Indigenous People: Eastern Woodlands Cultivators (Northeast Indians)
In studying indigenous cultures, when Europeans arrived in the Americas, the Eastern Woodlands Cultivators (Northeast Indians) lived in what are now the northeastern United States and southeastern Canada. The Northeast culture area reaches from the present-day Canadian provinces of Quebec, Ontario, and the Maritime Provinces (New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, and Prince Edward Island) south to the Ohio River valley (inland) and to North Carolina (on the Atlantic coast).
The climate is mild, with plentiful rainfall. The land is generally rolling, though the Appalachian Mountains include some fairly steep slopes. Forests spread over the mountains and valleys. There is extensive coastline as well as many lakes and streams. The Northeast Indians largely depended on the trees, the animals that lived in the woods, and the fish and shellfish from the streams and the sea.
Eastern Woodlands Cultivators’ Culture and Language
Most tribes of the Northeast belonged to either the Algonquian or Iroquoian language family. Tribes that spoke Algonquian languages were more widely distributed. Their territories covered the entire region except the areas immediately surrounding Lakes Erie and Ontario, some parts of the present-day U.S. states of Wisconsin and Minnesota, and a portion of the interior of present-day Virginia and North Carolina. Among the Algonquian groups were the:
- Mi’kmaq (Micmac)
- Fox (Meskwaki)
The territory around Lakes Erie and Ontario was controlled by Iroquoian-speaking tribes. They included the:
The Tuscarora, who also spoke an Iroquoian language, lived in the coastal hills of present-day North Carolina and Virginia. Although many Siouan-speaking tribes once lived in the Northeast culture area, only the Ho-Chunk (Winnebago) people continue to reside there in large numbers. Most of the Siouan speakers moved west in the 1500s and 1600s as a result of European colonialism. Most Siouan-speaking groups are usually considered to be part of the Plains culture area.
European Contact and Cultural Changes of the Eastern Woodlands Cultivators
When Europeans arrived in North America, they brought manufactured goods that the Indians welcomed and new diseases that they did not. Some of these diseases proved particularly devastating to Native Americans because they did not have the immunity that the colonial populations had developed through centuries of exposure. The first recorded epidemic in New England, probably of smallpox, took place in 1616–17. The number of Indians who died appears to have been quite high, as the Puritans who landed at Plymouth in 1620 remarked upon the large number of abandoned villages near their settlement.
Extensive trade developed between Northeast Indians and the French, English, and Dutch who colonized the region. The Europeans sought furs, especially beaver fur, because the undercoat of a beaver pelt could be processed into a strong felt that was used in making hats. The Indians wanted objects such as:
- brass pots and kettles
- metal needles and fishhooks
- glass beads
At first European settlers clung to the Atlantic coast, and thus coastal Indians were first affected by the newcomers’ desire for land. Conflict with the colonists occasionally erupted, as in the Pequot War of 1636–37 and King Philip’s War of 1675–76. Such resistance could not be maintained for long, however, and the Indians began to adopt European ways as a means of survival. This often involved the acceptance and practice of Christianity. Some missionaries were especially influential. John Eliot, for example, accomplished the monumental task of translating the Bible into Massachuset, an Algonquian language.
The Iroquoians fared somewhat better than the coastal Algonquians. In the 1600 and 1700s their inland location protected them from European settlement, though part of their eastern territory was colonized. In addition, European traders wished to retain the Iroquoians’ services as middlemen who would take the risks associated with transporting manufactured goods and furs over long distances.
The Iroquoians understood their advantage and engaged in both war and diplomacy to maintain their grip on the region. Their power was finally broken during the American Revolution, when George Washington, aware of the alliance of a number of Iroquoian tribes with the British, sent an expedition against them. After the Revolution, many of these peoples moved to Canada. Others remained in New York state, and some (mostly Oneida) moved to what is now Wisconsin.
Upper Great Lakes
Like native peoples farther east, those of the upper Great Lakes area were greatly affected by the fur trade. The French established a series of trading posts there, and the English challenged them for control of the area. Indians from the east, such as the Delaware, Ottawa, and Shawnee, drifted into the area seeking furs and land. The result was a series of wars and skirmishes involving various combinations of the tribes, the English, and the French.
In the 1700s and 1800s, several prophets tried to revitalize native culture, and a series of chiefs worked to unite various tribes for the purposes of war. Notable among these were Pontiac (of the Ottawa people), Little Turtle (Miami), Tecumseh and his brother Tenskwatawa (Shawnee), Keokuk (Sauk), and Black Hawk (Sauk).
Eventually the Northeast tribes entered into treaties with the governments of the United States or Canada. The terms of these agreements were generally quite unfavorable to the tribes. Despite heroic efforts to protect their homelands, all of the Northeast peoples that survived the early colonial period had been either moved to far-flung reservations or deprived of their land by the end of the 1800s.
Nevertheless, many Northeast tribes maintained tribal governments and councils and continued their traditional cultural activities. This vitality was important as the tribes dealt with a variety of government policies during the 20th century, including urban relocation programs and termination, a policy that removed federal recognition from tribes. They were also crucial in the creation of a variety of tribal development projects that include timber mills, manufacturing centers, and casinos.
By the late 20th and early 21st centuries, many groups that had lost tribal status had successfully petitioned the U.S. government to restore their sovereignty. For example, in 1973, the Menominee of Wisconsin were one of the first tribes to be reinstated after termination, while the Mashpee Wampanoag of Massachusetts, long declared “extinct,” were granted federal acknowledgement of tribal status in 2007.
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