People have lived in North America for thousands of years before the arrival of the European colonizers. The variety of cultures that developed were adapted to the different environments. The Eastern Woodlands is a cultural region that stretches from the Mississippi River to the Atlantic Ocean and includes the Great Lakes, eastern Canada, and the Ohio River Valley. First Nations present in this region include the Iroquois-speaking, or Haudenosaunee, Mohawk, Seneca, Cayuga, Onondaga, Oneida, Tuscarora, and Huron (Wyandot); and the Algonquian-speaking Shawnee, Mi’kmaq, Ojibwe, Mohegan, Delaware, and Wompanoag.
The Northeast / Eastern Woodlands Region is a large region that runs along the Atlantic coast from Canada to North Carolina and stretches east to the Mississippi River including the Great Lakes, eastern Canada, and the Ohio River Valley. It has abundant forests, lakes, and rivers as well as mountains, valleys, and the seacoast. People in this region enjoy all four seasons: hot summers, cool falls, cold winters, and warm springs. The forests are filled with birch, oak, and maple trees and there are many rivers and streams. Because of this, the environment supports diverse wildlife such as rabbits, turkeys, deer, beavers, wolves, foxes, bears, and a wide variety of birds and fish. The Atlantic seacoast includes marine mammals such as seals and whales, shellfish like lobster, as well as cod and other fish.
With such abundant resources, Native Americans thrived in the region for thousands of years prior to the arrival of Europeans. The two main language groups in this region are Iroquois (Haudenosaunee) and Algonquian. Iroquois speakers include the Cayuga, Oneida, Erie, Onondaga, Seneca, Tuscarora, Mohawk, and Huron (Wyandot) peoples, and the Algonquian language group includes the Mi’kmaq, Ojibwe, Pequot, Fox, Shawnee, Wampanoag, Delaware, Menominee, and Mohegan peoples. Leaders of Native American tribes of the northeast were called Sachems and Sagamores, with Sachems being the highest level. Both Sachems and Sagamores were elected by their people and Sachems could be male or female.
Some First Nations like the Wampanoags and Mohegans used wood from the forests to build homes called wigwams. There were two types of wigwams: one for winter and one for summer. A winter wigwam was larger and sturdier to withstand the long winters. Because it was so sturdy, it could be used for many years. A summer wigwam was built by bending small trees into a dome shape and tying the frame together. Then, the frame would be covered with mats made from birch bark or animal hides. Iroquois speaking groups (or the Haudenosaunee) built homes called longhouses. Haudenosaunee means “People of the Longhouse.” Longhouses were long wooden lodges that could accommodate several families and could be as long as 100 feet.
Another use for wood from the forests was building modes of transportation, namely, the canoe. Cedar and birch trees were used to build canoes that were light and fast. The canoes were light enough to be carried from one stream to another. The Iroquois built canoes that could be 30 feet long, which meant it could hold up to 18 passengers and accommodate goods for trading. People like the Wompanoag used a method of burning the outside of the canoe to make it waterproof.
Animals living in the region were utilized for food and for their hides, which could be used for clothing, blankets and bags. Turkey feathers were collected and sewn into “turkey feather capes” to provide warmth and repel water. While hunting provided meat for sustenance, many tribes also grew “the three sisters”: corn, beans and squash. These crops are called the three sisters because of their symbiotic relationship. Many Native American tribes throughout North America planted corn, beans and squash together because it helped each plant thrive. In Iroquois legend, these plants were considered a gift from the gods and were to be not only grown together but also eaten and celebrated together. They provide a healthy, balanced diet as well as create a sustainable and fertile soil.
Wampum or Wampum Belts are strings of polished seashells that are very valuable and considered a living history by the Iroquois, Wampanoag, and other Native Americans. They could be worn for decoration and used during meetings or ceremonies. It is said that during ceremonies, if the person speaking is holding the wampum then they are speaking truthfully. Wampum record tribal history such as important events or treaties. Wampum were also used as a form of currency for trading.
Lacrosse is a familiar sport that originated with Native Americans of the Eastern Woodlands region and was originally known as stickball. It was played by Algonquin nations in the east and around the Great Lakes.
When European colonizers arrived in the 1600s and 1700s, wars between the European powers continuously exploited existing adversarial relationships between tribes. The Europeans often forced Native Americans to take opposing sides, pitting the Iroquois groups against their Algonquian neighbors. One example was the American Revolution (1775-1783), when many Iroquois sided with the British and many Algonquian sided with the American colonists. At the 1783 Peace of Paris, Native Americans were denied a seat at the table, despite their aid during the war. In 1794, the Haudenosaunee (The 6 nations of the Iroquois Confederacy: Seneca, Cayuga, Onondaga, Oneida, Mohawk, and Tuscarora) and the United States signed the Treaty of Canandaigua to ensure their peace and friendship. Accompanying the Treaty was the George Washington wampum belt, which is an impressive 6 feet long.
While treaties between different First Nations and the U.S. government continued to be created, the prevailing belief in the government that it was the United States’ manifest destiny, or divine right, to expand westward and gain control over the continent resulted in the forced removal of the Indigenous peoples from their ancestral homes. As the 400th anniversary of the Pilgrim’s arrival in 1620 approaches, Indigenous peoples like the Wampanoag remind us that following their gift of friendship that ensured the Pilgrims survival was “the genocide of millions of native people, the theft of native lands and the relentless assault on native culture.” Despite this fact, First Nations continue to thrive today in all aspects of society and continue the work to preserve their cultural heritage and create a more just world for Native peoples and for all.
With the activities in this lesson plan, students will demonstrate what they’ve learned about the Indigenous Peoples of the Eastern Woodlands Region. They’ll become familiar with their environment, resources, traditions and culture.