The Algonquians


The Algonquian Native American Indians lived across much of North America, mostly below the Hudson Bay in Canada, and between the Atlantic Ocean to the East and the Rocky Mountains to the West. [See the map on the other side] They were even well established in upstate New YorkState until they were driven downstate by their Iroquois enemies. Even though as a culture group the Algonquian tribes are quite widespread, they do share related dialects of the Algonkian language. The term “Algonquian” refers to “a place for spearing fishes and eels.” Because Northern weather patterns made growing food difficult, the Algonquian moved their families from place to place in search of fishing grounds, hunting and trapping grounds, and places to gather roots, seeds, wild rice and berries.

During the spring, summer and early fall the Algonquians depended on their crops. The crops that they planted were corn, beans, squash and pumpkins. Women and children spent their time during the spring planting and summer and fall taking care of the crops. Corn was extremely important to the Algonquians. The woman dried the corn and ground it into cornmeal. The Algonquians dried the vegetables and stored them so that they could be used during the wintertime when no new food could be grown. Tobacco was also grown. It was grown by the men and it was used for religious ceremonies.

They also ate the fish that was abundant in the rivers and streams of what would later become known as New York. As fall became winter the Algonquian men hunted to provide food for the tribe. Mostly they hunted deer, but they also hunted turkeys, bear, moose, and ducks. Sometimes they would also eat pigeons and crows. Their clothing was fashioned from animal skins.

Wigwams were the homes the Algonquians built and lived in. [See opposite side for related images]. They were dome shaped and were built to be many different sizes. Some were relatively small and others were built big enough for 40 people to live in. They were built by using small trees. The trees were stuck firmly into the ground across from each other and then bent so that the tops would meet each other. The tops were tied together. This work the men would do. Then the women would tie bark and woven mats to the trees to enclose the frame the trees were used to create. A hole was left in the center so that the smoke from the fire that burned in the middle of the wigwam could escape. The fire was used to keep people warm and for cooking. Sometimes, in the colder months, the wigwams would be sheathed (covered) in animal skins.

The Algonquians—GEOGRAPHICAL

This map shows the relative location of the early Algonquians before the arrival of the Europeans.

A typical wigwam of the Algonquians might resemble this.

The Algonquians


During the warmer months, the Algonquians trekked (traveled) on foot and most Algonquians traveled with dugoutcanoes[see the other side for related images] made of birch bark. However, as the weather grew colder, they then used snowshoes and toboggans[see the other side for related images] in snowy weather. Their clothing was fashioned from animal skins.

Hunters and warriors usually used bows and arrows, spears, and heavy wooden clubs. Algonkian Indian children had dolls and toys, such as a miniature bow and arrow or hand-held game. Most Algonquian mothers traditionally carried their babies in cradleboards on their backs--a custom many American parents have adopted

The Algonquians planted and tended to crops. They made their own tools with branches and shells to hoe the soil. They hunted with bows that were made from oak, hickory or maple branches. The bows had bow strings made from animal skins. The strings were pulled very tight from one end of the branch to the other. The branch had to be curved. Sometimes the Algonquians heated the wood so that it could be bent into the right shape. The also made their own arrows from straight, strong, sharpened, branches. At the end of the arrow a feather was fastened to help the arrow travel through the air steadily. Tied on the end of the arrow was an arrowhead which was a very sharp triangular rock.

They also set traps for animals. The traps were made by tying nooses to small sapling trees and bending them and weighing them toward the ground with acorns. An animal would eat the acorns and the tree would no longer be weighed down. The noose would tighten around the animal’s leg and suspend it in the air. One of the jobs of the women and children was to check the traps to see if an animal had been caught. When one was caught it would be killed and eaten.


Cree-Algonquian snowshoes. / Attikamek-Algonquian canoe of the high-ended variety once used extensively in the fur trade and sometimes called a "North" canoe.

This is an image of an actual Algonquian cradleboard. The baby would be nestled in the bag area, with the board itself lying against the back of the mother.

L. Algonquian arrows and arrowheads.

The Algonquians


Tribal organization among the Algonquians often included bands with members living in extended families who hunted and lived together throughout the year, coming together as a tribe only once during each summer to participate collectively in ceremonies and celebrations. Algonquian society, unlike the Iroquois, was patrilineal. The Algonquian men were the leaders and heads of the family and the sons inherited territorial hunting rights from their fathers. The shaman, or medicine man, occupied an influential position in Algonquian social life. It was assumed that he could heal sick persons and traffic (commune or speak) with the spirit world, whose constituents were a Great Spirit, lesser spirits who controlled the elements, evil spirits who were responsible for illness and misfortune, and benevolent (good) spirits who purveyed (distributed) good luck and health. The shaman was also consulted as a dream interpreter, since the Algonquian found great significance in dreams. They also believed in an afterlife where human spirits pursued animal spirits. Furthermore, they were believers in witchcraft and were reluctant to disclose their actual names, fearing that enemies with spiritual powers would use them with malicious (evil) intent. Sometimes they had meetings called Powwows so the medicine man could give the people a chance to ask him questions about the future of problems they were having and he could tell them his visions for the future.

The Algonquians used the skins from animals they caught to make their clothing. What they wore depended on the time of year. During the hot months the men wore only a deerskin loincloth (basically like long underwear) and the women a deer skin apron. They made moccasins out of animal skins and the moccasins as well as their other clothing was made more beautiful by attaching beads, quills and shells to them. When the weather became colder they added more and more animal skins wearing cloaks and robes to keep themselves warm.

All the children had chores they had to such as helping with the crops and helping to make arrowheads. But they also had plenty of time to play. They played games, had races, and played dart games to help them learn how to shoot a bow and arrow. Many times the children listened to stories told by the older members of the tribe. It was by listening to the stories in the oral tradition that the children learned about their people and the ways of their tribe.

Men and women usually married within their own clan. The clans often identified themselves through symbols, such as animals or elements (i.e. fire, wind, water). These symbols were known as totems.

The Algonquians—SOCIAL

An Algonquian shaman conducting a religious ritual.

Algonquian moccasins.

The Algonquians


Every tribe had a leader. The leader was called a sachem. The sachem wasn’t elected but rather became sachem because he was born into a family of leaders. Once a sachem became too old to lead to tribe or died his son or another relative ready to do the job would take over. It was the sachem’s job to make the rules for the tribe and to take care of the tribe. All of the people in the tribe thought the sachem was wise and acting in the best interest of the tribe and its members. The sachem did have a council of tribe members who helped him to make decisions. They were called his sagamores. The people in the tribe gave the sachem gifts and they also gave him part of what they grew or hunted. The sachem was in charge of the land the tribe lived on and decided about selling any of the land.

Many of the Algonquianswere led by a pair of chiefs, rather than a sachem. One was a war chief, and the other a peace chief. War chiefs were chosen by tribal members, while the peace chiefs were often inherited positions. Some of the Great Lakes Algonquians had a third chief, a shaman, or holy medicine man, who organized and led the tribe’s religious ceremonies.

Just like the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois), the Algonquians formed intertribal confederacies. But unlike the Iroquois, whose alliances were political and permanent, Algonquian intertribal confederacies were almost always military in nature. Once the immediate need for an alliance was over, the alliance would come to an end. Some Algonquian confederacies were led by a Great Sachem, a chief of notable wisdom and power. The power of such sachems varied from tribe to tribe.

The Algonquians—POLITICAL

This is Ninigret, Sachem of the Nianti-Algonquian Indians

Shawnee Chief Cornstalk