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Abenaki Indian Legends, Grammar and Place Names (1932) by Henry Lorne Masta


Abenaki Indian Legends, Grammar and Place Names (1932) by Henry Lorne Masta


Henry Lorne Masta was born on March 9, 1853. He was an Abenaki writer, teacher, and a scholar of the Abenaki Language. He was also a respected leader in the Abenaki community. Lisa Brooks, author of The Common Pot, wrote that Masta, “published language texts from Odanak that followed directly on Wabanaki teaching books” (Brooks, 249). Masta published Abenaki Legends, Grammar, and Place Names in 1932. He began writing the book in 1929, at 77 years of age. Abenaki is a member of the Algonquian languages family and is spoken in Quebec and neighboring US states. There are few native speakers—the language is spoken by only 3% of the current Abenaki population.

Masta’s Abenaki Legends, Grammar, and Place Names is not just a dictionary, but also a dissection of an immense collection of different Abenaki words, names, and tales. Titles and stories are broken down and explained for the reader. Their origins are traced, and their importance is sketched. In constructing and compiling these extensive explanations, Masta is actively revitalizing the Abenaki language and promoting decolonization through the continued practice of the dying language. Masta is also utilizing the Abenaki language so as to carry on the myths and cosmos of the native people.  

Within the foreword written by A. Irving Hallowell, a professor of anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania, he explains, “While the phonetic symbols used (in this book) are not refined to the extent demanded in academic circles, a reasonable degree of systemization has been achieved” (Hallowell, 11). This excerpt is an attempt to warn the reader that the writer will be using traditional Abenaki spellings and letter combinations. Masta chose this method in an effort to encourage proper pronunciation, thus keeping all words and names as true to the language as possible. This, then, is a distinct effort from Masta towards decolonization; Masta has challenged the “academic circles,” and has successfully published a piece of oral history that remains true to the roots of the native peoples.

Furthermore, the foreword includes several examples of the “reasonable degree of systemization” used by Masta so as to teach the reader how to pronounce certain letter combinations unique to Abenaki. For example: “‘w’ preceding or following a consonant is equivalent to 'u' pronounced as 'oo' in English, "moon," the difference being that in Abenaki this sound is uttered with even a more marqed [sic] lip protrusion and weak breath” (Hallowell, 11). This is a vivid example of the author’s initial goal, which is to promote decolonization through language revival. In the aforementioned excerpt, the reader is instructed how to pronounce certain words through physical direction. This adds to revival efforts and challenges the norm of the more widely spoken languages.      

In addition to traditional Abenaki words and grammar, Masta lists ecological titles and their origins. An example from “The Meaning of Indian Names of Rivers, Lakes Etc.” section of the dictionary follows:

NAHANT, Mass. This celebrated watering place is a part of the beautiful town of Lynn. It is a peninsula, jutting out about five miles into Massachusetts Bay and forms Lynn Bay on the south. Nahant means point. (Masta, 93)

Masta has taken his dictionary and threaded into it several legends of his people and stories of different battles amongst native tribes. For the first two parts of Abenaki Legends, the book reads much like a religious or historical text. In his work, “The Life and Traditions of the Red Man, Joseph Nicolar explains that, “Henry Lorne Masta, former Head Chief of the St. Francis Abenaki at Odanak, Quebec, included three separate stories of Abenaki-Iroquois entanglements in his Abenaki Legends, Grammar, and Place Names” (Nicolar, 85). In Anthropological Linguistics, an archive of languages from Indiana University’s Anthropology Department, Masta, along with Pierre Paul Osunkhirine and Chife Joseph Laurent, is described as, “A native author who produced translations, legends, and descriptions of language, in addition to religious materials for the use of both Catholics and Congregationalists” (Grant, 577). These accreditations affirm that Masta is both historically accurate in his retellings and respected in his religious inclusions. These additions are important because they further display Masta’s wide net of efforts to encourage an embrace of Abenaki culture.


One of the first of Masta’s legends that the reader encounters involves John Loden, an Abenaki, and his wife Mary Nigen, a Wawenock of Becancour, Quebec. In the legend, they are headed to Batiscan River near Rat River, Quebec, late one summer. Colin M. Coates, in his The Metamorphoses of Landscape and Community in Early Quebec, offers insight into the area’s past: “The origins of the word “Batiscan” are obscure, though it doubtless has an Amerindian derivation” (Coates, 14).In the introduction, Masta announces that the couple are from different tribes. Although they may have originated separately, they have come together as husband and wife. The writer also uses landscape to establish a geographical reference and a connection to the earth, strengthened by Coates’ research.

As John and Mary walk, they come across a cherry bush. While snacking, they encounter a big bull moose, which John shoots on the head with cherry stones. The moose leaves, uninjured but uninterested. As they continue, Mary explains to John that the moose was actually a sorcerer, “Remark what I say... Thou shalt see something more wonderful than this ere thou again comest to St-Francis River” (Masta, 44). Mary is warning John that he will see something spectacular before he returns to St-Francis River, foreshadowing the end of the story. After spending the winter “thereabouts” and “remained there until the latter part of the summer,” the duo begins the journey back the way they came. They eventually come to the cherry tree again, but it is different, elevated on a rock that is shaped like a “gourd.” When John climbs the rock and begins picking cherries, Mary soon hears him call for help. She runs up to his unconscious body and wakes him. “Just then the moose was walking away with the small elevation and the big cherry tree on his back and horns; at the same time John and Mary heard someone say: ‘Mary, Mary, John, Mary, Mary, John Loden, Mary Nigen” (Masta, 45). The story ends with Mary telling John that now he sees what a sorcerer can do. John responds, “It is so amazing that I can hardly believe it.” 

There is literary intricacy involved in this story, which is meant to illustrate the interconnectivity between different peoples, as well as their connection with the earth. Through John and Mary’s travels and the landmarks mentioned, the story displays the relationship that humans share with earth and nature: people live in tandem with the earth, and it is where all life begins and ends. Descriptive language aids in the symbolism: the gourd is symbolic of the fruitfulness of nature and its ability to sustain life. The physical difference in the land, the “elevation,” symbolizes the malleability of nature and represents change as inevitable. The aggression of the moose is symbolic of the force of nature and its ability to fight back after being mistreated, so unstoppable and awesome that humans, like John, can hardly believe it. Through the combination of extensive language use (the story is presented in both Abenaki and in English), Masta promotes the use of native language, while at the same time passing on and revitalizing a legend of Abenaki culture and ideals of the native people even to non-speakers.


In conclusion, Henry Lorne Masta’s Abenaki Legends, Grammar, and Place Names serves not only as a dictionary of an imperiled language, but as a tool of revitalization of a culture, and decolonization through the expression of linguistic mechanics and the retelling of timeless legends. In The Oxford Handbook of Indigenous American Literature, author James Howard Cox credits Masta for revitalizing the Abenaki language:

Finally, a number of Native writers in the Northeast published or composed books, journals, and documents in their Indigenous languages, enabling, perhaps without knowing it, the revitalization movements of the late twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Odenak Abenaki writers, including Peter Paul Wzôkhilain, Joseph Laurent, and Henry Lorne Masta, published awikhiganak, Western Abenaki language books, designed for teaching their students English. These works are being used today by language teachers, creative writers, and community members on both sides of the border to continue an endangered language that has survived centuries of colonization (Cox 552).

With the inevitability of further decline among Abenaki speakers and therefore the language itself, it is authors and scholars like Henry Lorne Masta that can be credited with succeeding in resuscitating a struggling culture. In their determined and unwavering efforts, Masta and his peers have also inspired future generations to continue the work.

Works Cited

Brooks, Lisa Tanya. The Common Pot: The Recovery of Native Space in the Northeast. U of Minnesota Press, 2008.

Coates, Colin M. The Metamorphoses of Landscape and Community in Early Quebec. McGill-Queens Press, 2000.

Cox, James Howard, James H. Cox, and Daniel Heath Justice. The Oxford Handbook of Indigenous American Literature. Oxford University Press, 2014.

Grant, Anthony P. "Review of Western Abenaki Dictionary, Volume 1: Abenaki-English; Volume 2: English-Abenaki by Gordon M. Day." Anthropological Linguistics. 38.3 (1996): 576-8. JSTOR. Web. 14 August 2015.

Masta, Henry Lorne. Abenaki Indian Legends, Grammar and Place Names. La Voix des boisfrancs, 1932.

Nicolar, Joseph. The Life and Traditions of the Red Man:  A Rediscovered Treasure of Native American Literature.  Duke University Press, 2007.


Masta, Henry Lorne




Dean Fiotto, UNH '15


Public Domain


English, Abenaki







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