The American Indian cultures of northeastern North America, also known as the Woodland Indians, inhabited a region that was rich in natural resources. This large region that includes territory from the Atlantic coast to the Great Lakes was characterized by extensive forests and numerous river systems and bodies of water. The environment supported a wide variety of mammals and fish that provided a valuable source of food for Native peoples. The forests contained large numbers of white-tailed deer, moose, and elk. In some areas of the Northeast woodland bison and caribou also served as primary food sources. In addition, large numbers of bears and beaver, smaller mammals, and migrating waterfowl provided ready foodstuffs for Native peoples. The rivers and lakes of the region teemed with fish and clams.
Although farming was limited in the extreme northern reaches of the area, agriculture was, for the most part, quite productive. A variety of naturally occurring foodstuffs were also available. Wild rice was common to the region and was an important food because it could be stored for long periods of time. The resources that were a part of the ecology of the region helped sustain large populations of Native groups such as the Iroquois, Ojibway, Delaware, Wampanoag, Ottawa, Huron, and many others over an extensive territory in the period before Europeans arrived.
Although the large number of tribes that inhabited the Northeast shared a very similar environment, they were extremely diverse in cultural patterns. The tribes had differences in languages, housing forms, ceremonial life, and kinship patterns, as well as in other areas. Each of the tribal groups should be examined independently to understand the specifics of tribal life.
The one thing all of these tribal groups shared was the great emphasis they placed on tribal autonomy—the ability to govern their own affairs. Some of the tribes of the Northeast did confederate (join together in an alliance) over time for mutual purposes, such as the six tribes that formed the Iroquois Confederacy, but the vast majority of the Northeast groups maintained a high degree of independence. The primary allegiance was to family and then to related families living within the village. There was little centralized government, and tribes were not easily persuaded to join others for unified political action.
The Native peoples of the Northeast, like other indigenous peoples, were very religious. Spiritual perceptions dictated their life patterns to a great extent. All the Northeast tribal groups prayed and fasted before they hunted or gathered plants for food. They marked the changes of the seasons and the harvest with elaborate ceremonies that sought the favor of the spirits of the earth and sky. Devoted in their beliefs, they acknowledged life as a gift to the people from the creator. Rituals and ceremonies were held to ensure the well-being of the community and the continuity of life.
Life was celebrated by Native peoples of the Northeast. They had adequate food to provide for good health, the tools they needed to farm and hunt, and traditions that promoted social well-being. They made nets and spears to fish with, and they trapped animals with snares and deadfalls (traps with heavy weights that fell on the animals). They used fire as a tool to clear the lands for agriculture or to make openings for foraging mammals. With an intimate knowledge of local medicinal plants, they were able to treat a range of illnesses. They had a history of storytelling to make sense of their surroundings and to educate their children. Music and performance were vital parts of their ceremonial life and also an informal means of social expression.
Life for the Native peoples of the Northeast was hard work, though. The people toiled at farming with no horses or oxen to aid them. There does not seem to be an extensive history of wars of conquest during the period before European contact, but there were struggles between newcomers to the area and original tribes that sometimes caused entire tribes to have to move to another area. At the time of European contact, however, the clans in the respective villages prospered, and relations between them appears to have been relatively peaceful. This would change dramatically with the arrival of representatives of European nations.
Post–European contact period
Early contact brings catastrophic epidemics
The world began to change rapidly for Native peoples in the Northeast in the post–contact period. As Europeans began to explore and to forge relations with Northeastern Indian tribes, diseases were unleashed that were new to the region: smallpox, measles, mumps, scarlet fever, and others. With no natural resistance from the new diseases, Native peoples began to die in large numbers. The phenomenon of introducing a disease into a population that has no immunological protection is called a virgin soil epidemic (VSE). It is not uncommon to lose 85 to 90 percent of a population over a century during the course of a virgin soil epidemic and also to experience a decreasing birth rate at the same time.
The consequences of these VSEs for Native peoples of the region were catastrophic. Native communities lost hunters, shamans (pronounced SHAH-munz or SHAY-munz), and other specialists from their ranks. Traditional plant remedies had little impact on the new diseases, which came one after the other. The people struggled to understand what was happening. Many fled their homes, thereby spreading the diseases to neighboring tribes. The new diseases were clearly responsible for devastating Native populations and paving the way for colonial experiments in the Northeast. Most of the Native peoples that inhabited these lands had simply died, leaving their cleared lands and ancestral homes to a small portion of their prior population. These survivors now had to contend with an expanding European population that was interested in the spiritual and physical rewards to be found in the New World.
Trade with the Europeans
Although we generally remember the early British colonists in the Northeast as refugees from religious persecution back in England, there were strong economic motivations for the colonization of the region as well. Most of the successful early British colonies were founded by joint stock companies. These companies clearly expected a return on their investments in the New World. Land was a much sought-after commodity since it was difficult to obtain within the rigid class structure and inheritance systems of Europe. To complicate matters, European nations established rival colonial empires in the New World. Wars of conquest between these powers soon came to involve the region’s Native peoples when British, Dutch, and French colonies began to compete with each other for Native American allies and trade.
Additionally, Native peoples introduced commodities that quickly became very important in the world economy. As an example, trading and cultivating tobacco was one way in which the Jamestown Colony came to prosper. (Jamestown was the first permanent British colony, settled in 1607 in southeast Virginia.) Tobacco was native to the Americas but soon became popular and profitable around the world. The fur trade also became an important part of European and Northeastern Native American relations. Native hunters provided the furs to colonial traders in return for their goods, beginning cycles of trade that would last into the nineteenth century.
The new trade relations were responsible for introducing Native peoples to an entirely new array of manufactured goods. Native peoples were happy to trade furs for metal pots, knives, and blankets. The problem, though, was in establishing the worth of the goods in the market. In other words, how many furs is a blanket worth? Native traders did not initially have access to that information, while European traders purchased the blanket and knew what the furs would bring on the European market. The situation—ripe for exploiting Native American hunters and their families—was the very root of deteriorating relations between Native Americans and their new neighbors.
The introduction of alcohol into these trade relations compounded the already complex situation. Alcohol was a new commodity to Native Americans of the Northeast. They had not had hundreds of years to develop social behaviors around the consumption of alcohol as Europeans had done, and initially Native peoples tended to overindulge. It became a standard practice of European traders to use alcohol to loosen up their Native American clients. This practice led to increased hostilities between the groups.
What evolved over time was a Native dependency on European trade goods. Native hunters began to spend a great deal of time trapping furs for the trade rather than engaging in more traditional ways of providing for themselves. The profits of these trade relations tended to strengthen colonial governments and outposts. Once these centers of growing economic activity became strong enough, they sought—and sometimes demanded—more Native American land.
The trade between Northeastern tribes and colonial governments also promoted inter-tribal rivalries. For example, after the Dutch were eliminated from trade in the Northeast, most of the tribes of the region split their trade allegiances between the British and the French. Both of these European nations profited from the trade and worked to keep their Native American allies faithful. Northeastern Indians were often sought as allies in military campaigns and this created bitter inter-tribal conflicts in the region. In trade and military interactions with the Europeans, however, Northeastern tribes actively adapted to situations that evolved. The tribes attempted to make decisions that would prolong their way of life and guarantee a continuing quality of life to their relations and children.
Native American treaties
Treaties are agreements between two parties, signed by both, usually defining the benefits to both parties that will result from one side giving up title to a territory. It seems evident that the treaties negotiated between European nations and Native groups were introduced by Europeans attempting to build colonial empires and therefore wanting more land. Treaties that ceded (gave up) Native American lands to European nations or colonial governments were legal documents, and as such were recognized in courts. But those same courts generally did not recognize the rights of Native Americans, only the fact that Native Americans had deeded lands to European powers. Signing treaties with Native Americans provided legal protection of land claims for colonial governments while providing little or no protection to Native American signatories (signers). Although Native Americans entered into these agreements and signed them, there are many questions about their legality, such as whether or not the individuals who signed the treaties had the power to do so.
The net outcome of the treaty process was that giving up tribal lands decreased the range and scope of the Native American’s natural resources. Access to natural resources was the basis of life for Native peoples in the Northeast. As colonial governments became stronger, Native American tribes in the region came under increased pressures.
The history of the Northeastern tribes’ encounter with Europeans is one of sickness, diminishing resources, and eventually, hostility. These same cycles were played out decade after decade in the colonial period as different powers arose. As a result of the French and Indian War (1754–63; a war fought in North America between England and France involving some Native Americans as allies of the French), France lost all colonial interests in North America. Shortly thereafter, the American colonists won their independence from Great Britain in the American Revolution (1775–83). After 1783 the U.S. federal government simply built upon British precedents in Native American affairs. Under the provisions of the Federal Proclamation of 1783, only an authorized representative of the federal government could enter into a treaty for or acquire Native American lands. This was an almost direct restatement of the British Royal Proclamation of 1763. Both of these acts were intended to create a virtual monopoly (exclusive rights) in the acquisition and resale of Native American lands. The sale of Native lands, acquired via treaty, had proven to be an important source of funds to run governments and pay for military services. Under the burden of these policies, Native American tribes of the region continued to adapt to changing national politics and goals as they sought to maintain their cultural identity and a degree of control over their future.
One of the major problems for tribal groups in the post–Revolutionary period was that they were suddenly faced with initiating political relations with a government that had not existed a few years earlier. American policies toward Native Americans were extremely high-handed and focused on one purpose: to facilitate the orderly transfer of Native American lands to American interests. Northeastern tribal groups were faced with difficult decisions as they worked to maintain tribal sovereignty (self-government) and lands. Treaty after treaty diminished the Native American land base.
The Northeastern tribal groups during this period of time had little choice but to change and accommodate—the only way to preserve some semblance of tribal autonomy and community. The U.S. Congress had decided that they had absolute power over Native American affairs and they were not reluctant to use that power. Those tribes that were fortunate enough to maintain reservations (what was not ceded as a part of a treaty was reserved for Native use; hence the common usage of the term “reservation”) worked very hard to maintain their resource base and adapt to local economies. During the nineteenth century Northeastern Indians found work in agriculture, the timber industries, ship building, commercial fishing, and mines. They did whatever was necessary to survive. It was a difficult period of time, but Native peoples clung to their heritage and what they believed was their birthright: the land. Many of the tribes lost their reservation base during the nineteenth century. Some of the tribes were affected by the passage of the Indian Removal Act (1830) and segments of their communities were moved to Indian Territory (present-day Oklahoma).
In the nineteenth century Native Americans tended to be viewed as standing in the way of progress. Conventional wisdom held that Native American lands were better used by farmers who would make the land profitable. Additionally, mainstream society viewed Native Americans as being inferior and in need of being taught the correct way to live. The federal government embarked on a large-scale program of assimilation—that is, they wanted Native Americans to behave like whites and give up their ancestral ways. The federal government funded schools that had, as their sole purpose, the assimilation of Native American children. Missionaries and churches were also funded to help remake the Native American. These efforts proved to be an extreme hardship for Native children and parents. The schools were usually boarding schools; parents and children were separated for long periods of time. Many of the children became sick in these institutions. Corporal (physical) punishment was used regularly. These schools, with their harsh environments, were often the only educational avenues open to Native American children.
The changes in their own territory witnessed by the Native peoples of the Northeast were stark and long-lasting. The ecology of the region has been irreversibly changed. The rise of industrialization changed the patterns of work and family life. Traditional ways of life were replaced by new occupations; formal education came to replace traditional systems that valued other forms of knowledge. In spite of all of these changes, tribal governments have persisted and continued to assert their natural rights as indigenous peoples. Throughout the nineteenth and into the twenty-first century tribal governments have continued to advocate for their tribal rights.
Over time many Americans have recognized the folly of past conceptions of Native Americans and the outright prejudice of policies that ruthlessly stripped the Native Americans of their lands and resources. Many people have also realized the hypocrisy of attempting to destroy Native cultures while proclaiming democratic principles. This awareness helped foster Native American reform and the idea of self-determination: Native Americans deciding what their future should be and working to actualize it. The struggle has been long and difficult for Native peoples of the Northeast. After all, they were the first to be colonized and, in some cases, the first to resist the yoke of colonial oppression.
The struggle to preserve a heritage
The efforts of Northeastern Indian tribes in working to preserve their tribal lands and unique heritage is an incredible story. It spans more than four centuries and is an amazing testament to the human spirit and cultural survival. Great changes have taken place, and yet tribal governments have persisted and overcome many obstacles. The history of the Northeast Indians is a story of how a weakened group of indigenous peoples fought to maintain ancestral lands and natural rights and triumphed in the end. But not all endings are happy. Some of the tribal groups perished as a result of the onslaught of the new American culture and economy. Others continue to struggle to be recognized and assert their rights. Those tribes that have survived are truly remarkable in their ability to change and find a middle ground between two cultures.
Many questions need to be asked as one learns about the Northeastern tribes. What could have been done differently? Is it ever all right to force another culture to abandon age-old traditions and ways of understanding the world? Is one world view truly superior to another? Is there anything we can learn from these experiences that might aid us in the future? Can we reestablish an ecological balance similar to what Native peoples fostered at one point in time? Answering these questions and others will not change the past for Native peoples, but it might change the future for untold generations.
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George Cornell, Ph.D.; Associate Professor, History and American Studies, Michigan State University; Director, Native American Institute
north·east / ˌnôr[unvoicedth]ˈēst/ • n. 1. (usu. the northeast) the point of the horizon midway between north and east: I pointed to the northeast. ∎ the compass point corresponding to this. ∎ the direction in which this lies: the entrance was through a small door to the northeast. 2. the northeastern part of a country, region, or town: people from the predominantly Russian towns in the northeast | the northeast of Brazil.• adj. 1. lying toward, near, or facing the northeast. ∎ (of a wind) coming from the northeast: there was a strong northeast wind. 2. of or denoting the northeastern part of a specified country, region, or town, or its inhabitants: northeast Baltimore.• adv. to or toward the northeast: the ship sailed northeast | the northeast-facing slopes.DERIVATIVES: north·east·ern / -ˈēstərn/ adj.