|      Ask the next person you meet
to draw a picture of a Native American. Chances are the completed drawing
will show a person living in a tipi, riding a horse and wearing an eagle-feather
warbonnet. That may be a roughly accurate picture of a Plains Indian,
but the Plains Indians occupied the area between the Mississippi River
and the Rocky Mountains. The tribes and confederacies of the Northeast,
collectively called the Northeast Woodland Indians, aren't as well-known.
In part this is because they weren't glamorized in Hollywood Westerns
the way Plains Indians were. Nor were the Northeast tribes studied and
their craftwork collected as happened among the Plains Indians in the
1800s. The Northeast tribes began to disappear rapidly once fishermen,
trappers, traders and settlers began to arrive from Europe. They were
the victims of disease, war, habitat destruction and, to a much lesser
degree, enslavement, and many details about these original Americans are
now irretrievably lost. Still we can reconstruct something of who the
Northeast Woodland people were and how they lived before Europeans arrived.
And in a very real sense they are still here to tell us. Several thousand
Native people representing many tribes live in the Northeast, many of
them on their ancestral lands. Native Americans are proud of their ancient
heritage, and now there are teaching museums designed and run by Native
people that showcase Woodland culture.
Early Northeast people were forest dwellers, inhabitants of the vast wooded area stretching from Lake Superior to the Atlantic Ocean. This region was home to many different groups speaking many different languages and dialects, among them the tribes that made up the great Iroquois confederacy (Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga, Seneca and, later, Tuscarora), as well as Algonquian peoples such as the Abenaki, Massachusett, Wampanoag, Narragansett, Pequot and Montauk. Despite the diversity of language, the different groups shared many cultural traits, based upon their adaptation to life in the forest. They might be said to have a "wood culture," using wood and wood products as the basic raw material for many of their needs. Populations tended to be concentrated near water - along the coast as well as by the sides of lakes and rivers. Here were all the elements the Indians needed for survival: trees near at hand; mammals from rabbits to deer, moose and bear to hunt; birds and fish to catch; wild plants for medicine as well as food; and fertile cropland for farming. The three principal crops were corn, beans and squash, but gourds, Jerusalem artichokes, melons, pumpkins, sunflowers and tobacco were also grown. Usually women did the cultivating after the men had cleared the land, and it was probably women who carried out the long succession of experiments that resulted in domestic crops.
Northeast tribes had domesticated dogs, but probably no other domestic animals. No North American tribe had horses until Europeans brought them here. The Northeastern people never made much use of this new form of transportation, preferring their dugouts and birchbark canoes. These canoes were an elegant and versatile Woodland invention, light enough to be carried easily overland. When overturned they provided shelter during a long journey. Trade items were exchanged throughout the Northeast and beyond, carried in sturdy birchbark canoes.
Dwellings were of two types: the wigwam (or wetu), used by the tribes of the Great Lakes and East Coast; and the longhouse, used by the Iroquois. The wigwam was a dome-shaped sapling frame overlaid with slabs of elm bark or woven mats of cattails or reeds. The longhouse used the same materials, but was much larger, and could house ten families or more. Fires were built in the middle of the longhouse and shared by two families, one on each side. Cooking methods included boiling and roasting, and most meals incorporated a soup or stew prepared in a clay or bark container.
Northeast people relied primarily upon buckskin from the white-tailed deer for their clothing (just as Plains Indians relied chiefly upon buffalo hide). The basic item of dress for men was a skin loincloth; for women it was a skirt. Both sexes wore heelless moccasins, and added a bearskin robe, fur side in , during the cold weather. Clothing, especially when it was for ceremonial use, was heavily decorated with dyed porcupine quills, moosehair embroidery and shell beads. Northeast Indians never wore the dramatic golden eagle-feather headdress made by some Plains tribes, although Iroquois men wore the gustoweh, a decorative cap of skin topped with a single eagle feather. Northeast people painted their faces and bodies with pigments from plants and minerals mixed with animal fat. Their fondness for using red led Europeans to call them "redskins."