The Indigenous Peoples of North America: Part 9 – The Northeastern Woodlands


The Iroquois League was an association of 5 (later 6) linguistically related Northeast Woodland tribes consisting of the Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga, Seneca, and Tuscarora peoples. Established between the 12th and 15th centuries, the League ruled on disputes and displace their raiding tradition except when it came to their rivals. Their political cohesion made the Iroquois one of the strongest forces in 17th and 18th century northeastern North America. Played both the French and British in the fur trade as well as sided with the latter during the French and Indian War. Was severely weakened after the American Revolution.

While the Great Plains tribes are the Native Americans you tend to see in western movies, the Northeastern Woodlands tribes are the ones you see in anything relating to early American history, particularly when it applies to Jamestown, Massachusetts Pilgrims, or the French and Indian War. Stretching from southeast Canada and east of the Mississippi River to the East coast and extending south to the Ohio River, these tribes were among the first Native Americans to have contact with Europeans than anyone else which were the Vikings who visited coastal areas from Newfoundland all the way to Cape Cod. However, they didn’t stay long and left little permanent influence. Yet, English and French settlers who arrived in the 1600s introduced these Indians to the beaver fur trade and infectious European diseases (sometimes via smallpox blankets). Sure relations were friendly at first, but they quickly deteriorated in some areas such as in 17th century Massachusetts Bay where they went from the first Thanksgiving to all out King Philip’s War in only a few decades. Yet, initial rounds of European diseases resulted in some tribes losing as much as 95% of their population alone in the early 17th century even before the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth (Squanto’s village being one of them). Growing European fur demand led to the New World becoming a center of colonial competitiveness between Britain and France which would eventually culminate into the French and Indian War. Intrusion and eventual domination of the fur trade led to systemic breakdown among these tribes including decline in native arts and material culture, relocation to trading centers even by risking famine, increased social stratification and personal ownership, alcoholism, STDs, increased inter-tribal warfare, increased pressure to convert to Christianity, and eventually Indian removal. By the mid-19th century, many Indian groups in this region had simply disappeared and most of those remaining had been militarily defeated and largely resettled on reservations, some of which were far from home like Oklahoma. On the other hand, there are more Indians in this region today than many people realize. Although they’re mostly acculturated many proudly maintain an Indian identity while Native Americans in both the US and Canada continue struggling for recognition, land, economic development, and sovereignty.


At its peak in the 13th century, the Mississippian city of Cahokia is estimated to have a population of 40,000 which wouldn’t be surpassed by any US city until the late 18th century. This city was said to have covered 6 square miles and included about 120 human mounds in a variety of shapes, sizes, and functions. But it would soon be abandoned by 1300 and little is known about those who lived there. Today the Cahokia Mounds is considered the largest and most complex archaeological site north of the great Pre-Columbian cities of Mexico.

Location: East of the Mississippi River spanning from south central Canada to the East Coast and Ohio River as well as encompassing the Great Lakes.

First Peoples: Region has been inhabited for at least 12,000 years with the first residents said to come from the Southwest. However, while the archaic period began in 6000 B.C.E., most cultures didn’t become fully established until 3,000 years later due to a dramatically changing environment. The Adena culture from 800 B.C.E. to 200 flourished around Kentucky and Ohio who were known as the agricultural and pottery producing Mound Builders (since they either cremated or buried their dead in mounds). They also used copper tools and red ochre in burial customs. Then there’s the northern Hopewell culture of the Great Lakes from 300 B.C.E. to 700 who also built mounds through their dead as well as performed other complex funerary rituals. Also had stamped pottery, metal work, weaving, large population centers, and vast trade networks. Alongside them is the Mississippian from 700-1500 which was characterized by intensive agriculture, fine pottery, distinctive art themes, stockaded villages, and flat-topped pyramid mounds. Sites from the Mississippian culture include Cahokia near St. Louis whose influence extended as far north as Wisconsin as well as Fort Ancient and Monongahela Woodland in the Ohio Valley. It’s speculative whether the tribes in the Ohio and Illinois Valleys as well as the Great Lakes are descended by their prehistoric counterparts who were gone by the mid-17th century due to warfare and fast-moving epidemics. It was later said to be repopulated by historic tribes from other locations.

Environment: Has many variations in climate, landscape, and natural resources. Much of it thick deciduous and conifer forest, mountains, and wetlands with an abundance in rivers, lakes, and ocean. Flat forests and prairies predominate in the far western areas. Experiences cold winter with deep snows and is often hot and humid in the summer. High precipitation all year round.


Northeastern Woodlands Native Americans greatly relied on agriculture, growing crops consisting of corn, beans, squash, sunflowers, and wild rice. Out of all of these, corn was their most important food above all.

Subsistence: Primarily hunter, gatherer, and fishing subsistence, agriculture, and everything in between. Crops were corn, beans, pumpkins, wild rice, sunflowers, and squash. Hunted deer, raccoon, fox, muskrat, rabbit, wolf, elk, turkey, turtles, bear, squirrel, beaver, moose, and caribou. Yet, they also hunted for whale and seals as well as fished. Gathered maple sap, honey, berries, roots, nuts, and fresh greens.


The standard dwelling for the Iroquois was the longhouse which was made from bent saplings and covered with bark. Longhouses could be up to 20 feet wide and 200 feet long as well as divided into 6-8 two room sections, each housing a family and sharing a fire.

Housing: Algonquin peoples mostly built birch bark domed wigwams with woven mat covered walls and floors. Each usually housed one family. Summer wigwams usually tended to be smaller while structures like menstrual huts, sweat houses, and temporary brush shelters were also built. Iroquois usually built wooden longhouses that were 20 feet wide and up 200 feet long (though most were less than 100 feet) made of bark pieces over a sapling frame with vaulted roofs. These were divided into 6-8 two room sections, each housing one family and sharing a fire.


Northeastern Native Americans tended to wear a lot of jewelry and body paint, especially the men. In fact, while most Native American men wore their hair long, Northeastern Woodlands men tended to wear mohawks with feathers in them.

Clothing: People in the region mostly wore very little during the summer. Clothing was mostly made from deerskin and other animals. Often tanned. Generally consisted of breechcloths, skirts, leggings, and moccasins. Fur robes were worn in the winter. Women usually wore overdresses and tunics. Clothes were often decorated with softened and dyed porcupine quills and/or paint. Some groups even had fringed outfits. Adornments could consist of stone and shell jewelry, tattoos, and body paint. Shaved heads and mohawks were common among some Algonquin tribes as well as feathers in hair.


Northeastern Woodlands Native Americans often traveled on river by canoe often made from bark, animal hides, or wood. Canoe styles often depended on water conditions.

Transportation: Algonquins used swift and light birch bark canoes while the Iroquois used canoes made from elm. Small ones were used for rivers while larger ones that could fit up to 10 people were used for lakes. Most were framed with cedar and trimmed with maple. Bark was sewn on with spruce roots and caulked with pine pitch or spruce resin. Dugout canoes were used as well. Styles were also based on water conditions.


Northeastern Woodlands was a place of violent and frequent tribal warfare that villages tended to have fortifications of dirt and fencing even before European contact (since it was a reason why the Iroquois League existed in the first place). Ritualized torture and cannibalism were both practiced.

Society: Primarily nomadic, sedentary, and everything in between. Pre-contact population density varied. But it’s possible that as many as 2 million might’ve resided there but this is a rough estimate. Increased social stratification existed but not to the extent than in the Pacific Northwest Coast or the Southeast (though they did practice slavery). Some tribes were even part of mass confederacies later on such as the Iroquois, the Powhatan, and the Illinois. Among the Iroquois, male chiefs were elected by clan leaders who were usually female. Village councils often acted in unanimity and some chiefs were stronger than others. Western tribes often had warrior organizations to perform policing activities and some women even held some formal political power such as in the Miami, Shawnee, and Potawatomi. Nevertheless, inter-tribal warfare was harsh and frequent resulting in villages being heavily fortified by fencing and reinforced with dirt. Iroquois even revered war. Ritualized torture was common among the Iroquois while cannibalism and human sacrifice existed as well. Though most captives were frequently adopted into the tribe making up for population losses. Trade was mostly localized.


Since descent and inheritance was matrilineal, Iroquois women often owned most of the family property even after marriage and kept the children if they divorced. An Iroquois woman can initiate divorce by telling her husband to leave the dwelling with his stuff. Iroquois women were also clan leaders who chose chiefs as well. Also, during marriage, an Iroquois man resided with his wife’s family.

Family Structure: Matrilineal descent among the Iroquois while Algonquins could have either this or bilateral. Bilateral or patrilineal among those near the Great Lakes and Ohio River. Men hunted, fished, and fought, while women made pottery, made clothes, looked after children, farmed, gathered, and other housework. Iroquois women owned property that stayed within their possession even after marriage and kept the kids if they separated. Married couples often resided with the wife’s family. Some Algonquin chiefs, shamans, and other wealthy men were allowed to have more than one wife if they could afford it.


Lacrosse perhaps originated in 1100 and was played as a ceremonial ritual by the Northeastern Woodlands Native Americans. Teams could consist between 100-1,000 men on a field that could span 1,600 feet to 1.9 miles long. Games were said to last from sunup to sundown 2-3 days straight or longer. Also, it was a rather violent bloodsport where players actually got severely injured or killed.

Practices: Animism, shamanism, dreamcatchers, peace pipes, wampum, storytelling, tobacco, war paint, pottery, basketry, beadwork, metalwork, masks, vision quests, Midewiwin, Green Corn festival, music, dance, feast of the dead, medicine dances, lacrosse, birch bark scrolls, and pictographs.

Tools and Weapons: Bows and arrows, harpoons, fish hooks and line, clubs, tomahawks, nets, hemp and basswood bags, wooden bowls and utensils, snowshoes, knives, hoes, rakes, grind sticks and stones, snares, and spears.

Notable Tribes: Iroquois, Algonquin, Mohawk, Huron, Objiwe, Abenaki, Beothuk, Miami, Massachusett, Menominee, Erie, Ho-Chunk, Patuxent, Mahican, Anishinaabeg, Monacan, Narragansett, Illinois, Mitchiganmea, Fox, Sauk, Kickapoo, Mingo, Delaware, Wampanoag, Susquehannock, Tauxenent, Tunxis, Quinnipac, Shawnee, Cayuga, Seneca, Tuscarora, Ottawa, Tutelo, Oneida, Powhatan, Podunk, Pequot, Mohegan, and Penobscot.


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