Indigenous People: Eastern Woodlands
There are six cultural areas contained in what is now Canada, unrestricted by international boundaries. The Eastern Woodlands cultural area refers to the region that stretches from the northeastern coast of present-day United States and the Maritimes to west of the Great Lakes. The Eastern Woodlands includes, among others, the Haudenosaunee, Mi’kmaq, Anishinaabe and Wendat.
There are six cultural areas contained in what is now Canada, unrestricted by international boundaries. The Eastern Woodlands cultural area refers to the region that stretches from the northeastern coast of present-day United States and the Maritimes to west of the Great Lakes. The Eastern Woodlands includes, among others, the Haudenosaunee, Mi'kmaq, Anishinaabe and Wendat (Huron).
Major Language Groups
Eastern Woodland indigenous peoples belong to two unrelated language families, Iroquoian and Algonquian. While neither groups’ locations are concrete, Iroquoian-speaking peoples occupied much of what is now southern Ontario, northern Ohio, Pennsylvania and New York, and the St. Lawrence Valley as far east as the present-day Québec City area. Algonquian-speaking groups extended from Lake Superior north of Lake Huron to the Ottawa Valley, and east through present-day New England and the Atlantic provinces.
Iroquoian peoples include Erie (south of Lake Erie), Neutral (Grand River–Niagara River area), Wenro (east of Niagara River), Haudenosaunee — Seneca, Cayuga, Onondaga, Oneida, Mohawk (Genesee River to Mohawk River and north to the Adirondack Mountains), Wendat (Huron) (Georgian Bay to Lake Simcoe), Petun (southeast of Georgian Bay) and St. Lawrence Iroquoians (present-day Montréal to Québec City).
Algonquian peoples include Ojibwa(eastern Lake Superior to northeastern Georgian Bay), Odawa (Manitoulin Island and Bruce Peninsula), Nipissing (Lake Nipissing area), Algonquin (Ottawa River and tributaries), Abenaki (present-day Vermont, New Hampshire, western Maine and southeastern Québec), Maliseet (St. Lawrence Valley south to the Bay of Fundy, present-day eastern Maine and western New Brunswick) and Mi'kmaq (Gaspé Peninsula, and what is now New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island and Nova Scotia).
Iroquoian languages belong to two branches, a southern one composed of Cherokee, and a northern branch that includes all of the nations noted above. The languages of the St. Lawrence Iroquoians, the Wendat, Petun and Neutral are all extinct. The six Iroquoian languages spoken in Canada today (Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga, Seneca and Tuscarora) moved with their people from New York State after the American Revolution. Today, although these languages are still spoken, Seneca and Tuscarora are severely endangered. Within the Eastern Woodlands there are two branches of the Algonquian family, Central Algonquian (Ojibwa, Odawa, Nipissing and Algonquin) and Eastern Algonquian (Abenaki, Mi'kmaq and Maliseet). Languages within each branch show a high degree of mutual intelligibility, with the Central Algonquian forming dialect chains (see Aboriginal People, Languages).
It is important to note that while Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) peoples form part of the Iroquoian language group, they do not comprise the entirety of the group. The same is true for Algonquin and the Algonquian language group.
The Eastern Woodlands is a large region that extends southwest to present-day Illinois and east to coastal North Carolina. The deciduous forests of southern Ontario, the St. Lawrence lowlands and coastal Atlantic provinces phase north into the mixed deciduous-coniferous canopy of the Canadian Shield in the west and the Appalachian uplands in the east. Except in the Atlantic provinces, the Great Lakes–St. Lawrence watershed provided access to water transportation to all Eastern Woodland peoples. Climate and soil conditions allowed peoples south of upland regions to grow corn, beans and squash (known as the Three Sisters); the largest portion of many Eastern Woodland peoples’ diets consisted of produce from their fields.
White-tailed deer were perhaps one of the most important game animals except in the north, where moose and caribou were the staples. Some coastal peoples hunted seals as well as freshwater fish, eels, molluscs and crustaceans. Waterfowl and land birds were seasonally important in some areas. Fur bearers, especially beaver, were significant to trade-based economies. Peoples in the area gathered and ate a variety of berries, nuts, tubers and plants; and some groups harvested maple and birch sap, and wild rice.
Although the Norse made sporadic visits to the Arctic and eastern seaboard between the 10th and 14th centuries, major European influences began when fishermen to the Grand Banks started trading for furs in the early 16th century just prior to Jacques Cartier's contacts with Mi'kmaq and St. Lawrence Iroquoians in 1534–35. During the late 16th century, the fur trade expanded to involve, either directly or indirectly, most Eastern Woodland peoples. During this period the St. Lawrence Iroquoians deserted their homelands and the Haudenosaunee Confederacy gained prominence.
By the early 17th century, there had been European settlements on Sable Island (temporary), at Tadoussac, briefly on the St. Croix River in present-day Maine and at Port-Royal in the Annapolis Valley. In 1609 Henry Hudson explored the coast of what became New England and the river named after him, while Samuel de Champlain accompanied an Algonquin, Innu and Wendat war party against the Mohawk near Lake Champlain, an event that marked the beginning of European participation in intertribal hostilities that lasted for a century. By 1624, when the Dutch established New Amsterdam (New York City), intensive trade had largely exterminated fur bearing animals along the Atlantic coast. During the first half of the 17th century, epidemics brought on by European diseases, as well as warfare, drastically reduced indigenous populations. Meanwhile, new trade relationships with Europeans disrupted the subsistence cycles of the hunter-gatherer lifestyle. A variety of trade items replaced Aboriginal equivalents, resulting in dependency relationships, and new forms of territoriality and leadership.
In New England the Pequot War (1637) and King Philip's War (1675–76) decimated the Aboriginal population and effectively removed their ability to oppose European settlement. Some Abenaki (meaning "dawn-land people") moved to St. Francis near the St. Lawrence after about 1660. In the Great Lakes area, the Haudenosaunee intensified their attack on other Iroquoian-speaking peoples and Algonquian groups during the 1640s and 1650s, forcing many to flee their homelands (see Iroquois Wars). Remnant groups of Wendat, Petun, Neutral and Erie fled west and became known as Wyandot, and one group settled at Lorette near Québec City, becoming the Huron-Wendat. The Haudenosaunee, their population reduced by warfare and disease, replenished numbers by adopting war captives and refugees.
By the late 17th century, Haudenosaunee power was in flux. Ojibwa and Algonquin moved into present-day southern Ontario; their descendants continue to occupy reserves there today. In 1722, the Haudenosaunee accepted the Tuscarora, a northern Iroquoian-speaking people who had fled north from the Carolinas, into their confederacy. Following this addition, the confederacy became known as the Six Nations.
Throughout the first half of the 18th century, most Algonquian-speaking peoples of the Eastern Woodlands were allied with the French and traded furs in exchange for European commodities. Except for a group of Mohawk who had settled near Montréal, the majority of the Haudenosaunee were allied with the British.
After the Seven Years' War (1756-1763) and the fall of New France to the British, a loose coalition of nations including Odawa and Ojibwa became displeased with the new regime’s policies, which included the wanton appropriation of land, the crushing of any opposition by force and the end of symbolic gift exchanges. In 1763, Odawa chief Obwandiyag (known as Pontiac in English) led his group of Odawa, Ojibwa, Potawatomi and some Wyandot to lay siege to Fort Detroit. His allies captured Fort Michilimackinac; and war raged throughout the region, but the alliance quickly faltered. Pontiac agreed to peace in 1766. The incident, known as Pontiac’s War, demonstrated Aboriginal peoples’ continued struggle for autonomy, and influenced the Royal Proclamation of 1763, which recognized Aboriginal territorial rights and laid the foundation for future treaty negotiations. The Proclamation did not, however, apply to Maritime colonies, and thus colonial administrators in these areas felt empowered to seize lands and establish reserves without treaty negotiations.
Most Algonquian-speaking peoples were allied with the British during the American Revolutionary War (1775–1783), but the struggle split the loyalties of the Haudenosaunee in New York State, many of whom subsequently moved to lands granted to them by the British in what is now southern Ontario. Members of all the six nations in the Haudenosaunee Confederacy settled along the Grand River, and some Mohawk settled at the Bay of Quinte. Land cessions, a growing economic dependency on European colonists and general demoralization stimulated a revitalization movement in 1799 that was led by the Seneca prophet Handsome Lake. The new Handsome Lake Religion spread to other Haudenosaunee communities in the United States and Canada. Handsome Lake and Pontiac are often seen as early leaders in Aboriginal self-determination in the Pan-Indian (or Pan-Aboriginal in just Canada) movement.
After the War of 1812, some Ojibwa, Odawa and Potawatomi moved from the United States to the Georgian Bay area and a portion of the Oneida settled on the Thames River. During the first half of the 19th century, the colonial government established reserves for Algonquian-speaking peoples around Georgian Bay; and the Robinson-Huron and Robinson-Superior treaties of 1850 secured large tracts of land north of lakes Superior and Huron for the government. In the Atlantic provinces, the colonial government, not bound by the terms of the Royal Proclamation, established some 60 Mi'kmaq communities.
As European settlements throughout the Eastern Woodlands grew larger and more numerous, the hunting and gathering lifestyle of Algonquian- and Iroquoian-speakers fell increasingly under threat. Horticulture, sometimes the result of missionary influences, supplemented a diet that came to include stored foods as well as locally-obtained fish and game. Some Aboriginal peoples found employment in the resource industry, working in lumber, mining and the fur trade or as part-time labourers.
As settler dominance over the resource industry grew, Aboriginal peoples in the Eastern Woodlands became increasingly marginalized, and were often relegated to poorly-serviced and often remote reserve communities. The introduction of Christian residential schools further exacerbated culture loss, removing children from their homes and language. At such schools, students suffered abuse and neglect, thus engendering further cultural ostracism in their home communities. Deprived of traditional skills and suffering under the weight of cultural loss, reserve communities grew increasingly dependent on government sources of economic support. Lack of employment opportunities and inadequate training resulted in poverty on most reserves that were not situated near large urban centres.
The Indian Act, enacted in 1876 as a combination of the Gradual Enfranchisement and Gradual Civilization Acts, placed reserve councils under the control of the government. Under these terms, the government could replace traditional council systems with elected models that aligned more closely to assimilative goals. Many reserve communities resisted these changes. On the Six Nations reserve the government imposed an elected council structure in 1924, but residents were, and continue to be, largely unsupportive of the system; the traditional council model continues to function in opposition to the government sanctioned one. By the 20th century, many Eastern Woodland Aboriginal peoples had adopted Christianity — among some, only in name — the result of extensive missionary work in the field of education. Many Haudenosaunee continued to practise the Longhouse religion of Handsome Lake.
Following the Great Depression of the 1930s, many Aboriginal peoples began moving to urban centres in Canada and the United States to work. The Jay Treaty of 1794 allows Aboriginal peoples in Canada to travel freely into the United States for work, study or residence. After about 1960, government-sponsored job programs on reserves and community-led revitalization of arts and crafts practices helped to lessen economic dependency in some communities.
Iroquoian-speaking peoples relied primarily on cultivated corn, beans and squash — known as the Three Sisters. Fishing, hunting and gathering supplemented these domestic crops. Men cleared forest areas while women planted and harvested, and made pottery. The Wendat exchanged corn for fish and hides with Nipissing. Crop storage permitted sedentary and often palisaded settlements ranging from small hamlets with a few families to towns where as many as 3,500 persons resided. Population density was high, reaching a peak of perhaps 23 persons per km2 (60 persons per square mile) among the Wendat. Although estimates vary, there may have been from 70,000 to 90,000 northern Iroquoians at contact.
A typical village contained a large number of elm- or cedar-bark longhouses. Each longhouse sheltered several related families. Residence in these households was matrilocal (upon marriage a man would move into his wife's longhouse). As well, descent, inheritance and succession followed the female line. One or more households formed a matrilineage. Several lineages composed an exogamous clan — where individuals must marry outside the social group — designated by a particular totem emblem. Nations were composed of three to 10 clans whose members were scattered in several villages. Among some groups, clans were divided into two categories, known as moieties. Clan mates among the Haudenosaunee, regardless of village or community affiliation, considered themselves to be siblings.
Most Iroquoian peoples possessed both civil chiefs and war chiefs. The Haudenosaunee Confederacy had a council of 50 permanent and hereditary offices, which have survived in modified form to the present. Condolence ceremonies commemorated deceased confederacy chiefs, bestowing upon their successors the honorary names associated with the office. The Wendat had a similar political system.
Algonquian peoples practiced Midewiwin (Grand Medicine Society). All groups possessed religious specialists known asshamans, engaged in seasonal rituals often associated with crop harvests and held periodic feasts (see Aboriginal People, Religion). The Wendat held elaborate Feasts of the Dead, usually at the time when villages were to be moved to new locations. The bones of dead relatives were gathered and placed in mass graves with personal items. The Haudenosaunee had a number of medicine societies focused on healing, the best known being the False Face Society. During ceremonies members wore elaborately carved wooden masks.
The Wabanaki Confederacy, named after the Wabanaki ("dawn-land") territory throughout the Maritime peninsula, comprised the Abenaki, Mi'kmaq, Penobscot, Passamaquoddy and Maliseet. This Algonquian-speaking confederacy was established in the early 1680s as a response to aggression from the Haudenosaunee Confederacy. It provided Wabanaki nations with greater political and negotiating power with colonial administrations, and a broader sense of community between its individual nations. The confederacy was disbanded in 1862, but since 1993 has undergone a revival.
Horticulture for subsistence was largely marginal among most Eastern Woodland Algonquian peoples. Odawa, Algonquin, Abenaki and Maliseet grew some crops; the Ojibwa and Mi'kmaq grew very little, and the Nipissing traded fish for Huron corn. Hunting and fishing provided the bulk of sustenance. The Algonquian peoples hunted deer, bear, moose and caribou, and where available seals, porpoises and whales. In hunting they used bows, arrows, lances, traps, snares and deadfalls, and used hooks, weirs, leisters and nets to fish. In the Great Lakes area wild rice was harvested in the early fall, and maple or birch sap was collected in the early spring. Meat was either boiled or roasted for immediate consumption or smoke-dried for future use.
Seasonal activities tended to inhibit a strictly sedentary existence among the Algonquian peoples, although the abundance of certain food, especially fish and some horticulture, permitted a greater degree of sedentation than among Subarctic peoples farther north. Dwellings were smaller and less permanent than among Iroquoians, varying from conical birch bark tipis to domed wigwams or rectangular structures that housed several families. Village size varied seasonally, with the largest population concentrations occurring in summer. Some Ojibwa and Abenaki villages may have numbered 300 persons.
Unlike the Iroquoians who travelled mainly on land or in elm-bark canoes, the Algonquian made slender birch bark canoes and in winter used snowshoes, sleds and toboggans. Trade and visiting appear to have been common activities among adjacent Algonquian peoples.
Prior to contact, the largest political unit among most Woodland Algonquian appeared to be the band-village. Each band or band-village possessed at least one chief, whose position was usually hereditary within the male line. Patrilineal groups designated by an animal totem seem to have been characteristic of all peoples. Village-band territories were not strictly demarcated, and all members had access to basic subsistence resources.
The most important religious figure among Algonquian peoples was the shaman, who treated the ill, performed magical rites to ward off evil spirits, such as Windigo, and assisted in locating game. According to traditional knowledge, spiritual power pervaded the universe, and the Algonquian made no conceptual distinction between human and animal worlds. The Algonquian peoples celebrated with seasonal rituals and feasts, as well as rituals associated with birth, puberty and death. Traditional foods such as corn bread and corn soup are still eaten, and tobacco continues to be grown for ritual purposes.
The vision quest associated with the acquisition of a personal supernatural guardian existed among all groups. Algonquian peoples held Feasts of the Dead that were similar but not identical to those of the Wendat. During the 17th century these feasts attracted large numbers of persons, often from several nations. During these occasions, which resembled the Northwest Coast funerary potlatch, quantities of goods were given away and the names of new chiefs raised.
The enduring presence of settler-colonial political and social frameworks brought about considerable culture change among all Eastern Woodland groups. Hunting, gathering and fishing have become marginal subsistence activities except among some Mi'kmaq and Maliseet, for whom fishing has remained a significant source of income, but not without its challenges, like the Burnt Church Crisis. Agriculture practices declined as reserve populations grew, lands were partitioned and new employment opportunities arose.
Many Algonquian peoples maintain an animistic world view, while Haudenosaunee following the Longhouse religion adhere to modified Aboriginal beliefs and principles. Traditional beliefs and values tend to remain strongest among those who regularly speak a traditional language. A revitalization of certain aspects of traditional cultures, including languages, arts, crafts (see Aboriginal Art), and also dances and rituals, as well as a greater political awareness, have served to reinforce identity and esteem after more than three centuries of cultural erosion.
B.G. Trigger, ed., Handbook of North American Indians, volume15, Northeast, (1978).