Kik8mkwak: the Garden Fish

kik8mkwak white suckers garden fish

Look in the mid-ground of this photo, taken at noon in mid-September above the shallows of the Kwanitekw/ Connecticut River at the confluence of Kitad8gan Sibo/Whetstone Brook. A squadron of suckers, kik8mkwak, maybe 50 or 60 of them, are all hovering there in the warming sun, facing west and waiting for the next big thing to wash down from the hills. The name “kik8mkwa” in Western Abenaki literally means “field or garden fish,” from their use in traditional planting as fertilizer, specifically kik8n = improved land or garden plus -akw = fish. White suckers will move upstream in May to spawn, traveling in great numbers from their usual haunts in lakes and rivers into the smaller tributary brooks and streams. Rather than using the more valuable anadromous shad, salmon, alewives, and herring for planting, the less desirable and easily procured suckers fit the bill quite well.

A story from Dr. Fred Wiseman illustrates the practice well: “Former Koasek Chief Nancy Millette says that when she was a child, she and her little friends went to the Connecticut River and its tributaries in the spring to catch the sucker fish that ran in huge schools so thick “that your could almost walk upon them.” She says the fish were not for eating, but for the gardens. This was a revelation to me, because I had known that the Abenaki word for sucker fish was “kikômkwa,” and the first syllable was hauntingly similar to “kikôn,” the Abenaki word for field. I had dismissed the connection, but after Chief Nancy’s information sunk in, I discovered from 18th-century Abenaki dictionaries that the word originally meant “the garden fish.” So linguistics from years ago explains an obscure cultural connection between spring fish runs and the gardens that were being prepared at the same time. Today, it is traditional to insert one or more fish or parts of fish “about the size of your open hand” 8 to 18 inches deep in the mound.”


Notes on a Lost Flute, Kerry Hardy, 2009.

Sun Dance Season: An Abenaki Summer, Fred Wiseman, 2015.

Ruffed Grouse

ruffed grouse pakesso abenakiKnown to many New Englanders as the partridge, the ruffed grouse is a solitary dweller in our northern woodlands, the size of a small chicken. Expertly camouflaged with its banded and speckled feathers in brown, gray, and white, it is often unseen by a passerby until it explodes into noisy flight. In the spring of the year, the male woos his mate with a courtship display, fanning his wide banded tail, flaring his eponymous neck ruff, and lifting his head crest, like a dancing warrior. But the defining nature of this performance is his drumming: standing on a favored log or stump, he beats the air with his wings, in a progressively faster thump…..thump….thump…thump..thump thump thump. The deep throbbing beat carries far through the trees and undergrowth, sounding like someone repeatedly trying to turn over an engine – very puzzling until one knows its source. These birds can still easily be found (when seen!) in the deciduous and coniferous forests of Sokoki territory. The landscape management practices of the indigenous people, the Sokwakiak – which can be termed agroecology – with controlled burning and specific forest selection, would have encouraged the varied edge habitat in which the ruffed grouse thrives. To this end, it can sometimes be seen on the edge of a roadside in the morning, picking up gravel for its gizzard and catching the early rays of the sun, or in the late afternoon, taking a dust bath. In characteristic Aln8ba8dwaw8gan fashion, the Western Abenaki name for this warrior of the woods is pakesso, the drummer. The word for drum itself is pakholigan, an instrument/tool for hitting. From Kerry Hardy’s Notes on a Lost Flute

The ubiquitous Algonquian root pok-, which indicates some kind of hitting or beating, shows up in the following [ruffed grouse] names: pahpahkahas (Natick), paupock (Narragansett), pohpohkussu (Massachusett), and pakess8 (Loup, Maliseet, and Passamaquoddy).