The peoples who spoke languages in the Algonquian family lived in the northern woodlands, an area that spans much of Canada and the northern United States. Geologists
call this area the "Canadian Shield", after the shield-shaped region of Precambrian rock.
This area was one of great beauty and tranquility, with abundant wildlife, forests, rivers, and lakes. (Much of the region is still unspoiled even today.) There are so many rivers and lakes in the more northern portions that many areas have more water than land. The Algonquian peoples are famous for using birch bark canoes on what is really a water superhighway.
Algonquian Canoe on Water
The Algonquian peoples were a series of distinct tribes which occupied an area spanning from the Pacific Northwest
(USA and Canada) to Newfoundland (east coast of Canada). A partial list of Algonquian tribe names, their meanings, and their location appears below.
The southeastern part of the Canadian Shield, near the Great Lakes, was occupied by the Hurons, who are descended from Iroquois tribes who migrated north from what is now Mississippi (USA).
The northwestern part of the Canadian Shield, above the Pacific Northwest
, was the domain of the Athapaskans. The Iroquoian and Athapaskan tribes are totally unrelated to the Algonquian, and even preyed upon them, but all three groups lived on the Canadian Shield. (The Navajo
, like their cousins the Apache, are descended from Athapaskans who migrated to the American southwest circa 1300. And, like the Iroquoi, the Navajo preyed preyed on the people they invaded.)
Despite spanning a vast area from the Pacific Northwest
, (USA and Canada) to Newfoundland (east coast of Canada), the Algonquian had the same simple hunter-gatherer culture throughout the region. They traveled in small groups supervised by a group leader or shaman.
The Algonquian never invented pottery
. Instead, they made containers from birch bark. This is not the thin, white, crumbly material that people commonly think of.
Birch bark is, instead, a relatively thick layer of flexible outer bark, much like a thick veneer, which can be formed into a variety of shapes while wet. Birch bark was indispensable for the Algonquian, being used for everything from containers to scrolls for manuscripts to canoes to toboggans for travelling over the snow.
Algonquian Canoe Being Carried in Winter
The Algonquian hunted caribou deer, elk, and moose, with buffalo now and then.
Until the European invasion, the Ottowa inhabited a large area including what is today northern Michigan, the French River, the Geogian Bay, and the Ottawa River. They take their name from the Algonquian word adawa, which means "to trade"" The Ottowa were famous throughout the Great Lakes region for trading and bartering.
The Ottowa had practiced tattooing and face painting ever since prehistoric times. They used bright colors and elaborate designs, both for the tattoos and facial designs. Men and women pierced their ears and noses, and decorated them with ornaments. Men went about naked while women were partially covered at the waist.
Early explorers described the Ottowa as cold-blooded businessmen who were crude, cruel, and often savage. Even accusations of cannibalism were made. Yet despite their personal failings, all of the peoples who encountered them had great respect for the Ottowa's skills in canoing, hunting, and survival in the woods.
Their role as intermediaries for inter-tribal commerce arises because they inhabited important waterways that provided a distinct advantage. The Ottowa traded in virtually everything that could be easily transported, including corn, furs, mats, medicinal herbs, meal, sunflower oil, and tobacco. (Remember that the European traders sought spices, which were easily transportable and worth a great deal of money by volume.) Some Ottowa round trips lasted over a thousand miles.
The Ottowa maintain that they, the Ojibwa (Chippewa), and the Potawatomi were originally one tribe which fragmented after a migration to the Great Lakes region from the far northwest. The Huron were almost exterminated by the Iroquois between 1648 and 1649, and fled to what is now Green Bay, Wisconsin where the Powatomi lived. The Iroquois, continuing to use firearms purchased from the Dutch, then began to exterminate the Ottowa, who fled the area.
Some went to the northern Great Lakes of Michigan and Huron. Others went to the what is now the Mississippi River near Lake Pepin, but were driven out by the Sioux (Dakata) and returned to the northern Great Lakes of Michigan and Huron. As a result of their flight to avoid genocide, the Ottowa have no land and live scattered throughout what is today northeastern Illinois, The lower Michigan pennisula, and Wisconsin. The descendants of the Ottowa are few in number and widely distributed across the territory they once controlled.
The famous chief Pontiac was an Ottowa.
The Ottowa creation myths were recorded by one of the first French missionaries to arrive. According to the Ottowa, they were formed from three families.
The first familiy was that of the "Great Hare", a great giant who was born on Michilimackinac Island. After forming the earth, he was inspired by a spider weaving a web to invent fish nets. This giant was so large that eighteen fathom deep water only reached his armpits. He also set forth burial rights for his descendants, saying that unless they cremated their dead and scattered their ashes that the winter would be continuous and the Ottowa would starve.
The second family was that of "The Carp". THe first woman was created when the rays of the sun warmed eggs laid by the Carp.
The third family was "The Bear". The missionary did not record how the Bear gave rise to the Ottowa, but he did record how important bear were to them. A feast was held after a bear was killed to honor it and to tell the bear's spirit that it should be glad that it was being consumed by the children of captains. The Ottowa considered themselves to be a superior people by way of their enormous skills in navigating the innumerably waterways of the Canadian Shield
The Ojibwa believed in a pantheon of gods, the leader of which was Manitou, or the "Great Spirit". This being was never depicted in rock art, but lesser beings were.
The supernatural figure named Maymaygwayshi
was a trickster and practical joker, much like the Anasazi Kokopelli
. He lives in the shallow caves and cracks which appear along a waterway. Shaman believed that he could be bribed with tobacco to grant the power to enter rocks. Enormously fond of fish, Maymaygwayshi often steals it from the traps the Ojibwa would place. He is depicted as a short creature with a large head which sometimes has horns.
The Ojibwa deity Mishipizhiw
, or the the "Great Water Lynx", is known by a number of names including "Water Monster" "Water Panther". "Night Panther" and "Water Lynx". The Winnebago tribe called this fearsome beast "Medicine Animal". (The image to the left reminds us of a sopping wet housecat that has just returned from hunting small, furry creatures in the rain.)
Able to swim in rough or swift water, Mishipizhiw would aid those who sought to cross dangerous water, provided a suitable offering was made. Some Algonquian still leave offerings -- including tobacco, clothing, and bundles of colored sticks -- at rock art sites depicting Mishipizhiw. (This is a common practice among native peoples. The Chumash peoples in what is today southern California would build small shrines from brush and leave offerings for spiritual beings.)
The lynx is a large cat like a panther and the surviving images, on rocks and birch-bark scrolls, depict a horned, clawed animal with a serrated tail. The face is usually shown in full profile.
, of an Ojibwa pictograph of Michipizhiw
was recorded in 1673 by a missionary named Father Marquette:
"While skirting some rocks, which by their height and length inspire awe, we saw upon one of them two painted monsters which at first made us afraid, and upon which the boldest savages dare not long rest their eyes. They are as large as a calf: they have horns on their heads like those of a deer, a horrible look, red eyes, a beard like a tiger's, a face somewhat like a man's, a body covered with scales, and so long a tail that it winds all around the body, passing above the head and going back between the legs, ending in a fish's tail. Green, red, and black are the three colors composing the picture."
, alas, disappeared and no drawings or photographs survived, if, indeed, any were made. By 1838 only one figure was left, and in 1847 the entire rock face was removed for use as construction material.
Other Ojibwa deities include Missikinahpik, the "Great Serpent" and Thunderer, the "thunderbird ".
Like other peoples, the Algonquian had shamans who had magical powers, such as being able to penetrate rock or fly like birds. Shaman could also obtain power from animals, like the buffalo shown to the left, through a vision quest or dream.
Algonquian rock art is remarkably similar no matter what area it appears in. The subject matter is usually naturalistic
, but stylized
, and abstract
images do appear. Pictographs
range from the animals of everyday life such as caribou, bear, elk, moose, to those of humans sometimes in ceremonial garb or in manned canoes, to those of supernatural figures. After the French and English began invading the area, images of the foreigners being to appear. These include men, sometimes mounted or smoking pipes, but other strange images are also depicted, such as rifles, European style boats, and European forts.
Overall, the naturalistic style is similar to the rock art of the Columbia Plateau
in the Pacific Northwest
The designs were usually painted with fingers using red ochre
, a naturally occurring form of iron oxide. Some were made by pecking
a design into the rock surface. Many designs were made in areas accessible only by canoes, and in some cases were made while standing in a canoe.