Native Americans of the Northeast Woodlands

The area known as the Northeast Woodlands encompasses close to one million square miles. Bordered by the Atlantic Ocean on the east, its northern frontier is the start of the boreal forest. To the west, the trees themselves separate the woodlands from prairie and plains, although fringe tribes hunted buffalo and shared other characteristics of Plains Indians. The region shades almost imperceptibly into the Southeast cultural area, which tends to be characterized by increased social stratification, denser populations, and a greater reliance on agriculture.

Aboriginal populations are difficult to establish, since disease epidemics began so long ago, but probably some two million Indians lived in the Northeast Woodlands in the sixteenth century. Southern New England and the mid-Atlantic region had the highest population densities. Thick forest covers the hilly Northeast Woodlands except in the far western regions, where relatively flat forest and prairie predominate. The highest mountain is Mount Washington (6,288 feet). The Appalachian Mountain chain and the Great Lakes dominate the region geologically. The entire area is well watered by an abundance of rivers and lakes. Major rivers include the Hudson, Ohio, Susquehannah, and St. Lawrence.

The region’s temperate climate is moderated along the coast by Gulf Stream influences. Winters in the northern parts are particularly severe; summers, although pleasantly warm, are also relatively short. Conifers mix with deciduous trees, replacing them in the more northern locations and the higher elevations.

All northeastern Indians but the Siouan Winnebagos spoke either Algonquian or Iroquoian languages. (Besides being a major northeastern language group, Algonquian was also spoken by former Woodlands and well-known Plains tribes such as the Arapaho, Blackfeet, and Cheyenne. Even the Californian Yuroks spoke an Algonquian language.) Most northeastern Indians cultivated corn and other aboriginal crops using slash-and-burn agriculture. They also hunted, fished, and gathered wild plant foods to varying degrees.


Non-natives arrived in this region before they came to any other place in the New World. Norse explorers from Scandinavia visited coastal areas from about Newfoundland to Cape Cod. However, the Norse apparently left little of permanent influence. It was the trade in beaver furs as well as disease epidemics, beginning around 1600, that transformed life in the northeast. By the mid-nineteenth century, many Indian groups had simply disappeared, and most of those who remained had been militarily defeated and largely resettled on reservations, some of which were located far from home. On the other hand, there are more Indians in the northeast today than many people realize. Although the Indians are largely acculturated, many proudly maintain an Indian identity. On both sides of the international border, Native Americans continue to struggle for recognition, land, economic development, and sovereignty.

People have lived in the Northeast Woodlands for at least 12,000 years. The first residents may have come from the Southwest and moved north and east as the glaciers receded. During the Paleo-Indian stage, small bands pursued ancient species of large game. Although the Archaic period begins with the disappearance of the last of the Canadian ice (as well as the ancient large game) about 6000 B.C.E., the environment was still changing dramatically during those years, and people did not become fully established in the northeast until around 3,000 years later. Hunter-fisher-gatherer subsistence patterns and material culture from that period lasted into the seventeenth century among some interior Algonquian people. The first Mesoamerican influences entered the region about 2000 B.C.E. in the form of pottery and polished stone items.

The great eastern prehistoric civilizations influenced northeastern people during the Woodland period (circa 1000 B.C.E.-1500 C.E.). The Adena culture flourished around Kentucky and Ohio between about 800 B.C.E. and 200 C.E. These people cultivated crops, produced pottery, and cremated their dead or buried them in a flexed position under mounds. They also used copper tools and evolved considerable artistic traditions. The use of red ocher in burial customs was also associated with Adena culture. It is important to note that all Woodland cultural influences manifested themselves in ways that were highly specific yet variable in terms of time and place.

Hopewell cultures (circa 300 B.C.E.-700 C.E.) extended from the Great Lakes to the Gulf Coast and west of the Appalachians to the Great Plains. They also focused on complex death rituals, including mounds, and are known for their stamped pottery and other types of fine art. Hopewell was marked by larger population centers and the establishment of vast trade networks that extended throughout most of the present-day United States east of the Rocky Mountains. These people were excellent metal workers as well as weavers and craftspeople.

Most influential in western parts of the region, Mississippian Culture (circa 700-1500) was characterized by intensive agriculture, fine pottery, distinctive art themes, stockaded villages, and flat-topped pyramid mounds. There was an important Mississippian center at Cahokia, near present-day St. Louis, whose influence extended north into Wisconsin. Other late prehistoric cultural complexes include Fort Ancient and Monongahela Woodland, both located in the Ohio Valley.

Aboriginal trade generally took place between local groups. Trade patterns favored the exchange of Iroquoian agricultural products and Algonquian animal products, especially in the north. Birch items also went to those groups south of the primary birch area. Other trade items included pottery, shell objects, and copper as well as foods. There was some limited specialization, such as Iroquois pipes and Nanticoke beads.

Algonquians tended to use swift and light birch-bark canoes, in contrast to slower Iroquoian elm-bark models. The Iroquois proper did much of their traveling over land. Men made small canoes for use on rivers and large ones (holding up to ten people or more) for lakes. Styles were based on expected wind and water conditions. Canoes were often framed with cedar and trimmed with maple. Bark was sewn onto the frame with spruce roots and caulked with pine pitch or spruce resin. Some groups, particularly those who needed seaworthy crafts, hollowed out tree trunks for dugout canoes as well.

Other material items included grass, root, and bark baskets; cords and rope hand-spun and braided from plant fibers; woven hempen and basswood bags; and soapstone and carved wood bowls and utensils. Women made ceramic vessels for cooking, serving, and storage. Some Great Lakes groups made (and traded) tools of native copper. In addition to food and raw materials, wild plants provided hundreds of medicines. Wampum—strung shell beads—of native manufacture was originally used for tribal records and ceremonial purposes; its use was broadened into money and treaty confirmation in the historical period.

Artistic expression in the northeast ranged from baskets decorated with dyed fibers and woven in geometric patterns to painted and incised pottery to finely carved wooden bowls, spoons, and cups. The Iroquois carved wooden masks for use in certain curing ceremonials. Some women were expert at decorating clothing using softened porcupine quills.

Political organization varied across the region. Among most groups, chiefs (sachems, sagamores) led bands or groups of bands. Some chiefs were stronger than others; however, village councils acting in unanimity often decided important matters. Although among most groups political leadership had a hereditary component, social stratification in general was strongest in southern New England.

In the west, central Algonquians created parallel civil and military political organizations. Many of these tribes were divided into two distinct groupings that played important roles in games and celebrations. Most western tribes also had warrior organizations to perform policing activities. Women held formal political power in some western groups, such as the Miami, Shawnee, and Potawatomi.

In general, religious activities reinforced core values of generosity, bravery, and loyalty to the community. Iroquoian religion was based on the belief in a creator or creative life force balanced by the forces of evil and destruction. Algonquians, too, took notice of a host of evil spirits that might be used or abused by sorcerers. For these people, spirits were ubiquitous. They had human attributes and in fact could assume human form. The spirits included cannibal giants as well as the great creative spirit, Manitou, which was occasionally identified with the sky or the sun.

Among many groups, puberty was the time to undertake a vision quest, which included fasting and isolation, in order to attract the lifelong assistance of a spirit power. Dreaming was important for many Woodland Indians, because in dreams the human soul was thought to be able to leave the body and assume different shapes. Indians believed in life after death or the perpetual existence of the soul. Most cultures also recognized mythic culture heroes/transformers, such as Gluskap among the Micmac.

In addition to conducting ceremonies, religious specialists or shamans often had subspecialties, such as curing and divining. They performed their various feats with the help of their spirit powers. Shamans cured by sucking or blowing illness out of the body.

Important ceremonies among different groups included the Midewiwin, the feast of the dead, medicine dances, and the Green Corn festival. The Midewiwin may be aboriginal but most likely evolved in response to the unprecedented degree of disease and death endured by Indians beginning in about the sixteenth century.

Practitioners among the Ojibwa kept written records of proceedings on birch-bark scrolls. Some western groups had sacred bundles, whose medicines were associated with special powers. Especially among Great Lakes peoples, the pipe, or calumet—usually made of pipestone (catlinite)—was an especially sacred object and was associated with utmost solemnity and honesty. Religious significance also accrued to various games, such as lacrosse, especially among the Iroquois.

Algonquians typically lived in dome- or cone-shaped wigwams. These tended to be made of bark strips or woven mats or reeds attached to a frame of bent saplings tied together with spruce roots. Woven mats also covered interior walls and floors. Sleeping platforms were located around the perimeter; skins and furs were placed over the platforms as bedding. Smoke holes could be closed with a flap. There were usually two doors.

Summer and winter wigwams were of similar construction, but the latter tended to be smaller. Some Algonquian groups also used rectangular, multifamily houses with peaked roofs. Other buildings included menstrual huts, sweat houses, and temporary brush shelters at special hunting and fishing areas. Some Great Lakes groups built large wooden council houses in the center of their villages.

By the twelfth century, Iroquoians had developed longhouses. In the early historical period they were about 25 feet wide and up to 200 feet long, although most averaged less than 100 feet. Constructed of pieces of bark over a curved sapling frame, the longhouses were divided into six to eight two-room sections, each sharing a fire and housing one family. Storage bins divided the sections. Residents were generally members of the same maternal lineage. Inside the apartments were low platforms covered with skins or mats. Eastern longhouses tended to be covered with elm bark and western with cedar bark. Both had vaulted roofs.

The forests provided a home for a great variety of large and small creatures. Deer was generally the most important food animal, but people also hunted moose, caribou, bear, elk, beaver, muskrat, otter, wolf, fox, and rabbit. Fowl, especially turkey, were common in many areas.

Among some groups, saltwater and freshwater fish, turtles, shellfish, and marine mammals played an important dietary role. Fish was often smoked to preserve it for the winter. Depending on location, different groups used a variety of other food sources, such as maple sap (a sweetener), fresh greens, nuts, berries, honey, and roots.

After around 1000, or even as late as 1400 around parts of the Great Lakes, corn, followed by beans and squash, became an important food. In parts of the Great Lakes region, wild rice—really a grain—took the place of corn as a staple food source. Some groups also grew sunflowers, and most grew tobacco, although, unlike the other crops, doing so was considered the province of men. In general, people wintered in small groups, generally in hunting grounds, and summered in large ones, near their fields.

Women made most clothing from the hides of white-tailed deer. In general, clothing consisted of breechclouts, skirts, leggings, and moccasins. Additional clothing, such as fur robes, was worn in winter. Women decorated the clothing with softened and dyed porcupine quills and/or paint. Some groups also wore fringed garments. Shell and stone jewelry, tattoos, and body paint were common among most groups.

Warfare was endemic among most prehistoric Woodland Indians. The Iroquois revered war, although from about 1500 on, give or take 50 years or so, it was reserved for non-natives and tribes outside of the Iroquois League. The ritual torture of captives was common. Some groups also engaged in cannibalism. Both of these activities were associated with sun sacrifice and may show Mesoamerican influences. Among many groups, captives were frequently adopted to make up for population losses.

Coastal groups and the Iroquois developed gradually into the historic period. Cultural developments generally occurred in situ. Technological changes, such as ceramics, agriculture, and the use of shellfish, slowly advanced to their natural limits. The situation differed in the upper Great Lakes and in Illinois and the Ohio Valley, however, where ethnic continuity between prehistoric and historic peoples is speculative. Little-known residents of the Ohio Valley were gone by the mid-seventeenth century as a result of warfare and fast-moving epidemics. The region was later repopulated by historic tribes from other locations.

Half a millennium passed between the Norse visits and the arrival of other Europeans. Indians of coastal Maine were using items of non-native manufacture by 1602, and many Europeans arriving even in the early contact days met Indians already familiar with their goods and knowledgeable in sophisticated trade practices.

Profound changes in Indian life followed the arrival of non-natives. The rate of change was uneven, but the most rapid and common impact was the decimation of Indian populations owing to epidemics of smallpox, typhus, and other diseases. Some tribes experienced as much as 95 percent population loss in the initial rounds (early seventeenth century in the east) alone. Furthermore, with the growing European demand for furs from the mid-sixteenth century on, the New World became a new center of competitiveness between France and Britain, and Native Americans soon became a part of both the trade and the rivalry.

The intrusion and eventual domination of fur trapping led to a dependence on alternate sources of food and technology. It even led to famine in some cases, as groups dependent on marine foods were cut off from the coast and spent more time trapping inland. Many groups eventually relocated to be near trade centers, even if the new locations were detrimental to their traditional subsistence activities. Time formerly spent making items was spent in trade-related activities, resulting in the decline of native arts and material culture. Early trade items of non-native manufacture included cloth, iron nails, knives, glass beads, and brass kettles, not to mention firearms.

Political and social structures were also affected. For their own convenience, non-natives promoted more centralized political authority among Indian groups. Some "trade chiefs" divided group land into distinct territories. This practice had several results, including an increase in individual ownership of subsistence areas, a breakdown in reciprocal arrangements and sharing, and increased social stratification. Indians also suffered further population decline, as well as a serious deterioration of traditional mores, from the introduction of alcohol and the accompanying sharp increase of venereal disease. They were as unprepared for liquor as they were for smallpox, and unscrupulous traders took full advantage of the fact.

Along the coast, once Indians taught non-natives how to survive in the New World, the latter quickly moved from friendliness to slave raiding, robbery, extortion, and demands for land and religious conversion. The Pequot war and King Philip’s war stemmed at least in part from colonial opposition to acts of Indian self-determination, such as selling land and making independent alliances. Both involved the slaughter of hundreds of Indian women and children and the ensuing cession/capture of much Indian land.

Numerous other conflicts stemmed from non-native lust for land, outright brutality practiced against Indians (often justified with recourse to Christian values), trade-related issues, and simple fear and misunderstanding. All took place within the context of the wider international struggle between France and Great Britain. Warfare, both interracial and among Indians themselves, occasionally escalated into attempted genocide: More than once smallpox-infected blankets were intentionally traded to "troublesome" Indians, and some Indian groups, notably the Iroquois, succeeded in virtually annihilating other tribes. In short, ritual warfare was transformed slowly into economic and political warfare as a result of the fur trade and competition over land.

One important aspect of non-native influence was a steady pressure, almost from the beginning, to accept Christianity. Although relatively few Indians truly accepted Christian doctrine before the nineteenth century, a significant number did convert, mainly to Catholicism. Reasons for taking this action included not only genuine personal conviction but also the hope for trade and/or political advantage. Indians were well aware, for instance, that the French would trade firearms only to Christians.

Many Indians attempted to hold on to traditional beliefs and religious practice despite the breakdown of religious structures. Those in this camp often came to accept neotraditional beliefs such as the Handsome Lake (Longhouse) religion and, later, the Native American Church. With these new religions, Indians found a way to blend the old with the new without feeling that they had abandoned their heritage.

In general, Algonquians tended to favor the French whereas Iroquoians were pro-British. After the French defeat in 1763, many Algonquian tribes, recognizing the threat to their lands, fought with the British against the colonists. Most upper Great Lakes Indians supported the British in the American Revolution. Indians also acted on their own or in multitribal coalitions (Pontiac, 1763; Little Turtle, circa 1790; Tecumseh, 1810; and Black Hawk, 1832), in vain efforts to stem the tide of westward emigration.

The first half of the nineteenth century saw the cession of practically all remaining Indian land east of the Mississippi and the consolidation of tribes on reservations. After relocating several times, most western tribes ended up in Indian Territory, although some groups refused to leave their homes and were able to remain in scattered pockets. Some also accepted reserves in Canada (the word "Canada" is derived from an Iroquoian word meaning "settlement" or "village"). Many of these Indians carried on in a semitraditional way until the fur trade finally drew to an end around 1900.

Into the twentieth century, Indian life, especially in the west but even in the east, was characterized by an inadequacy of food, shelter, and employment and by continuing assaults on the people’s land, culture, and self-determination. Indians resisted as best they could. Their fortunes tended to rise and fall along with the general state of the U.S. economy as well as the prevailing Indian policy. In the east, job opportunities off of the reservation or community tended to encourage cultural assimilation. Cultural preservation was generally less difficult in Canada than in the United States.

As is the case with most North American Indians, the goal of self-determination remains paramount. On Cape Cod, Wampanoag Indians battle non-native vacationers and developers for the right to control their land. Recognition is also an issue for these people, as it is for the Houlton Band of Maliseet, the Pokanoket, and other Northeast Indians. Many are still trying to settle land claims and obtain reservation status for communities both recognized and unrecognized.

Indians in the northeast as well as Woodland descendants in Oklahoma seek economic development as well as housing and adequate medical care. Craft traditions remain strong but are not generally sufficient to provide a decent standard of living. Many communities remain riven by factionalism: The Mohawk, for example, are deeply divided over the issues of gaming and the nature of their political leadership—"traditional" or "progressive." Many groups have initiated various programs and gatherings in order to focus or refocus on their traditions. Among those groups whose native traditions have long since been lost, pan-Indianism has become important.

In Canada, at least six different governmental agencies have controlled Indian affairs since 1867, with the result that a consistent and effective policy has yet to be developed. Canadian Indians, especially the thousands of Metis (or mixed Indian and Anglo-French descendants) in Canada’s southeast, face continuing problems of recognition. In both countries, despite almost 500 years of contact with non-natives and extremely strong pressures during those centuries to abandon their traditions and culture, many descendants of the forest dwellers remain Indians. Far removed from the life of their ancestors, they insist upon their identity as they continue to adapt their deeply rooted traditions.

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