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 Huron, Petun, and Neutral are all extinct. The six Iroquoian languages spoken in Canada today (Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga, Seneca, Tuscarora) were brought by groups of immigrants (LOYALISTS) from New York state. Today, although these languages are still spoken in Canada, Seneca and Tuscarora are nearly extinct. Within the Canadian Eastern Woodlands there are two branches of the Algonquian family, Central Algonquian (Ojibwa, Ottawa, 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 NATIVE PEOPLE, LANGUAGES).
The Canadian Eastern Woodlands are part of a larger region that extends southwest to 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; by far the largest portion of their diet consisted of products from their extensive fields.
White-tailed deer were perhaps the most important game animals in Aboriginal subsistence except in the north, where moose and caribou were food staples. Seals were hunted by some coastal peoples as were freshwater fish, and along the seaboard eels, molluscs and crustaceans. Waterfowl and land birds were seasonally important in some areas. During the historic period, fur bearers, especially BEAVER, were significant to the Aboriginal economy. A variety of berries, nuts, tubers and plants were gathered, and some groups harvested maple and birch sap and WILD RICE.
Although the NORSE made sporadic visits to the eastern seaboard between the 10th and 14th centuries, major European influences were initiated by fishermen to the Grand Banks, who also began 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 longtime homelands and, although there is debate as to whether its origin is pre-contact or post-contact, the famed Iroquois Confederacy became prominent.
By the early 17th century there were European settlements on Sable Island (temporary), at Tadoussac, briefly on the St Croix River in Maine, and at PORT-ROYAL in the Annapolis Valley. In 1609 Henry HUDSON explored the New England coast and the river named after him, while Samuel de CHAMPLAIN accompanied a MONTAGNAIS war party against the Mohawk near Lake Champlain, an event that marked the beginning of European participation in the almost continuous intertribal hostilities that lasted for a century. By 1624, when the Dutch established New Amsterdam [New York], fur bearers had been largely exterminated along the Atlantic coast. During the first half of the 17th century, European epidemics (see NATIVE PEOPLE, HEALTH) and warfare drastically reduced indigenous populations, and subsistence cycles of hunter-gatherers were disrupted. Dependency relationships developed when a variety of European trade items replaced Aboriginal ones, and new forms of territoriality and leadership emerged.
In New England the Pequot War (1637) and King Philip's War (1675-76) led to population shifts clearing the way for 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 Five Nations Iroquois intensified their attack on other Iroquoians and Algonquian during the 1640s and 1650s, forcing many people to flee their homelands (see IROQUOIS WARS). Remnant groups of Huron, Petun, Neutral and Erie fled west and became known as Wyandot, and one group of Huron settled at Lorette near Québec City. The Five Nations Iroquois, reduced by warfare and disease, replenished their numbers by adopting war captives and refugees.
During the late 17th century, as Iroquois power began to wane, Ojibwa and Algonquin expanded into southern Ontario; their descendants occupy reserves there today. In 1722 the Iroquois accepted the Tuscarora, a northern Iroquoian-speaking people who had fled north from the Carolinas. Following this addition, the confederacy was often called the Six Nations, although the Tuscarora were never as politically strong as the five founding nations.
Throughout the first half of the 18th century, most Algonquian of the Eastern Woodlands supported the French and supplied them with furs in exchange for European commodities. Except for a group of Mohawk who had settled near Montréal, the majority of the Iroquois were allied with the British. At the time of the SEVEN YEARS' WAR and after the fall of NEW FRANCE to the British in 1759-60, Ottawa and Ojibwa, displeased with new policies, temporarily captured Detroit and then proceeded north to capture Michilimackinac.
Most Algonquian, however, supported the British cause during the AMERICAN REVOLUTION, but the struggle split the loyalties of the New York state Iroquois, many of whom subsequently moved to lands granted to them by the British in southern Ontario. Members of all the Six Nations Iroquois settled along the Grand River, and some Mohawk settled at the Bay of Quinte.
Land cessions in New York, a growing dependency on European colonists and general demoralization stimulated a revitalization movement in 1799 led by the Seneca prophet Handsome Lake. The new religion spread to other Iroquois communities in the US and Canada (see HANDSOME LAKE RELIGION). After the WAR OF 1812 some Ojibwa, Ottawa and Potawatomi moved from the US to the Georgian Bay area. A portion of the Oneida settled on the Thames River. During the first half of the 19th century, reserves were surveyed for Algonquian along Georgian Bay, the Robinson-Huron and Robinson-Superior treaties of 1850 enfranchising most Algonquian in Ontario. In the Atlantic Provinces some 60 Mi'kmaq reserves were established (see INDIAN RESERVE; INDIAN TREATIES).
As European settlements throughout the Eastern Woodlands grew larger and more numerous, hunting and gathering by various Algonquian waned in importance. Small-scale horticulture, often the result of missionary influences, increasingly supplemented a diet which came to include store foods as well as locally obtained fish and game. Some Aboriginal people were employed by Euro-Canadians in such activities as lumbering, mining and the fur trade, or as part-time labourers.
On reserves, an elected system of chiefs and councillors replaced traditional political institutions, except among some Iroquois whose confederate chiefs filled political offices. The Six Nations traditional system was formally replaced by an elected system in 1924, but the old confederate system often continued in opposition to the elected officers and the federal government that failed to recognize it.
By the 20th century the majority of Eastern Woodland Aboriginal people had adopted Christianity, albeit sometimes only nominally. Many Iroquois continued to practise the Longhouse religion of Handsome Lake. Dependency on government sources of economic support, owing to few employment opportunities or inadequate training, resulted in poverty on most reserves that were not situated near large urban centres.
Following the GREAT DEPRESSION of the 1930s, many Aboriginal people moved to urban centres in Canada and the US to work, and many more have since done so. After about 1960 government-sponsored job programs on reserves and the revitalizaton of old arts and crafts lessened economic dependency. Health clinics and modern medical treatment have resulted in dramatic population growth so that many bands are now numerically larger than at the time of contact (see NATIVE PEOPLE, DEMOGRAPHY).
Iroquoians relied primarily on cultivated corn, beans and squash, and fishing, hunting and gathering supplemented domestic crops. Men cleared forest areas while women planted and harvested and made pottery. The Huron exchanged corn for fish and hides with Nipissing. Crop storage permitted sedentary and often palisaded settlements varying from small hamlets with a few families to towns where as many as 2500 persons resided. Population density was high, reaching a peak of perhaps 24 persons per km2 (60 persons per sq mile) among the Huron. 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; ie, 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 designated by a particular totem emblem (crest). Nations were composed of three to ten clans whose members were scattered in several villages. Among some groups, clans were divided into two categories or moieties. Clan mates, regardless of village, and among the Five Nations even through community affiliation, considered themselves to be siblings.
Most Iroquoian peoples possessed both civil chiefs and war chiefs. The Five Nations Confederacy had a council of 50 permanent and hereditary offices which has survived in modified form to the present. Among the Five Nations, condolence ceremonies commemorate deceased confederacy chiefs, replace them and bestow on the successors the honorary names associated with the office. The Huron had a similar political system.
Algonquian practiced MIDEWIWIN (Grand Medicine Society), and all groups possessed religious specialists (see SHAMAN), engaged in seasonal rituals often associated with crop harvests and held periodic feasts (see NATIVE PEOPLE, RELIGION). The Huron 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 (ossuaries) with grave goods. The Five Nations had a number of medicine societies focused on curing, the best known being the FALSE FACE SOCIETY. During ceremonies members wore elaborately carved wooden masks.
A coalition of five Algonquian-speaking members of the Wabanaki Confederacy, named after the Wabanaki ("dawn-land") territory throughout the Maritime peninsula, comprised the Abenaki, Mí'kmaq, Penobscot, Passamaquoddy, and Maliseet. The confederacy was established in the early 1680s as a response to aggression from the Iroquois Confederacy but also provided the Wabanaki Nations with greater political and negotiating power with the Europeans and a broader sense of community between the individual nations. The confederacy was disbanded in 1862.
Horticulture as a subsistence activity was either absent or marginal among most Eastern Woodland Algonquian. Ottawa, Algonquin, Abenaki and Maliseet grew some crops; the Ojibwa and Mi'kmaq grew none, and the Nipissing traded fish for Huron corn. Hunting and fishing provided the bulk of the food. Deer, bear, moose, caribou and even seals, porpoises and whales were harvested in areas where they could be found. Bows, arrows, lances, traps, snares and deadfalls were used in hunting, and hooks, weirs, leisters and nets were employed to procure 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, 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 birchbark TIPIS to domed WIGWAMS or rectangular structures that housed several families. Village size varied seasonally, with the largest population concentrations occurring in summer. Some Ottawa and Abenaki villages may have numbered 300 persons.
Unlike the Iroquoians who travelled mainly on land or in crude elm-bark canoes, the Algonquian made gracile BIRCHBARK CANOES. In winter they used SNOWSHOES, sleds and TOBOGGANS. Trade and visiting appear to have been common activities among adjacent Algonquian peoples.
The Aboriginal population of the different Algonquian groups is difficult to estimate owing to post-contact movements and the effects of diseases. There may have been 15 000 to 20 000 Central Algonquian in Canada and an equal number of Eastern Algonquian either in Canada or whose descendants later moved to Canada.
Prior to European intervention, there being no confederacies of village chiefs, the largest political unit among most Woodland Algonquian appeared to be the band-village. Each BAND or band-village possessed at least one chief or headman, 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 equal access to basic subsistence resources. While intertribal feuds may have occurred, it is doubtful that warfare was conducted on the same scale as that which characterized the early historic period.
The most important religious figure among the Algonquian was the shaman, who treated the ill, performed magical rites to ward off evil spirits such as WINDIGO and assisted in locating game. Traditional knowledge included the belief that powers pervaded the universe, and the Algonquian made no conceptual distinction between the human and animal worlds. Seasonal rituals and feasts were held, 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. Central Algonquian held Feasts of the Dead that were similar but not identical to those of the Huron. 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.
There has been considerable culture change among all Eastern Woodland groups. Hunting, gathering and fishing have become marginal subsistence activities except among some Mi'kmaq, for whom fishing has remained significant. Agriculture, altered by new technologies, crops and traditional division of labour, declined as reserve populations grew, lands were partitioned, and new job opportunities arose.
Different reserve populations and different groups on the same reserve represent varying degrees of acculturation and assimilation (see NATIVE PEOPLE, SOCIAL CONDITIONS). Today, the number of Canadian Eastern Woodland Aboriginal people remains difficult to determine since not every person is registered or associated with a reserve. Some Algonquian still maintain an essentially animistic world view, while Iroquois following the Longhouse religion adhere to modified Aboriginal beliefs and principles. Traditional beliefs and values tend to remain strongest among those who regularly speak the Native languages. A revitalization of selected aspects of traditional cultures, including languages, arts and crafts (see NATIVE ART) but 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.
Author CHARLES A. BISHOP
Links to Other Sites
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The First Nations of the New France Era
This Canadian Museum of Civilization provides an overview of the First Nations peoples that lived in New France territory that extended, at its peak, from Hudson’s Bay to Louisiana. Good historical maps of that region.
Encyclopedia of Canada's Peoples
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FirstVoices Language Archive
A website devoted to Canada's indigenous languages. Features program information, multimedia dictionaries, and related resources. Produced by The First Peoples' Cultural Foundation.
Raid on Deerfield
A narrated history of the 1704 Raid on Deerfield and its aftermath from Native and European perspectives. Also features fascinating stories about Native societies, cultures, trade practices, and traditions. This multimedia website is from the Memorial Hall Museum in Deerfield, Massachusetts.
Maliseet - Passamaquoddy Dictionary
This online dictionary is from the Mi'kmaq - Maliseet Institute, University of New Brunswick.
Four Directions Teachings
Elders and traditional teachers representing the Blackfoot, Cree, Ojibwe, Mohawk, and Mi’kmaq share teachings about their history and culture. Animated graphics visualize each of the oral teachings. This website also provides biographies of participants, transcripts, and an extensive array of learning resources for students and their teachers. In English with French subtitles.
Micmac Nation of Gespeg
The website for the interpretation centre devoted to the history and traditions of the Micmac Nation of Gespeg.
The website for the Droulers-Tsiionhiakwatha Archaeological Site Interpretation Centre, an ancient Iroquoian village near the La Guerre River in what is now the municipality of Saint-Anicet, Québec.
Gespeg First Nation
Community profile for the Gespeg First Nation from the website for Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada.
Woodland Cultural Centre
The website for the Woodland Cultural Centre, which preserves and promotes the culture and heritage of the First Nations of the Eastern Woodland area.
Eastern Woodland Indians Culture
A brief history of various Woodland First Nations subcultures that existed throughout the eastern half of North America. From the "Woodland Indians Culture" website.