Vermont and many started making public claims) unless there is solid supporting evidence. As much as we would love to believe everyone, people do lie and once they have done so, they tend to keep doing it to support their original lie. It is sad, but it is a part of human nature we must always keep in mind when dealing with oral information. Certainly, the majority of people do not lie about their heritage, but enough will to make it an issue that must be contended with in this recognition process - especially since recognition will provide special privileges and rights that will cost taxpayers at the State and Federal level. If you look into it, you will find heritage scams have been going on for a very long time [see (especially myth #6 and Other Myths, Hoaxes & Scams), Watch Out, and Fake Genealogies for examples].

To further explain our position on documenting Native heritage and the use of circumstantial evidence, we will use some examples from the petition documents submitted by the four groups seeking recognition.

Leister Fish Spear

Artifacts can be wonderful collaborating evidence of Native heritage in a family. In the Nulhegan petition document, Appendix 2, 3rd and 4th page they describe a fishing spear "found in a garage sale in Newport, VT". They further state "Unfortunately, the owner was dismissive of the spear, and did not know what it was used for, but only that it came from his father's house in Lake Park (North Derby)". The group claims this is independent evidence of a local Native fishing culture and go on to describe and date the spear. According to their own data, they date this spear at 1930s-1940s and certainly no earlier than 1920, since they claim the shaft is made from a 1920s fishing rod. They include a photo of the artifact. The artifact certainly does resemble a known type of Wabanaki fishing spear referred to as a leister. However, they do not provide any evidence to show any of their current members or their ancestors where living as neighbors to the owner of the spear in the 1930s-1940s. They do not show that any member family ever fished with a spear like this. They do not show any archaeological evidence to support any kind of fishing community in the area of this man's house. They do not provide any articles from newspapers or outdoors magazines describing any local person using this type of spear. They do not mention doing any research on the owner. Did the father even live in this region in the 1930s-1940s? If he did, did he run a sport camp or boarding house where a visitor might have left this artifact behind? Do they give us reason to believe this spear had to have been made by a Wabanaki person and not something a creative Yankee copied after seeing one. Indeed, they have not providing us with ANY evidence what so ever to connect this spear to their organization in any way. The spear alone, without any other collaborating evidence does not prove anything! It certainly does not support their claim to an enduring community that maintained tradition and culture, since they tell us the owner of this spear had no idea what it was.

To be fair, at the beginning of Appendix 2 in each of the four petitions it does state "This information is extracted from the Something of Value paper delivered to the Senate Committee on Economic Development, Housing and General Affairs on Jan 22, 2010." The paper mentioned may have additional information about this spear, other artifacts, or the research process they used. Ne-Do-Ba made an effort to locate a copy of the paper. The Legislative Archivist in Vermont was very helpful and made an extensive search of the records, but found no such paper. It appears this paper was presented orally but no physical copy was left with the Committee. So, even if this missing paper details the research behind this fishing spear and answers some of the questions we pose, the Vermont Commission charged with approving these petitions has no way of knowing about it, since they don't have a copy of the paper to refer to.

Our own research into the Wabanaki style leister or 3 pronged fish spear suggests this same style was also used by the Innu [see Innu Spear]. Frank Speck's Penobscot Man (pg. 83-85) published in 1940 has a wonderful sketch, description, and photo of this type of fishing spear. As part of his description, Speck says "It resembles those of northern tribes from the Atlantic to the Pacific." Speck also says "The fish spear (leister) was, and is yet, in general use ... ." So we have learned with very little effort; this type of fish spear is not entirely unique to the Abenaki, was described in a publicly available book at least as early as 1940, and was still in active use by Penobscot at the time the Vermont artifact in question was created.

John Colston and the Indian Blood Remedy

In Appendix 2, 5th and 6th page of the St. Francis' petition, we find another interesting and seemingly convincing artifact in an "Indian Blood Remedy" bottle. This patent medicine product was prepared by John Colston, who styled himself as "Indian Nurse" on the label. In the petition they claim, "The earliest local evidence of this Indigenous medicinal herbal collecting and processing activity is an artifact from John Colson [sic], the "Indian Nurse" who lived between Swanton and St. Albans. ... This [the bottle] is a 19th century "anchor" documentation of an active, long-term herbal collecting activity by people of professed Native identity in Franklin Co. VT."

Lacking in the petition is any background information on Mr. Colston, anything to link him to current members of the group seeking recognition, and any background information on the "Indian medicine" industry of the late 1800s and early 1900s. Without this information, no one should be expected to form an educated opinion concerning this isolated artifact as it might relate to the petitioning group.

Let's take a look at Mr. Colston. In the 1880 census for St. Albans, John Colston is found with his wife, Cristina (age 29, born in Canada to Irish and Scottish parents), and 3 daughters, Rhoda (age 7 born in Canada), Christina (age 2 born in Canada), and Lizzie (aged 6 months and born in Vermont). John was born about 1840 in New Hampshire, as were both of his parents. John and all members of his family are identified as white and John's occupation is "Indian Docktor".

Oops, already we have a problem. He is from New Hampshire and has been living in Canada for a number of years (as shown by the birth places of his children), so how can he represent documentation of a "long-term herbal collecting activity" in St. Albans, Vermont?

Normally, we would agree that race, as documented in census records, it not a reliable indicator. However, this is not your normal "hiding" type of guy we have here. He is openly referring to himself as a "Indian Nurse" and "Indian Doctor". He does not appear to be hiding anything. So, why would the census taker record him as white unless he was actually white?

We searched Canadian & US census indexes and records from 1850 to 1911 and did not find a single trace of John Colston/Coulston/Colson, or any other member of his family except in the 1880 census. This does certainly leave the possibility of him being Indian and therefore not recorded by other census takers. But there are other reasons, such as moving around so much he is missed by the census takers, perhaps he died and his widow remarried soon after, or he deliberately went into hiding because the law was after him. And of course, there is always the possibility that John Colston was an alias used only during the "Indian Doctor" period of his life.

That brings us to the other aspect of this artifact that needs to be explored. What is it's place in the general history of patent medicine in the late 19th and early 20th Century. We learned quite a bit about "Indian Medicine" a few years back while researching the Kickapoo Indian Medicine Company for the John Johnson story and Belmont Newell's Kiowa Indian Medicine Company. There was no FDA around to protect the public and the medical establishment was not policed. Anyone could claim the title of doctor, bottle their own concoctions, and sell them as medicine. Claiming the medicine was an old Indian cure added to the allure. The vast majority of "Indian medicine" in this time period was neither made by Indians nor real medicine. John Lockhart writes in his The Herbal Medicine Wheel manuscript "Medicine peddlers saw dollar signs in selling Indian cure-alls. They used the saying: 'If it's gonna work, you gotta get it from an Indian Doctor.' The term "Snake Oil Salesman" originates in this time period. The people selling these products are often referred to as Quacks, Fakirs, and Charlatans. [for more info see wikipedia and Medical Quackery]

Newspapers and magazines of the time period are filled with ads and testimonials for an amazing number of miraculous cure-alls. We found a vast array of patent medicine products making use of the word "Indian" (the term representing both Native Americans and people from India) on the label, including "Kickapoo Indian Blood Remedy", "Professor Hopkins Indian Blood Remedy", and "Old Indian Blood Remedy" from the Howell Drug Co.. They all went out of business shortly after the U.S. started passing laws to control medicine ingredients, labeling, and advertising.

In light of what we have learned about John Colston and the "Indian Medicine" fad, should we accept the idea he represents evidence of "long-term herbal collecting activity" at St. Albans without any additional evidence to collaborate it? This organization does not think so. We have not given up on John Colston having some Native blood, but without some other collaborating evidence, we will leave him designated "possible but not likely".

Fish Basket and Milk Crate

In Appendix 2, 2nd and 3rd page of the Koasek petition, we find a beautiful ash-splint fish trap paired with oral information about catching fish in a milk crate. We are asked to believe this represents "- a museum artifact and residual expedient behavior combining to document a survival of another traditional subsistence technology".

We have no doubt this fish basket described as being used to catch eel on the White River is an authentic Native artifact. However, we are not told anything more about this artifact, such as how the ECHO Center acquired it, if anything more is known about who used it, or what family donated it to the center. Lacking this level of detail, we have to assume the information is unknown and we should make no other assumptions about the artifact.

The modern story they refer to as evidence of "residual expedient behavior" is found in a 1996 paper written by Mariella Squire entitled The Contemporary Western Abenaki. On page 179 (not page 176 as stated in the petition) of her paper, Mariella tells us "a school aged boy from the Clyde River Valley in northern Vermont told me, during a presentation at a local museum," [ note: this part of the statement is not included in the petition document, but it is found in Ms. Squire's paper. Also there are minor differences in the actual quote as recorded by Squire and found in the petition document, so we have chosen to use Squire's exact wording here]

"My grandmother's Indian. She catches fish in a milk crate. She takes a milk crate down where the river goes between two rocks, and puts the crate in the water so the fish swim in and get caught."

Ms. Squire does not give us any other information such as a family name or if this is current or past activity. She also does not tell us where Grandmother lives, but does tell us where the child is from. The child is using current tense, so we assume this activity was still taking place at the time Ms. Squire recorded it. Milk crates have been around for a few decades, but certainly this activity would be taking place no earlier than the 1970s or so and no later than 1996 when the paper was published.

The most obvious problem with this oral evidence is that it relates to a family living in the Clyde River region and the old fish trap was used on the White River. The group seeking recognition is based in Newbury near the White River, but there is a period of 150 years between the modern group and the old fish trap. Where is the collaborating evidence to link the two? The milk crate story comes from the Clyde River, which is a very long ways from Newbury, so it does not apply. You provide no pictures, stories, or artifacts from within the group to suggest anyone in the group has maintained this technology over the generations. In our opinion, it is not enough to show that some person somewhere in the State may have used the technology in modern times - they have to show they have been using it all along. Otherwise, where is the proof of your enduring community?

Roving Bands

In the Elnu petition, we are asked to believe the "roving bands" of Abenaki basket makers mentioned in the 1st half of the 19th Century in the History of Rockford by Lyman Hayes published in 1907, must be local Abenaki rather than from Canada and New York as Mr. Hayes claims. The reasons given for them being local are two-fold. First they claim "the Indians are from away" statements of white historians are just part of a planned extinction by pen gambit, which we do agree with in principle. Secondly, they claim "It is unlikely that significant numbers of Abenakis traveled from the tiny early 19th century mill-working Abenaki enclave at Albany, NY, or the small, 100 household Odanak Reserve in Canada to the Bellows Falls region." We strongly disagree with this statement, as would most serious scholars of Abenaki history! First, a minor point - Hayes never suggests "significant" numbers in any of his statements concerning 19th Century Abenaki. One of their own petitions (the St. Francis group) documents a Lake Champlain basket making Abenaki band setting up shop in Philadelphia in 1835. The "Story of John W. Johnson", which takes place before the Civil War, demonstrates just how far basket making groups did travel. About 1848, John left Halifax, Nova Scotia with a load of baskets to sell. He traveled as far as Providence, RI, stopping in Boston, New York City, New Bedford, MA, and Fall River, MA before selling out and returning. The Watso family of Odanak is documented as traveling through Deerfield, MA in 1837. Other Odanak families are known to have traveled to Connecticut, New Jersey, New Hampshire, and Maine each summer season to sell baskets. Maine's Penobscot basket makers are documented all over New England in the early to mid 1800s.

However, whether the Bellows Falls basket making visitors of the early 1800s were from other regions of Vermont or elsewhere, makes little difference to the purpose of their petition. What matters is, how do the "roving bands" relate to the current members of the petitioning group? Can any members document a basket making tradition among their own ancestors that might tie them to these early reports? Can current members document ancestors living at or near to the Pine Hill encampment used by these groups? Where is the connection between these early to mid 1800s groups and current families that would demonstrate an "enduring community"?

Vermont Abenaki

Before closing, we would like provide a few examples to demonstrate we do believe surnames not originating at historic Native communities can be "authentic". We direct you to our Abram Burlett biography. The surname Burlett does not appear (to the best of our knowledge) at any recognized Abenaki community. We classify Abram Burlett as "probable - needs more data", his wife and children are classified as "documented". Abram was born in Winooski Falls, VT and died in Brooklyn, NY. Abram's wife claims a birth in Vermont and died in Middlebury VT in 1863. Ne-Do-Ba recognizes the Burlett family as Vermont Abenaki.

We are currently researching the family of Edward Marden, a Rev. War Ranger. He enlisted at Lunenburg, VT and served part of the war based out of Rutland, VT and the rest out of the Haverhill/Newbury region. His first wife was very likely an Abenaki woman from that region. Their son was a basket maker in New Hampshire and grandchildren established themselves in remote settlements all over the Northeast. An existing photo of one grandson shows the obvious features of a Native person. Edward may have been a mixed blood out of Canada. We classify this Marden family as "very likely - needs more data" and would classify them as Vermont/NH Coos Abenaki. The Marden surname is not to our knowledge found at any historical Abenaki community.

In closing, we would like to suggest any one wishing to learn the truth about their oral family history, or about the Vermont Abenaki, should make an effort to learn proper research techniques (or save your money to hire a professional), before embarking on your family history adventure.

Ne-Do-Ba Comment - - - do not pretend you know where this organization stands on any subject without asking us directly. Any false statements we discover attributed to this organization will be addressed in public.

Ne-Do-Ba Comment - - - we just fixed the Burlett link so it works, sorry for any inconvenience.

Ne-Do-Ba Comment - - - it has been suggested we are trying to drum up income for ourselves by mentioning hiring a professional. This organization in not in the business of providing "professional level" genealogies. You can not hire us. We do not charge anything for any research assistance we may provide to those seeking help. We have no payroll (completely volunteer only, including Officers and Board of Directors) and normally less $700 in the bank at any one time. We do programs for other organizations such as Historical Societies at no charge, but do require mileage reimbursement as well as meals and lodging when traveling any distant. If you have a family history mystery that you do not have the time or skilled to handle yourself, we encourage you to seek the assistance of a Certified Genealogist. If you are simply stuck and just need a fresh perspective, contact us and we will see if there is anything we can do to assist.

Researched and written by: Nancy Lecompte
Research & Education Director for Ne-Do-Ba

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