North American Indians: Indians of the Northeast Woodlands

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The Northeast Woodlands peoples occupy an area within 90º to 70º west longitude and 35º to 47º north latitude. The region can be divided into three smaller geographical areas: (1) the upper Great Lakes and Ohio River Valley region, (2) the lower Great Lakes, and (3) the coastal region. Their settlement patterns varied from the northern nomadic hunting groups of extended families through combined bands in semisedentary villages to relatively permanent agricultural settlements. The organization of lineage descent was matrilineal among the Iroquoian-speaking peoples, matrilineal or bilateral among the coastal Algonquian-speaking peoples, patrilineal or bilateral among the upper Great Lakes and Ohio River Algonquian- and Siouan-speaking peoples. Population density in the Northeast varied. At the time of first contact with Europeans the number of persons per hundred square kilometers was ten to twenty-five in the upper Great Lakes and Ohio River areas; twenty-five to sixty in the lower Great Lakes region; and among the coastal Algonquian from three hundred in the Virginia-North Carolina area and decreasing northerly to fewer than twenty-five in the more northern regions of New England (Driver, 1969). These conservative estimates have been extensively challenged causing revisions that suggest significantly higher populations in these areas (Dobyns, 1983 and Thornton, 1987).

The most prominent tribes, divided according to language group, are (1) Algonquian-speaking (Southern Ojibwa, Ottawa, Potawatomi, Menomini, Sauk, Fox, Kickapoo, Miami, Illinois, Shawnee, Narraganset, Mohican, Delaware, Nanticoke, and Powhatan), (2) Iroquoian-speaking (Huron, Erie, Neutral, Petun, Seneca, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga, Mohawk, and Tuscarora), and (3) Siouan-speaking (Winnebago, Tutelo).

The oldest ethnographic material that scholars now rely on deals with these people as they were originally situated. However, significant materials have been gathered subsequently as different tribes either migrated or reorganized on reservations.

These Indian peoples began a period of intense movement in the seventeenth century or earlier, which has continued for many tribes into the present century. Although discussion of these movements will not be undertaken here, no treatment of the religious life of these people can be attempted without acknowledging the intensely disruptive experiences of the past four centuries. The severing of cultural and religious ties to specific geographical locations has been seen by some Native American religious leaders not simply as a loss of natural resources but as a sacrificial or holocaust event with profound consequences for the survival of individual tribes and their religious practices. In particular, the loss of ancient ancestral sites has disrupted the linkage between the North American Indian peoples and the land through which the insights, power and meaning of their religious culture manifested itself.

Cosmological Beliefs

The cosmological beliefs of the Northeast Woodlands peoples involve the concept of power as manifested in the land, in the dialectic of the sacred and the profane, and in patterns of space and time. According to the mythic thought of these peoples, power is that transformative presence most clearly seen in the cycles of the day and the seasons, in the fecund earth, and in the visions and deeds of spirits, ancestors, and living people. This numinous power is so manifestly present that no verbal explanation of it is adequate; rather it is itself the explanation of all transformations in life. While generally regarded as neutral, power may be used for good or ill by individuals.


This all-pervasive power is expressed among Algonquian-speaking tribes by the word manitou or one of its linguistic variants. Manitou is a personal revelatory experience usually manifested in dreams or in visions of a spirit who is capable of transformation into a specific human or animal form. The efficacy of power is symbolized as "medicine," either as a tangible object reverently kept in a bundle or as an intangible "charm" possessed internally. The term manitou is used here to indicate both the singular form of power as the binding concept throughout the highly individual Algonquian belief systems and as the plural form of tutelary spirits who embody such binding force. Manitou, in its various contexts, has both noun forms that indicate entities that empower and verb forms that indicate a moral responsibility to cultivate power. While individually experienced, these plural forms of power manifestation reached their highest religious expresion in actions undertaken for the benefit of the community as a whole.

The belief in manitou can be found among the coastal Algonquians from New England to North Carolina. Similarities may be seen in the name for the Great Manitou: for the Narraganset he was Kautantowwit and for the Penobscot, Ktahandowit. The Delaware worshiped as Great Manitou a spirit called Keetan'to-wit, who had eleven assistants (manitowuk s), each having control over one of eleven hierarchically organized "heavens." The most ancient of the manitou was Our Grandfather, the great tortoise who carries the earth on his back. The Virginia Algonquians called those manitou who were benevolent quiyoughcosuck ; this was also the name given to their priests. The evil manitou were called tagkanysough. Southeast Woodlands influences led to the depiction of manitou in carvings and statues, usually found in the sacred architecture of the North Carolina and Virginia Algonquians.

The Huron concept of oki referred both to a super-abundance of power or ability and to spirit-forces of the cosmos, or guardian spirits. An oki could be either benevolent or malevolent. The supreme oki, Iouskeha, dwelt in the sky, watched over the seasons and the affairs of humans, witnessed to vows, made crops grow, and owned the animals. He had an evil brother, Tawiskaron.

The Iroquois orenda, a magico-religious force, was exercised by spirit-forces called Otkon and Oyaron; it was present in humans, animals, or objects that displayed excessive power, great ability, or large size. The Iroquois had a dualistic system whereby all of the spirit-forces deemed good were associated with the Good Twin and all of those deemed evil with his brother the Evil Twin.

The land

In many of the mythologies of the peoples of the Northeast Woodlands this cosmic power was intimately connected with the land. In their origin myth, the Menomini relate that they came into existence near the mouth of the Menominee River in Wisconsin; here two bears emerged from the earth and became the first man and woman. Near Fond du Lac, where a prominent rock ledge projects into Lake Winnebago, three thunderbirds descended and also became humans. Thus the Menomini use sacred stories associated with the local landscape to mark their origin as well as to relate the division of the tribe into earth and sky clans. The interweaving of tribal myth and sacred geography serves to integrate the community into both personal and cosmic levels of meaning. The intimate relationship of these Algonquian speakers with the land was reflected in their image of the land as Nokomis ("grandmother earth"), who nurtured her grandchildren.

A Seneca myth derives the presence and power of the land from twin sources: the mud brought up by Muskrat, the earth-diver, from the deep waters and deposited onto the back of Great Turtle; and the soil and seeds grasped from the sky world by Mature Flowers as she fell through a hole in the sky and was lowered by fowl onto the back of Great Turtle.

This intimacy of kinship with the earth was also part of an elaborate hierarchical perspective that located the earth within a vast schema of layers of power in the cosmos. These plural expressions have been labeled pantheism but this term stresses an abstract and conceptual sense of divinity rather than the place-based, ecological, and communitarian ideals evident in Algonkian religious thought. Both the Algonquian speakers and the Siouan-speaking Winnebago developed cosmologies in which the heavens above and the earth regions below were seen as layered in hierarchies of beneficial and harmful spirits. The highest power was the supreme being called Great Spirit by the Potawatomi, Ottawa, Miami, and Ojibwa; Master of Life by the Menomini, Sauk, and Fox; Finisher by the Shawnee and Kickapoo; and Earthmaker by the Winnebago. Among the Iroqouian peoples, the highest power was known by several names: the Master of Life, Sky-Holder, the Good-Minded Twin and Creator. This "great mysterious" presence maintained a unique relationship with the last and weakest members of creation, namely, human beings.


Power and guidance entered human existence from the cosmic spirit-forces, from the guardian spirits of individuals and medicine societies, and from spirits of charms, bundles, and masks. Dreams, in particular, were a vehicle for contacting power and thus gaining guidance for political and military decisions. New songs, dances, and customs were often received by the dreamer and were used to energize and reorder cultural life; dreams channeled power as consolation and hope during times of crisis, and often initiated contact between visionary power and the shamans. One means of describing the human experience of this cosmic power is through the dialectic of the sacred and the profane.

This dialectic is useful even though the Northeast Woodlands peoples did not draw a sharp distinction between the sacred and profane. The dialectic refers to the inner logic of the manifestation of numinous power through certain symbols. Profane objects, events, or persons might become embodiments of the sacred in moments of hierophany. This manifestation of the sacred in and through the profane frequently became the inspiration for sacred stories and mythologies that narrated the tribal lore. Among the Winnebago and other Northeast Woodlands peoples, narrative stories were distinguished as worak ("what is recounted") and waika ("what is sacred"). Telling the worak stories of heroes, human tragedy, and memorable events was a profane event, whereas narrating the waika stories evoked the spirits and was therefore a sacred ritual. Thus the ordinary act of speaking could become the hierophany that manifests power. Not only narrative but also the interweaving of sacred space and time gave real dimensions to cosmic power.

Sacred space

A place of orientation that provides individuals or groups with a sense of both an integrating center and a cosmic boundary is called "sacred space." This concept is exemplified by the Medicine society's rite, which originated among the Ojibwa and was transmitted throughout the eighteenth century to the other tribes of the upper Great Lakes. For this Medicine rite a special lodge was constructed of arched trees, covering an earthen floor with a rock and an elaborate pole in the center. These items varied slightly throughout the area of the ritual's diffusion, but in every instance they were used to delineate sacred space and to symbolize the cosmos. For the Winnebago, the arched trees of the lodge symbolized the water spirits (snakes who occupied the four cardinal directions). For the Potawatomi the earthen floor was Nokomis ("grandmother earth"). Among the Sauk the central stone in the lodge indicated the abiding presence of power. For the Ojibwa, originators of this ceremony, which they called Midewiwin ("mystic doings"), the pole symbolized the cosmic tree that penetrated the multilayered universe and united all the assembled manitou.

Iroquoian and coastal Algonquian peoples lived in rectangular "longhouses" or "big houses," in groups comprised of several matrilineally connected families. That the longhouses and big houses were seen as microcosms is most clearly reflected in the symbolism of the Delaware big house. The floor and ceiling represented the earth and sky, respectively. There was a door where the sun rose and a door where the sun set, and these doors were connected by the ceremonial Good White Path, symbolizing the journey human beings make from birth toward death. The fact that there was a door, an opening toward the west, and the fact that the dances eventually circled back, point to the Delaware hope in an afterlife and, for some, a rebirth. Ritual movement in relation to the sacred architecture suggests a concern for the flow of relational meaning and identity rather than fixed or hieratic devotional presences. In the center of the big house stood a post with a carved face that was made from a tree and that symbolized the axis mundi ; from its base the post was believed to run upward through the twelve cosmic levels, the last being the place of the Great Manitou. This post was the staff of the Great Manitou, whose power filled all creation. Power manifested in the spirits was symbolized by the faces carved into low posts situated around the inside of the big house.

Sacred time

The period of contact with sustaining power is "sacred time." Such contact was believed to occur in the movement of the seasons, the fecundity of nature, and the personal life cycle. Among the native peoples of the upper Great Lakes, time was also sacralized in the narratives and rituals that reconstituted the mythic time of manitou revelation. During the Menomini Mitawin, or Medicine rite, while the origin myth of the ceremony itself was narrated, the society members imagistically participated in the original assembly of the manitou who began the ceremony in mythic time. Such an evocation of relationship with cosmic powers and identification with them in the oral narratives structured an experience of sacred time.

The Delaware Big House ceremony evoked powers that made possible the transition from the old year of chaos to the new year of cosmos. The origin myth narrated during that ceremony set the context for a renewal of the earth and of the tribe's binding relationships with the spirit-forces. The myth related that long ago the very foundation of life itself, the earth, was split open by a devastating quake. The forces of evil and chaos erupted from the underworld in the form of dust, smoke, and a black liquid: all creatures were struck with fear at these events. The humans then met in council and concluded that the disruptions had occurred because they had neglected their proper relationship with the Great Manitou. They prayed for power and guidance. The manitou spoke to them in dreams, telling them how to build a house that would recreate the cosmos and how to conduct a ceremony that would evoke the power to sustain it. This ceremony would establish their moral relationship with the manitou, and by the carvings of their mesingw ("faces") on the posts an identification with each of these cosmic forces would occur as one moved ritually along the Good White Path. Furthermore, the recitation of puberty dream-visions would renew and revivify the individual's relationship with his or her personal manitou. The old time was one of impurity, symbolized by dirt and smoke. To make the transition into sacred time everyone and everything had to be purified, including attendants, reciters of dreams, and the big house itself. Purifying fires burned on either side of the center post. Power objects or persons from different religious contexts such as menstruating women were considered inappropriate to enter the Big House at this time.

The Iroquois Midwinter ceremony renews life at the turning of the year. Ashes are stirred, prior dreams and cures renewed, stories are told and ceremonies performed. At the center is the Tobacco Invocation which begs all the spirit-powers of the universe to perform their duties as assigned by the Creator in the coming year. And as the seasons and subsistence activities unfold during the year, the Thanksgiving Address, which opens each of a sequence of celebratory ceremonies, gives thanks to the Creator and all spirit-powers for responding to the Midwinter prayers of the people.

Ceremonial Practices

Some understanding of the rich and complex ritual life of the Northeast Woodlands peoples can be obtained by considering selected ceremonies concerned with subsistence, life cycles, and personal, clan, and society visions.


Through subsistence rituals, tribes contacted power to ensure the success of hunting, fishing, or trapping; gathering of herbs, fruits, or root crops; and agricultural endeavors. Among the Sauk and Menomini there were both private and public ceremonials for hunting that focused on sacred objects now generically labeled "medicine" in English. The large public medicine-bundles of three types were believed to have been obtained by the trickster-culture hero Manabus from the Grandfathers, or manitou spirits. The first hunting bundle, called Misasakiwis, helped to defeat the malicious medicine people who tried to foil the hunter's success. Both the second bundle, Kitagasa Muskiki (made of a fawn's skin), and the third (a bundle with deer, wolf, and owl skins), fostered hunting success. Each bundle might contain a variety of power objects such as animal skins, miniature hunting implements, wooden figures, herbal preparations, and often an actual scent to lure animals. The bundle's owner obtained the right to assemble or purchase such a bundle from a personal vision. Songs, especially, evoked the powers of the bundle; these songs often recalled the agreement between the visionary and the manitou as well as the prohibitions and obligations that impinged upon the owner of a bundle. In this way the bundle owner, and the hunters he aided, thwarted the evil ones and contacted the manitou masters of the hunted animals. Thus power objects from the environment, along with the empowered hunters, chanting, and the ritually imaged manitou -spirits, functioned together to bring sustenance to the people.

Although the growing season varied within the Northeast, most of these peoples practiced some form of agriculture. With the introduction of agriculture new symbol complexes developed, giving meaning and power to this new subsistence activity and integrating it into the larger cosmic order. The northern Iroquois, for example, linked together woman, earth, moon, and the cycles of birth and death.

According to northern Iroquois mythology, agricultural products first emerged from the dead body of the Creator's mother. Out of her breasts grew two cornstalks, and from her arms and body came beans and squash. Her death had been caused by the Creator's evil-minded brother, who was frequently associated with winter and ice. In giving birth to winter the Earth Mother "dies," but she brings forth life in the spring. The gathering of plants and the planting of crops were also the practical tasks of Iroquois women. Consequently, these women played a key role in scheduling and celebrating the ceremonies marking the yearly cycle of life: the Our-Life-Supporters Dances, the Bush Dance, and the Maple, Seed Planting, Strawberry, Raspberry, Green Bean, Little Corn, Green Corn, and Harvest rituals.

The spirit of the Earth Mother was also made into the Moon by her son, the Creator (or Master) of Life. Grandmother Moon was connected with life, as it was her duty to watch over all living things during the night. The monthly cycle of the moon and the yearly cycle of vegetation were associated with the mystery of life, death, and rebirth; women and the earth were seen as connected because they both have the power to bring forth and nourish life.

The domestic ceremony of apology for taking life is also found among all these Northeast Woodlands people. This profound yet often simple ceremony illustrates the moral character of the force that was believed to bind the cosmos together. The ceremony consisted of a spoken apology and a gift of sacred tobacco for the disturbance caused to the web of life by taking animal life, cutting trees, gathering plants, or taking minerals. For example, William Jones, in his Ethnography of the Fox Indians (1939), quotes a Fox tribesman as saying: "We do not like to harm trees. Whenever we can, we always make an offering of tobacco to the trees before we cut them down. If we did not think of their feelings before cutting them down, all the other trees in the forest would weep, and that would make our hearts sad, too" (p. 21). This ceremony is both a thanksgiving for the blessing of a material boon and an acknowledgment of the environmental ethics that binds the human and natural worlds.

Life cycles

Life-cycle rites of passage are illuminating examples of these peoples' recognition that the passage through life's stages required a structured encounter with power. These ceremonies included private actions that invoked power at liminal moments such as menstruation, marriage, and birth. For example, menstruating women withdrew to specially constructed lodges, and the marriage ceremony was generally validated by an extensive exchange of gifts between families. Similarly, conception was ensured by protective fetal spirits, and new birth required a period of seclusion for purification of the mother and cradle-amulets for the child. Although there were taboos surrounding pregnancy and delivery, there were no elaborate birth rituals among the northern Iroquois or coastal Algonquians. Other life-cycle ceremonials, however, were marked by elaborate ritual activities, such as naming, puberty, and death ceremonies.

Birth and early childhood

Naming ceremonies arise both from the belief that humans are born weak and require power for growth and survival as well as a belief that new life should be introduced into the cosmos. Generally, two types of naming ceremonies have been found. Among the Southeast Woodlands tribes a child was given an ancestral clan name. This situated that child in the clan lineage and empowered the child by directly connecting him or her to the ancestral vision embodied in the clan medicine bundles. Another ceremony associated with the Menomini, Potawatomi, Ojibwa, and Ottawa, but occasionally practiced by the other groups, involved naming by virtue of a dream vision. In this ritual a person was chosen by the parents to undergo a fast or a sweat lodge purification so that they might receive a name for the child from the manitou.

Among the Iroquois and Delaware the naming ceremony, which was conducted in the longhouse, was the most significant ritual of early childhood. Delaware parents were attentive to their dreams for a revelation of the name. They would give their child to an elder in the big house who would announce the child's name and offer prayers of blessing for it. A similar ceremony would be conducted for an adult who decided to change his or her name due to a significant deed or because the first name no longer seemed appropriate. The Huron pierced the ears of the child and named it shortly after birth; the child's name then belonged to the clan and could not be used by another member of the tribe. The Iroquois named their children either at the Green Corn ceremony in the summer or before the Midwinter ceremonies. A child who resembled a dead ancestor might be given his or her name since it was believed that the name might have some of the ancestor's personality. The name remained the child's exclusive privilege and the focus of his or her early spiritual formation until the puberty ceremonials.


It is uncertain whether the puberty rites of the Algonquians of Virginia and North Carolina involved a vision quest. However, the vision quest was part of the puberty rites of all of the upper Great Lakes peoples with variations according to the tribe. Some southern Ohio River groups such as the Shawnee emphasized less ecstatic experiences such as a boy's first kill. Among the Potawatomi, however, on specially designated mornings the parents or grandparents would offer a youth in his or her early teens a choice of food or charcoal. Encouraged to choose the charcoal and to blacken their faces, the youngsters were taken to an isolated place, often to perch in the limbs of a tree. There, alone, they fasted for dream visions. Although boys and girls might undertake vision quests, many tribes in this area had special ceremonies for girls.

The northern Iroquois, the Delaware, and the coastal Algonquians secluded girls in huts during their first menstruation. Among the Delaware the girls observed strict rules regarding food, drink, and bodily care; while in seclusion they wore blankets over their heads, and they were not permitted to leave the huts until their second menstrual period. This rite signified a girl's eligibility for marriage. There is evidence that some northern Iroquoians did not seclude their women during menstruation, although certain taboos had to be observed.

Among the Kickapoo a young girl was isolated from the village in a small hut during her first menses. Tended by her female kin, the girl followed strict prohibitions. Her dreams, like those of the isolated youth in the forest, were of special importance. Accounts of these momentous visions and dreams speak of encounters with tutelary manitou who bestowed blessings. Visions of such entities as wind, trees, fire, or birds, were all considered symbolic indications of the young person's future life. A successful dreamer might narrate part or all of his or her dream to an elderly family member or a shaman empowered to interpret dreams. This dream-vision was a means of acquiring psychic integration and spiritual strength so as to meet the challenges of life and death.

One of the most striking puberty rites was the Huskanawe of the Algonquians of Virginia. This rite was undergone by boys selected to be future chiefs and priests, positions of great importance in a highly stratified society. The ceremony began with the ritual tearing away of the children from their mothers and fathers, who had to accept them thenceforth as "dead." The boys were taken into the forest and were sequestered together in a small hut. For months they were given little to eat and were made to drink intoxicating potions and take emetics. At the end of this period of mental and emotional disorientation, they completely forgot who they were, and they were unable to understand or speak the language they had known. When the initiators were sure that the boys had been deconditioned, they took them back to the village. Under close supervision from their guides, the boys formed a new identity; they relearned how to speak and were taught what to wear and the intricacies of the new roles now assigned to them. As rulers or priests they had to be free from all attachments to family and friends. Their minds had been cleansed and reshaped so that they might see clearly and act wisely. Their claim to authority and their power to lead others rested on their successful ritual transition to a sacred condition.


The form of death rites varied widely among the Northeast Woodlands peoples. In the tribes of the upper Great Lakes area, bodies were usually disposed of according to the individual's wishes or clan prerogatives for scaffold exposure, ground burial, or cremation. Among the Fox, death was a highly ritualized event announced to the village by a crier. The members of the deceased's clan gathered for a night of mourning. The clan leader addressed the corpse, advising it not to look back with envy on those still alive but to persevere in its journey to the ancestors in the west. After burial there were the rituals of building a grave shed and installing a clan post as a marker. A six-month period of mourning then followed, during which time a tribesperson was ceremoniously adopted to substitute for the deceased person, especially at memorial feasts.

Burial practices differed among the peoples of the lower Great Lakes and coastal region. The Algonquians of Carolina buried common people individually in shallow graves. The Algonquians of Virginia wrapped the bodies of common people in skins and placed them on scaffolds; after the decay of the flesh was complete, the bones were buried. The rulers of both peoples, however, were treated differently. After death their bodies were disemboweled and the flesh was removed, but the sinews were left attached to the bones. The skin was then sewn back on to the skeleton, after being packed with white sand or occasionally ornaments. Oil kept the body's oils from drying. The corpses were placed on a platform at the western end of the temple and attended by priests.

The Nanticoke and other tribes of the southern Maryland and Delaware peninsula area practiced a second ossuary interment, in some cases preceded by an inhumation and in others by scaffold burials. The rulers of most of these tribes were treated like those of the Algonquians of Virginia and North Carolina. Some of the southern Delaware also had a second ossuary burial, but the main tribal group had one inhumation only; no special treatment for chiefs was noted.

The Huron and some Algonquian groups had two inhumations, the second one in an ossuary. Their Feast of the Dead was conducted at periodic intervals of ten to twelve years. At that time all of the bodies buried during the preceding decade were disinterred, their remaining flesh was removed, and after a ten-day ceremony the skeletons were reburied. Village bands solidified alliances in these ceremonies in which the bones were deliberately mixed. This was a symbol of the unity that should exist among the living. The Petun followed the Huron, while the Neutral and Wenro had a scaffold burial followed later by burial in an ossuary. The Wyandot and Iroquois had only one inhumation but had an annual or semiannual feast for the dead. Eastern New York State, including Long Island, may mark the northern coastal border of secondary burials.

These life-cycle ceremonials were an integral part of every tribesperson's passage through life. Indeed, in the Winnebago Medicine rite the image of human aging in four steps is presented as a paradigm of all life. However, such ceremonial rites of passage can be distinguished from certain personal, clan, and group rituals.

Individual, clan, and group

Power objects given by the manitou, such as medicine bundles, charms, and face-paintings, became the focus of personal rituals, songs, and dances. An individual evoked his or her spirit and identified with it by means of rhythmic singing, drumming, rattling, or chanting; one would then channel the power brought by the spirit to a specific need such as hunting, the healing of sick people, or, in some cases, toward more selfish ends.

The Huron owned power charms (aaskouandy ). Many of these were found in the entrails of game animals, especially those who were difficult to kill. Charms could be small stones, tufts of hair, and so on. One of the abilities of a power charm was to change its own shape, so that a stone, for example, might become a bean or a bird's beak. Aaskouandy were of two types: (1) those that brought general good luck and (2) those that were good for one particular task. The particular use of a charm would be revealed to its owner in a dream.

An individual or family might collect a number of charms and keep them in a bundle consisting of, for example, tufts of hair, bones or claws of animals, stones, and miniature masks. The owner was periodically obliged to offer a feast to his charms, during which he and his friends would sing to the charms and show them honor. The owner usually established a relationship to the charm spirit, similar to that between an individual and a guardian spirit, although charm spirits were known to be more unpredictable and dangerous than guardian spirits. An individual or family who wished to get rid of a charm had to conduct a ritual and bury it; even then uneasiness surrounded the event.

Among the Huron and Iroquois, there were masks that had to be cared for in addition to a charm or bundle. A person acquired a mask through dreaming of it or having it prescribed by a shaman. A carver would go into the forest and search for a living tree; basswood, cucumber, and willow were the preferred woods. While burning tobacco, he recited prayers to the tree spirit and the False Face spirits. The mask was carved into the tree and then removed in one piece. The finishing touches, including the eye-holes (which were surrounded with metal) and the mouth hole, were added later. If the tree had been found in the morning, the mask would be painted red; if in the afternoon, black. The hair attached to the mask was horsetail.

Because the mask was considered sacred and full of power the owner had to treat it correctly. He would keep it in a cloth carrier with a turtle rattle placed in the hollow side. If a mask was hung on a wall, it had to face the wall, lest some unsuspecting person be possessed by it. Periodically the mask would be fed mush and anointed with sunflower oil. If a mask fell or if a person dreamed of his mask, he would burn tobacco to it. One or two small bundles of tobacco were also hung inside the mask. The owner of a mask belonged to the False Face society and engaged in its curing rituals. The mask not only brought the owner power and protection but also the ability to heal the sick.

Personal power could overwhelm individuals, causing them to seek only self-aggrandizement. The Shawnee have myths that relate the origin of witchcraft to that mythic time when a crocodile's heart, which was the embodiment of evil, was cut out and carried home to the village by unwitting tribespeople. While the tribes of the Northeast fostered belief in contact with power, they also condemned the misuse of such power in sorcery. They tried to control their exceptional personalities by threatening the return of all evil machinations to the perpetrator. Nonetheless, witch societies have been prominent in Menomini history. Even though these destructive medicine practices may at times have been widespread among the Northeast Woodlands tribes, their many religious societies never completely abandoned the constructive use of power.

These religious societies could be either temporary or permanent. Participants were usually selected according to criteria based on clan membership, on blessing from the same tutelary spirit, or on personal conduct and achievement. Their ceremonial activities, including narrative rituals, feasts, dances, and games, all had sacred meaning because they were performed to honor clan ancestors, guardian spirits, or departed society members. The Miami and Winnebago each had religious societies formed around clan war-bundles. The Kickapoo still have clan societies that hold spring renewals centered on their ancestral bundles. Vision societies also developed among individual Winnebago, Sauk, Fox, Kickapoo, Illinois, Miami, and Shawnee people who had received vision revelations from the same manitou spirit. Throughout this region societies also formed around those warriors or braves whose heroic acts in battle were seen as special signs of personal power. So also the Potawatomi Southern Dance temporarily brought together tribespeople who still grieved for deceased relatives. The medicine societies and other groups, such as the Dream Dance (or Drum Dance) and the Native American Church (Peyote), admitted tribespeople who felt called to these societies and were willing to submit to the societies' ethics.

At present the primary medicine society among the Iroquois is the Society of Medicine Men (also known as Shake the Pumpkin) to which most members of other societies belong. This society is dedicated to the medicine animals who long ago promised to heal humans in exchange for ceremonies and feasts.

The Society of Mystic Animals includes the Bear, Buffalo, Otter, and Eagle societies; members of each group take its tutelary spirit as their own when they are healed by it. The Little Water Medicine society guards and cures with the most potent of Iroquois medicines, which come from parts of animals, birds, and plants. Rituals to renew the power of this medicine are held several times a year. The Little People society (also known as Dark Dance) receives power from its relationship with the "little people" who live in stream banks, forests, and underground.

The False Face society is one of the most popular Iroquois societies. As described above, the wooden faces represent spirits of the forest who appear to people in dreams. The society has its own curing ceremonies, but it also participates in the Midwinter ceremony. The Husk Faces are agricultural correlates of the False Faces; they are dedicated to the spirits of maize, beans, and squash. Besides having private curing ceremonies, members of the Husk Face society are doorkeepers at the longhouse when the False Faces perform and also function as police during Longhouse ceremonies.

Religious Personalities

The shaman is the most important religious figure among the upper Great Lakes and Ohio River native peoples. Primarily a healer and diviner, the shaman contacts power by means of a trance and channels that power to specific needs. Shamans are known by a variety of names derived from the calls to their vocation they have received by way of visions, as well as from their particular healing functions. Generally, four shamanic vocations are found among the northeastern Algonquian peoples. There are also a number of shamanic techniques. Both the shamanic vocations and techniques are documented from the seventeenth century.

The most celebrated shamanic figure among the Algonquian peoples is the shaking-tent diviner and healer, whom the Ojibwa call tcisaki, the Menomini tcisakos and the Potawatomi tcisakked. Among the Ojibwa, this shamanic figure received the vocation after a dream "call" from the manitou called Mistabeo had occurred four times. The tcisaki 's technique was to enter a special lodge that swayed when the manitou arrived. The tcisaki then mediated between the spirits and the audience during a question-and-answer session in which the location of a lost object or the cause of an illness was sought. In the case of illness, the diviner might determine the cause of the sickness while inside the shaking tent and then come out to perform a sucking cure.

Another ancient shamanic profession is that of the tube-sucking curer whom the Ojibwa called nanandawi. Several manitou could give this healing vocation, but the Thunderer was especially favored. The sucking curer often used the bones of raptorial birds to suck the affected area and to remove objects believed to have been shot into a person by malicious witches. The curer would partially swallow as many as seven bones down his esophagus; he would apply the bones, which projected out of his mouth, to the area of the patient's body that was being treated.

The manipulation of fire for healing purposes is also an ancient shamanic vocation; the Ojibwa call this healer wabeno, the Menomini called him wapanows, and the Potawatomi, wapno. The traditional call to this vocation came from Morning Star, who was imaged as a manitou with horns. The wabeno, working individually or in a group, healed by using the heat of burning embers to massage and fascinate his patients.

An initiated shamanic personality resulted from membership in one of the medicine societies. For example, the Ojibwa Mide, or Medicine society, is composed of the tribe's recognized shamans and candidates initiated into the society as well as healed patients. Thus the healing shamans and ritually initiated members perform together with the healed patients during the ritual. There is a basic difference in technique between the members of these shamanic societies and the individual shamanic healers previously discussed. Among individual healers, healing through spontaneous trance is central, whereas within shamanic societies, transmission of sacred knowledge is primary and trance states are more formally structured and ritually transmitted. Thus the role of the religious leader in the medicine societies may be more accurately described as that of a shaman-priest.

Shamanism among the Huron and the Iroquois of the seventeenth century was primarily an individual enterprise, although societies did exist. In subsequent centuries the Iroquois channeled shamanistic powers and skills into the growing number of medicine societies. The central concern of the Huron shamans was the curing of illness. Illness was caused by either (1) natural events, (2) witchcraft, or (3) desires of the soul. The first could be handled by an herbalist or other practitioner. The second and third required the diagnostic and healing abilities of a shaman (arendiwane ), including divining, interpreting dreams, sucking, blowing ashes, and juggling hot coals.

The ocata was a shaman skilled in diagnosis. In the case of a hidden desire of the soul whose frustration was causing illness he would seek to have a vision of what was desired. To do this he might gaze into a basin of water until the object appeared or enter into a trancelike state to see the object or lie down in a small dark tent to contact his spiritual allies to assist him.

A personal spirit relationship (oki ) was won after a long fast and isolation in the forest; it could take the form of a human, an animal, or a bird such as a raven or eagle. Sometimes the power and skill needed to cure would come through a dream. There were shamanic specialists who handled hot coals or plunged their arms into boiling water without injury; frequently a power song, which allowed the person to accomplish this, was sung. Other shamans cured by blowing hot ashes over a person or by rubbing the person's skin with ashes.

Witchcraft was combatted by the aretsan ; usually the aretsan would suck out the evil spell that the witch had magically injected into his victim. Divining shamans could see things at a distance, cause rain, persuade animal guardian spirits to release game, or give advice on military or political matters.

Outside of these established vocations, certain shamanic techniques were available to all lay people among the tribes of the Northeast. These included tattooing, naming, divining, bloodletting, induced vomiting as a cure, weather control, and herbal healing. However, at times individual shamans or shamanic societies were so strong that they absorbed these and other curing practices as their exclusive pre-rogative.

Other outstanding religious personalities included the war chiefs, who led war bundle ceremonies and war parties, and the peace chiefs, who did not go to fight but who acted as mediators, working for peace within the tribe as well as between separate tribes. The Menomini chose hereditary war chiefs from the Bear clan and peace chiefs from the Thunderer clan. All Northeast Woodlands tribes used a war and peace chief system, but the clan totems from which these leaders were selected often differed from band to band.

Occasionally singular religious figures appear in the ethnohistory of the Northeast Woodlands peoples. The Winnebago have had sacred clowns and "contraries" who performed ritual actions backward or in a humorous manner to accentuate the ambiguity of life. Transvestite visionaries such as the Miami "whitefaces" wore women's clothes and did women's work; occasionally they gained reputations as healers or diviners because of their unusual call and personal abilities. Among other exceptional personalities were the ecstatic visionaries often called "prophets." The Delaware prophet Neolin called for a rejection of white influences and a return to the old ways and inspired many to join Pontiac's uprising in the 1760s. The famous Shawnee prophet, Tenkswatawa, brother to Tecumseh initiated a nativistic movement uniting many woodland peoples against American expansion in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Handsome Lake, of the Seneca, inspired a reformed way of life for the Iroquois in the early nineteenth century. During the same period the Kickapoo prophet Kenekuk led a religious movement that fostered his people's accomodation to some American cultural influences. The Winnebago prophet Wabo-kieshiek began a short-lived revitalization of traditional values during Black Hawk's War in the 1830s. These and other minor prophets received revelations concerning the need to transform specific historical situations. They represented a shift in religious thought among these native peoples from the predominantly individual concern and responsibility for harmony with cosmic powers in nature to a more structured ethics based on an interior religious imperative.

Northeast Woodlands peoples have struggled to maintain their traditions into the present period. Not only have they endured the cultural inroads of a variety of Christian missionaries, but these native traditions have also persisted in the face of tribal fragmentation and degradation. This struggle was reflected in the life of the Seneca leader Handsome Lake; he was able to give focus to his people's plight by drawing on the spiritual power of dreams that came to him during an illness brought on by drunkenness and despair in the face of the pervasive oppression of his cultural way of life. The traditional sanction of dreams and visions in native Northeast Woodlands religions continues into the present revitalization of the sweat lodge, the vision quest, and medicine-wheel gatherings. The relevance of these traditional ceremonies to contemporary needs is highlighted by the growing participation of non-Indians in these meditative rituals. In summary it is evident that the spiritual life of the Indians of the Northeast Woodlands resists any attempt to simply objectify and list representative paractices or beliefs. Even the term religion may not be as helpful for understanding these complex lifeways that activate visionary experiences, the sovereignty of the community of life, ecological affectivity, and cosmological centeredness.

See Also

Handsome Lake; Iroquois Religious Traditions; Neolin; Shamanism, article on North American Shamanism; Tecumseh.


Anthropological Papers. New York, 1907. These volumes, published by the American Museum of Natural History, contain extensive materials on the religious beliefs and practices of Northeast Woodlands peoples as, for example, in Alanson Skinner's Social Life and Ceremonial Bundles of the Menomini Indians and Folklore of the Menomini Indians, in volume 13, parts 1 and 3 (New York, 1915).

Beverley, Robert. The History and Present State of Virginia (1705). Edited by Louis B. Wright. Chapel Hill, N. C., 1947. A primary document on the Virginia Algonquians drawing on the author's own observations and those of earlier sources, written and verbal. More sensitive than most works of the period regarding both the native peoples and the natural environment.

Black, Mary. "Ojibwa Power Belief-Systems." In The Anthropology of Power, edited by Raymond Fogelson and Richard Adams, pp. 141151. New York, 1977. A seminal study of the concept of power in the religious belief systems of the Ojibwa peoples.

Blair, Emma, ed. and trans. The Indian Tribes of the Upper Mississippi Valley and the Region of the Great Lakes (1911). 2 vols. New York, 1969. A fine collection of primary documents describing the upper Great Lakes and Ohio River native peoples during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

Bureau of American Ethnology. Annual Reports and "Bulletins." Washington, D.C., 1888. These reports and bulletins present materials on native peoples' beliefs and religious practices which, however, often need further interpretation. Special mention can be made here of the following monographs published as "Bulletins of the Bureau of American Ethnology": The Midewiwin or 'Grand Medicine Society' of the Ojibwa, no. 7 (18851886), and The Menomini Indians no. 14, (18921893), both by Walter J. Hoffman; Ethnography of the Fox Indians, no. 125 (1939), by William Jones; Contributions to Fox Ethnology, 2 vols., nos. 85 (1927) and 95 (1930), and The Owl Sacred Pack of the Fox Indians, no. 72 (1921), by Trumen Michelson; and The Winnebago Tribe, no. 37 (19151916), by Paul Radin.

Callicott, J. Baird, and Michael Nelson. American Indian Environmental Ethics: An Ojibwa Case Study. Upper Saddle River, N.J., 2004. A study of stories from the Ojibwa that demonstrates how their cultural worldview supports specific principle and practices related to an environmental ethics.

Dobyns, Henry. Their Numbers Became Thinned: Native Population Dynamics in Eastern North America. Knoxville, Tenn., 1983. This study proposes a major revision of population estimates of Native American population for the New England region based on early death records of native villages.

Driver, Harold E. Indians of North America. 2d ed., rev. Chicago, 1969. Somewhat dated in parts but overall good statistical information on all Native American tribes, including those of the Northeast.

Flannery, Regina. "An Analysis of Coastal Algonquian Culture." Ph.D. diss., Catholic University, 1939. A detailed classification of cultural topics and documentation for all areas of coastal Algonquian life, drawn mostly from sixteenth- and seventeenth-century documents.

Greeman, Emerson F. The Wolf and Furton Sites. Occasional Contributions, Museum of Anthropology, University of Michigan, no. 8. Ann Arbor, 1939. Study of a woodland archaeological site of proto-historical period.

Grim, John A. The Shaman: Patterns of Siberian and Ojibway Healing. Norman, Okla., 1983. A study of the Ojibwa shaman that, in addition, traces broad patterns of shamanic expression. Includes an extensive bibliography on the religious figure of the shaman.

Hallowell, A. Irving. "Ojibwa Ontology, Behavior, and World View." In Culture in History: Essays in Honor of Paul Radin, edited by Stanley Diamond, pp. 1952. New York, 1960. An important analysis of the categories and orientations of Ojibwa ethnometaphysics that is helpful in interpreting the religious practices of these woodland peoples.

Harrington, Mark R. Religion and Ceremonies of the Lenape. New York, 1921. The first and still the best work on the religion of the Delaware in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Hewitt, J. N. B., ed. "Iroquois Cosmology," part 1. In Bureau of American Ethnology Twenty-first Annual Report, pp. 127339. Washington, D.C., 18991900.

Hewitt, J. N. B., ed. "Iroquoian Cosmology," part 2. In Bureau of American Ethnology Forty-third Annual Report, pp. 449819. Washington, D.C., 19251926. The best collection of Iroquois cosmogonic myths available.

Kinietz, W. Vernon. The Indians of the Western Great Lakes, 16151760. Occasional Contributions, Museum of Anthropology, University of Michigan, no. 10. Ann Arbor, 1940.

Landes, Ruth. Ojibwa Religion and the Midewiwin. Madison, Wis., 1968.

Landes, Ruth. The Prairie Potawatomi. Madison, Wis., 1970. Both of Landes's works explore, from an anthropological perspective, selected myths and rituals associated with the presence of religious power.

McNally, Michael. Ojibwe Singers: Hymns, Grief, and a Native Culture in Motion. New York, 2000. A study of the changing religiosity among Anishinabe Great Lakes peoples.

Parker, Arthur C. Parker on the Iroquoi. Edited by William N. Fenton. Syracuse, 1968. Contains important documents such as "The Code of Handsome Lake, Seneca Prophet," and "The Constitution of the Five Nations."

Radin, Paul, ed. The Road of Life and Death. New York, 1945. Contains the text of the Winnebago Medicine rite with some commentary by Radin on the circumstances that prompted Crashing Thunder (Jasper Blowsnake) to narrate this esoteric lore. This book also includes Big Winnebago's autobiography, as edited by Paul Radin.

Shimony, Annemarie Anrod. Conservatism among the Iroquois at the Six Nations Reserve. Syracuse, 1994. Essential reading for an understanding of contemporary Iroquois religion and the struggle to assure its continuation.

Speck, Frank G. A Study of the Delaware Indian Big House Ceremony. Harrisburg, Pa., 1931. The foremost study of the Big House ceremony among the Delaware of Oklahoma.

Sturtevant, William C., and Bruce Trigger, eds. Handbook of North American Indians. Rev. ed. Washington, D.C., 1981. An excellent overview of the specific tribal groups in this area with a brief treatment of religious beliefs and practices.

Thornton, Russell. American Indian Holocaust and Survival: A Population History Since 1492. Norman, Okla., 1987. A significant study of early records to reassess native populations and the deaths by pandemic diseases to which native populations had little or no resistance.

Thwaites, Reuben Gold, ed. The Jesuit Relations and Allied Documents , 16101791 (18961901). 73 vols. in 39. Reprint, New York, 1959. An indispensable work especially on the tribes of "Huronia" and "Iroquoia" as related by Jesuit missionaries.

Tooker, Elisabeth. Native North American Spirituality of the Eastern Woodlands. New York, 1979. Ethnographic selections from the religious rituals of various Northeast Woodlands peoples with some general interpretative sections.

Trigger, Bruce G. The Children of Aataentsic: A History of the Huron People to 1660. 2 vols. Montreal, 1976. Excellent reconstruction of the history, culture, and religion of the Hurons, relying on the earliest documents available.

Trowbridge, C. C. Meearmar Traditions. Occasional Contributions, Museum of Anthropology, University of Michigan, no. 7. Ann Arbor, 1938. A study of the Miami people.

Trowbridge, C. C. Shawnese Traditions. Edited by W. Vernon Kinietz. Occasional Contributions, Museum of Anthropology, University of Michigan, no. 9. Ann Arbor, 1939.

Williams, Roger. The Complete Writings of Roger Williams (1643). 7 vols. Edited by Reuben A. Guild et al. New York, 1963. Especially valuable for information on the Narraganset is "The Key into the Language of America" found in volume 1.

John A. Grim (1987 and 2005)

Donald P. St. John (1987 and 2005)

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North American Indians: Indians of the Northeast Woodlands

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North American Indians: Indians of the Northeast Woodlands