This Site Last Updated: Wednesday, December 31, 2003
This Page Last Updated: Sunday December 21, 2003
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]
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.)
Tribe Names
(From Whites)
(By Whites)
Tribe Location
(Creek name near main village)
Between what is now the Chesapeake Bay and the Potomaic River, both near Washington D.C.
"The People"
(state's name)
What is now the northern Delaware, New Jersey, southeastern Pennsylvania, southeastern New York west of the Hudson, Manhattan, Staten Island, and the western end of Long Island. (The state of Delaware was named for Lord de La Warre who sponsored the expedition "discovering" it.)
This tribe may have been a branch of the Mohegan, which also means "wolf". They lived from what is today the upper Hudson River, as far north as Lake Champlain, to the valley of the Housatonic River in the east.
"At the Range of Hills"
Hills of what is now Milton, Massachusetts. This tribe lived in the range from what is today Salem, near Boston Bay, in the north to what is today Brockton in the south.
(River People)
The upper valley of what is today the Thames River in Connecticut.
What is today the eastern and central areas of Long Island.
"Tidewater People"
What is today the eastern shore of Chesapeake Bay and in the south of Delaware.
"People of the Small Point"
What is today Rhode Island, west of Narrangansett Bay.
(Cape Indians)
Most of what is today Cape Cod.
There were two branches of this tribe, eastern and western, were separated by the Pequot. They lived on coasts between what are today the Niantic Bay and the Connecticut River.
"Freshwater Fishing Place"
What is today southern Massachusetts, northern Rhode Island, and Connecticut.
A large area, including what is today northern Michigan, the French River, the Geogian Bay, and the Ottawa River.
"Pollock Plenty Place"
"Down Hill"
What is today southern New Hampshire, the southernmost portion of Maine, and nothereastern Massachusetts.
"The Rocky Place"
The waterfalls between what are today Oldtown and Bangor in Maine.
What is today new London County, Connecticut.
What is today western Massachusetts, and the neighboring portions of Connecticut and Vermont.
"People of the Place of the Fire"
Originally from the Great Lakes Region near Lake Michigan, they were driven to what is today Green Bay, Wisconsin and migrated to the rivers at end of the lake (Milwaukee, Chicago, and the St. Joseph).
"Those Living At The Sunrise"
The coasts and river valleys of what is today Maine, along with villages in New Hampshire and northwestern Vermont.
"Eastern People"
What is today western Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Martha's Vineyard, and other neighboring islands.
They lived from what is today the northern part of Manhattan Island, along the eastern side of the Hudson north to Poughkeepsie and eastwards to the lower Connecticut River Valley.
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]
Algonquian Canoe Being Carried in Winter
[Sculpture of a Caribou]
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.
[Sculpture of Night Panther]
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.
A description, 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."
These figures, 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 ".
[Sculpture of Shaman Receiving Power from Buffalo]
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.