From Merrimack to Chocorua, from Nashua to Winnipesaukee, New Hampshire owes much of its nomenclature to its pre-Colonial native people. But for a state so rich with Indian names and legends, official tribal status here is nil and offices for the Penacook and Abenaki consist of a phone and a street address. But that's about to change since, this summer, House Bill 1610 was signed into law establishing a first-ever New Hampshire commission on Native American affairs.
What? You didn't hear about it? Neither did most people. In fact, Google the bill and about the only citations you'll get are Facebook messages and podcasts from tribal leaders chatting among themselves in a virtual pow wow.
Ask someone to free-associate the words "Indian" and "New Hampshire" and chances are you'll wind up with "casino gambling." Odd, because with no reservations and not one federally recognized tribe, the chances of seeing an Abenaki Sun Casino in the Granite State are slimmer than the jackpot odds on the penny slots. So why, in a state where the capital city was once named for an Indian tribe, are there so few Indians? Maine has five federally recognized tribes, while even Massachusetts has one.
Reportedly, the last sighting of an actual, unreconstructed Indian in New Hampshire was over 100 years ago in Winnisquam near where the Shalimar Resort stands. He was seen climbing into a canoe and paddling off into history. One reason for the disappearance of the tribes, according to Peter Newell, director of the state's Inter-Tribal Council, is that during the years of persecution and hostility between settlers and Indians, many abandoned their heritage and assimilated. Some just claimed to be French Canadian.
Even so, there were more than 4,000 full-blooded Indians living in New Hampshire during the time of the last U.S. Census. Newell says he thinks the new census data will blow that number away, and that if you put all the citizens of the state with some significant tribal ancestry in one place, you'd have a Granite State Indian nation with roughly the population of Concord.
Newell hopes the new commission can fill in some gaps for native people here that have been left open without any official tribes - like providing family assistance or child welfare for Native Americans of any tribe, and offering authority to the preservation efforts of the state archeologist when Indian burial sites are uncovered.
He says the fact that the Governor signed the bill into law, after years of just trying to get a meeting with previous administrations, was a big step for local tribes.
"Normally, the only time we get noticed is at Thanksgiving, when the schools call us to come in and talk to the kids," he says. And that can be a bit awkward, since the Indian perspective on the holiday is that they brought all the food, but they weren't even invited to eat with the Pilgrims. But there's a chance to thank Indians for their many gifts and sacrifices on Nov. 14 when a Native American Monument is dedicated at the N.H. Veterans Cemetery in Boscawen. The Inter-Tribal Council will engrave a paving stone in exchange for a donation in support of the memorial. Visit nhitnac.tripod.com for information.