Anne Jennison is constantly referred to as if she isn’t here anymore. An indigenous resident of New Hampshire, Jennison said people default to talking about the Abenaki in the past, a habit that speaks to a long, dark history.
“Except for indigenous people themselves, they are almost invariably referred to in the past tense — like a great big rubber eraser literally has taken the history,” she said.
And yet, Native Americans are – and always have been – part of New Hampshire. Archeological evidence shows that native people have been living in New Hampshire for more than 13,000 years. Today, about 4,000 Granite Staters, 0.3 percent of the state’s population, identify as Native American. Many people feel that it’s time to more widely recognize Native Americans in New Hampshire, both past and present.
Ignoring Native Americans in New Hampshire perpetuates the sense of erasure that Native American residents of New Hampshire feel.
“There was just a concerted effort to wipe out the Native American population in New England,” said Jennison, who is the chair of the state’s Commission for Native American Affairs. “There are still concerted efforts to say there are no Native people in New Hampshire anymore, which is ridiculous. There are, regardless of whether or not they’re Abenaki.”
A long history, forced underground
For centuries, New Hampshire was home to the Abenaki, a group of Native Americans who lived in Vermont, New Hampshire, Maine and southern Canada. In New Hampshire, the Abenaki would typically move from season to season, traversing back and forth across the Connecticut River, depending on where different resources were available, said Robert Goodby, an anthropology professor at Franklin Pierce University
English settlers didn’t understand that pattern, leading to modern day misunderstandings that Native people never truly lived in New Hampshire and were just “passing through,” he said.
“But the archaeological work has shown they would come to the same places, say, every spring. We have a fishing site in Swanzey, where we have evidence of 4,000 years of continuous visits, and at the Amoskeag falls in Manchester there is evidence for 8,000 years of continuous springtime fishing visits,” Goodby said. “There was a permanent presence, because these folks kept coming back to these places.”
When European colonists arrived, they brought genocide, disease, warfare and scalp bounties. Then came the American Indian Removal Act of 1830, which forced Native Americans to move west of the Mississippi, off their homelands, said Jennison. Abenaki that remained in New Hampshire assimilated because their lives depended on it.
“Especially in the Northeast, we were driven underground during the extermination attempts, the scalping bounties, the eugenics out of Vermont,” said Chief Paul Bunnell of the Ko’asek (Co’wasuck) Traditional Band of the Abenaki Nation. “A lot of us that survive today are predominantly white, and we were able to hide within the census. What has happened is there’s so many people that still mistrust the government.”
Even today, that legacy persists. While the most recent Census data shows about 4,000 Native Americans in New Hampshire, Jennison estimates there are between 7,000 and 10,000 Native people in the state.
Abenaki culture never disappeared, said Michael Caduto, author of “A Time Before New Hampshire: The Story of a Land and Native Peoples.” It was, he said, simply kept private.
“Because of the racism and prejudice toward Native people, they quietly practiced their culture,” Caduto said. “Now, we’re at a point where they are just emerging from several hundred years of quietly living in the communities.”
That’s a message reinforced in a statement by the Cowasuck Band of the Pennacook Abenaki People, one tribal group among several across the state.
“We are among you, working beside you in all walks of life. Unless we told you who we were, you would probably never know us,” it reads.
Compared to its neighbors, New Hampshire has done little to acknowledge the original residents of its lands. It is the only state in New England without any state or federally recognized tribes, and there is no mechanism for tribes to apply for recognition. The state has not established Indigenous Peoples’ Day or banned Native American mascots in schools.
Vermont formally recognized four tribes in 2011 and 2012. Maine and Vermont and the City of Boston have replaced Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples’ Day. In 2019, Maine’s legislature unanimously passed a bill that prohibits Native American mascots in public schools — an effort that recently stuttered to a halt in the N.H. House after a 170-143 vote to kill the proposed legislation.
“On the surface it would appear that these are little things, but they’re not,” Jennison said. “They change the entire public’s perception. If you can wake a few people, that becomes a ripple effect.”
New Hampshire established the Commission for Native American Affairs in 2010. The commission is tasked with promoting Native American heritage and furthering the needs of the state’s Native community through policy and programming focused on the preservation and protection of indigenous remains and indigenous cultural artifacts.
While the Commission gained a handful of new members this year — allowing the body’s first meeting in 10 months on March 29 — the Commission has existed since 2010 with no budget, no office and no staff.
“It’s like sending kids to school and not giving them pencils and paper,” Jennison said. “It’s encouraging on the one hand that the Commission will be able to function again; it’s incredibly discouraging that it’s taken this long.”
Christine Nih’shaw, one of those new appointees, said that the commission has an energy and drive that it hasn’t had in the past.
“We have a lot of fire under us,” she said. “We’re really excited and fired up about new things.”
But before the Commision can make major decisions, it needs to foster more widespread awareness. Before her appointment, Nih’shaw wasn’t even aware the Commission existed. She considers herself involved in the Native communities in New Hampshire, so if she didn’t know about the commission, most other Granite Staters likely don’t either, she said.
Working against New Hampshire’s widespread sense of Native erasure is one of the Commission’s top goals, according to Jennison, but doing so is made much more difficult without support or acknowledgement from the state.
“If there’s anything that is the Commission’s number one priority, it’s to make sure the people of this state are given every opportunity possible to understand that the Abenaki are still here,” she said.
A failed attempt
for land acknowledgement
The latest effort for state support would have acknowledged the indigenous land that New Hampshire now stands on. As cities and towns throughout the state celebrate their 400th settlement anniversaries over the next few years, HB 1357 would have included a symbolic acknowledgement in state law that New Hampshire now stewards what are Native American homelands.
“Our state history is diverse, spanning through times of war and peace and we cannot discuss the formation of this state without the inclusion of the Indigenous land occupation and contributions,” Denise and Paul Pouliot of the Cowasuck Band of the Pennacook Abenaki People, who helped draft the bill language, said in a statement to legislators who were considering the bill.
The bill, they said, was a symbolic opportunity to “address a historic oversight and to share the state’s past in an inclusive way.”
“What we’re doing here is we’re asking that you put this historical footnote — that’s all it is really — that this land was once occupied by our ancestors,” Paul said at the bill’s hearing in early February.
House Bill 1357 was killed in the House March 16 after a 183-151 vote. The Executive Departments and Administration Committee had previously recommended the bill fail on a 10-8 vote that fell mostly along party lines, with most Republicans opposed.
“It is an indisputable fact that there were peoples in the land which we now know as New Hampshire long before it became New Hampshire, Tony Lekas (R-Hillsborough) wrote in the committee report.
The committee was concerned the bill might be construed as an avenue for land claims in years to come, Lekas said. Yet in Vermont, similar concerns were addressed in the legislation, which explicitly states that the recognition is not a basis for claiming interest in land.
In addition, Lekas wrote that changing legislation wasn’t the best way of recognizing natives in New Hampshire.
“If people want to acknowledge and honor the peoples who were here before us it would be more effective to organize public celebrations of that history,” he wrote. “That will likely be more effective than making a change to a statute that few are likely to see.”
However, for Jennison and others, simple acknowledgement is powerful in changing the narrative that New Hampshire has no Native American people.
“The land acknowledgment is really important, because if it’s adopted, and if it’s used at state events, people are going to hear ‘the Abenaki people past and present,’’’ Jennison said. “They’re going to hear ‘and present.’ It’s just a subtle thing that I think will permeate people’s consciousness after a while.”
Value in recognition
Pouliots said the legislation that was killed in the House was consistent with what many churches, museums, schools and other institutions have already done by adopting land acknowledgement statements.
The Pouliots have previously worked in several locations to craft land statements, including the University of New Hampshire’s Land, Water and Life Acknowledgement.
“As we all journey on the trail of life, we wish to acknowledge the spiritual and physical connection the Pennacook, Abenaki, and Wabanaki Peoples have maintained ...” the statement reads. “We also acknowledge the hardships they continue to endure after the loss of unceded homelands and champion the university’s responsibility to foster relationships and opportunities that strengthen the well-being of the Indigenous People who carry forward the traditions of their ancestors.”
Other New Hampshire organizations that have adopted land acknowledgement statements include the Currier Museum of Art in Manchester, the Portsmouth Public Library, the Durham Human Rights Commission and the Nature Conservancy, which is based in Concord, Denise Pouliot said.
“We just feel like that land acknowledgement is really relevant to all of the work we do here in Portsmouth, particularly as the city’s 400th anniversary is approaching,” said Laura Horwood-Benton, community relations librarian at Portsmouth Public Library. “We think it’s especially important to acknowledge the many thousands of years of human history that preceded the founding of Portsmouth.”
These instances, although limited, are meaningful for the Pouliots and other indiginous people in New Hampshire. Oyster River Middle School in Durham permanently included the Abenaki language and icons on the front of its new building, in addition to adopting a land statement.
“It’s pretty awesome and incredibly emotional to see,” Denise Pouliot said.
National rankings indicate New Hampshire has some of the weakest gun laws in the nation, and yet the state also maintains a low rate of firearm violence.
This provides an argument gun-rights advocates frequently use to oppose regulation attempts, but gun-control supporters say the state may be benefitting from firearm restrictions in nearby states and that violence statistics are open to interpretation.
N.H. Senate President Chuck Morse, R-Salem, told The Sentinel’s editorial board last week gun violence doesn’t lie in the weapon but in the person wielding it.
“I don’t believe it’s a gun problem because look at New Hampshire. We have more guns than probably any other state per capita,” said Morse, who is running for U.S. Senate. “We have open carry, we passed constitutional carry, and we’re one of the safest states in the nation.”
The average proportion of adults living in a home with a firearm between 2007 and 2016 in New Hampshire was 39 percent, compared to about 30 percent nationally, according to a Rand Corp. study.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says that, in 2020, the state’s firearm death rate was ninth-best in the country, at 8.9 per 100,000 people, mostly by suicide.
But New Hampshire also has the 23rd-highest rate of gun suicides and gun-suicide attempts in the U.S., according to the CDC.
The Giffords Law Center, an organization with offices in Washington, D.C., and San Francisco that works to prevent gun violence, gives New Hampshire an “F” for the strength of its gun regulations.
One of the organization’s recommendations is that the state adopt a law allowing courts to issue protection orders to help prevent people in crisis, such as those contemplating suicide, from accessing guns.
N.H. Rep. David Meuse, D-Portsmouth, who backed gun-safety legislation that didn’t advance this past session, disputes the notion that New Hampshire’s gun-violence statistics argue against more gun regulations.
“What I would say is, you know, take a look at the top 10 stories in the Union Leader on most days, and most of them are stories around gun violence in New Hampshire,” Meuse said.
He also said that accidental shootings or gun incidents involving children or that are part of a suicide attempt often go unreported.
There’s no question gun safety can be improved in the state through better regulations, Meuse said.
“One of the things that people don’t understand is that the vast majority of those in favor of laws like background checks, waiting periods for gun purchases and school safety zones, it’s not because we want to take anybody’s guns away, it’s because we want better safety,” he said.
As a Boy Scout in the 1960s, Meuse had a National Rifle Association instructor certify his completion of requirements for a marksmanship merit badge.
“All of the focus back then was really on gun safety,” he said. “Now we’ve kind of hit this stage where the point doesn’t seem to be about safety, it just seems to be about possessing the most powerful weapon you can buy.”
The key is not to wait until there is a school shooting in New Hampshire before adopting common-sense gun regulations, he said, adding photographs of the faces of children who have died in school shootings can be haunting.
“Like any parent, when I see those faces, it’s hard not to think of the face of your own child.”
Everytown, a nonprofit that researches firearms policy and advocates for gun safety, gives New Hampshire a gun-law-strength ranking of No. 42 nationally, placing it among a dozen states it calls “national failures” for lacking sufficient regulations.
Other Northeastern states have much higher rankings, such as New York, No. 3; Massachusetts, No. 4; Connecticut, No. 5; New Jersey, No. 8; Rhode Island, No. 12; Pennsylvania, No. 15; Vermont, No. 22, and Maine, No. 26.
“The Granite State’s weak laws are an outlier in its region — each of the other northeastern states has a much stronger system,” the group said in an online analysis. “The robust laws in New England provide a partial explanation for New Hampshire’s low gun violence rate relative to its weak gun policies, as the state is protected by its neighbors.”
New York-based Everytown ranked the states based on 50 metrics, including whether permits are required to carry a concealed, loaded firearm.
In 2017, the first bill Chris Sununu signed after becoming governor was to end this permit requirement, making New Hampshire a so-called “constitutional carry” state.
In June, he signed into law House Bill 1178 to prohibit the state from enforcing federal regulations on guns, including presidential executive orders.
“New Hampshire has a proud tradition of responsible firearms stewardship, and I’ve long said that I’m not looking to make any changes to our laws,” Sununu said in a written statement at the time. “This bill will ensure that New Hampshire’s law enforcement efforts will be on our own State firearms laws — and that’s where I believe their focus should be.”
Some law enforcement officials say the legislation could hinder police.
“That law is not going to be helpful to law enforcement at all,” Keene Police Chief Steven Russo said in phone interview Friday. “There are certain circumstances when we confiscate weapons based on a federal law.”
Some convictions for domestic violence can result in a loss of gun privileges under federal law, but not state law, he said.
Also, New Hampshire has no state law prohibiting non-students from having firearms in a school zone, but there is a federal law that allows authorities to act quickly if someone brings a gun to a school.
Unlike many other states, New Hampshire statutes allow people to carry guns into bars, city halls and the Statehouse.
Meuse said that if there were ever an active-shooter situation in crowded Representatives Hall, he wouldn’t feel any safer knowing that some of his fellow lawmakers are armed.
“The last thing that I would want are some of these legislators who envision themselves as good guys with a gun squeezing off rounds in any direction,” he said. “There’s a reason why virtually every other state in the nation has a law that basically prohibits firearms in the Statehouse except by law enforcement personnel.”
Still, much of the Republican-controlled state Legislature continues to support gun rights. Rep. Bob Lynn, R-Windham, for instance, is a staunch opponent of gun-control measures.
“The present administration in Washington regards the Second Amendment as a pesky nuisance that it would repeal in a heartbeat if it had the power to do so,” Lynn said during debate on HB 1178.
In June, President Biden signed bipartisan legislation to expand background checks for gun buyers under 21 and provide funding for state mental health programs, drug courts and for red flag laws allowing temporary confiscation of guns from people found by a judge to be dangerous.
Biden also has called for cracking down on unmarked “ghost” guns that are sold as kits and can’t be traced. He also called for universal background checks and a ban on assault weapons with high-capacity magazines, saying, “You think the deer are wearing Kevlar vests?”
Sununu signed a bill this year allowing semi-automatic rifles to be used for hunting as long as their magazines are limited to six rounds.
LEBANON — A new study by Dartmouth cancer researchers finds that youth cancer rates are higher throughout the Northeast, not just in New Hampshire, as a previous study reported.
The new study, published last week by researchers from the Geisel School of Medicine at Dartmouth and the Dartmouth Cancer Center, tested data from a 2018 report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which found that New Hampshire had the highest incidence rate of cancer for people ages 19 and under in the U.S., with a rate of 205.5 cases per 1 million people per year.
The 2018 paper, published by Dr. David Siegel, also reported that the Northeast region of the U.S. — containing the New England states, New York, Pennsylvania and New Jersey — had higher rates of pediatric cancer than the country’s South, Midwest and West regions.
Judy Rees, a cancer data researcher who led the Dartmouth study, said she sought to analyze Siegel’s data further to learn if New Hampshire’s cancer rates were actually statistically higher than other states in the Northeast or similar to the region as a whole.
“What I wanted to look at was [whether] it should not be just New Hampshire that we are worried about,” Rees said in an interview on Wednesday.
Siegel’s report, which Rees described as “well done” and “good science,” only aimed to describe how cancer rates compared between regions and individual states, as opposed to testing the data to learn its potential importance.
While New Hampshire might have the highest incidence rate numerically speaking, Rees sought to learn how the state’s pediatric cancer rate compared statistically to the rest of the Northeast.
As part of the study, Rees’ team analyzed the childhood cancer rates by race or ethnicity, to see if regional patterns changed when comparing different demographic populations.
This approach does not result in different data from Siegel’s report, which also breaks down cancer rates by race and ethnicity. Rather, the Dartmouth study analyzed the earlier data to compare the states within the Northeast region, which Siegel’s paper did not do.
The Dartmouth study found cancer rates in the overall population, as well as among white and Black Americans, were higher in the Northeast than other regions of the country
Perhaps more importantly, the team found that New Hampshire’s incidence rate is not statistically different from other states within the Northeast.
While New Hampshire’s pediatric cancer rate may be above the region’s average, there is no significant variability between the Northeast states in terms of incidence rates, the study found. Nor is New Hampshire the only state in the Northeast with a significantly high incidence rate. New Jersey, with a rate of 192.3 annual cases per million people, is the third highest nationwide, for instance.
However, the Northeast’s childhood cancer rate, 188.8 annual cases per 1 million people is “significantly” higher statistically than the United States as a whole, with a rate of 174.4 annual cases per 1 million people.
“I think the main message of the paper is that the Northeast has a problem,” Rees said. “New Hampshire is not distinguishable from the other states in the region.”
Rees is currently conducting a similar regional study focused on cancer rates in adults. Studies have also shown that incidence rates for adults also are higher in the Northeast than other regions of the U.S.
“Based on our work, I think the most important questions now are, why does the Northeast have the highest childhood cancer rates in the country,” Rees said, “and is there something we as a region can do about it?”
The study states that the reasons for the higher rates are unclear and likely to be multifactorial. Other studies have identified that pregnancy at an older maternal age can increase the risk of pediatric cancer. Research has also shown that breastfeeding infants is beneficial to cancer prevention, but Rees said there is no single, obvious factor to reduce the risk, beyond maintaining a healthy lifestyle during pregnancy.
“Avoid smoking, avoid misusing drugs, stay physically active and avoid introducing new chemicals in the house,” Rees said. “We can’t do much about genetic factors.”
The study also shows some “big differences” in cancer types between the racial groups, Rees added. For example, the higher incidence of certain cancer types in the Northeast were not mirrored in the Hispanic population, whose rates in the Northeast were not significantly higher than in the other regions.
“There might be several different reasons for this,” Rees said. “But the fact that they are so different by race is one more reason why we should analyze it.”
Rees’ study of adults is also looking at variables such as risk factors or lifestyles that might explain the difference between the states.
As regional differences in pediatric cancer incidence are explored, Rees emphasizes the value of ongoing collaborations between Northeastern states’ health departments and epidemiologists, as experts seek to understand the causes and possible solutions.
The recent Dartmouth study was funded by the state of New Hampshire, which allocated $500,000 to conduct a series of projects on childhood cancer. The N.H. State Cancer Registry in Hanover and the N.H. Department of Environmental Services in Concord also contributed to the Dartmouth study.
To help reduce pediatric cancer risks, Rees also recommends examining homes for high levels of radon, a naturally occurring radioactive gas that can sometimes get trapped indoors after entering a building through cracks or other holes in the foundation. While there is no evidence that radon causes cancer in children, there is ample evidence that it is harmful over a lifespan.
Rees said an estimated 100 New Hampshire residents die every year from lung cancer who lived in a home with high radon levels in the air. According to the CDC, lung cancer is the primary adverse health effect of increased exposure to radon, which poses the second highest risk for lung cancer, next to smoking.
To learn about receiving a free radon test kit in New Hampshire, visit the N.H. Health and Human Services website at https://www.dhhs.nh.gov/programs-services/environmental-health-and-you/radon