The Woodland Indians occupied the forested areas of eastern North America. This huge geographical area is the largest of the eight culture areas into which the Indians of North America have been grouped. Although the region can be characterized by its forests, significant environmental variation also exists. In many cases, tribes were situated within reach of different microenvironments which could be exploited in rotation as the resources there became available, bringing the products back to the main village or storing them for later use.
The area occupied by the Woodland Indians offered few natural barriers. The Appalachian mountains and the five Great Lakes restricted movement to some extent, but were also avenues for shoreline water traffic. The climate was characterized by the four seasons, with considerable extremes in temperature between winter and summer. Agriculture or gardening was generally practiced, but climatic conditions in the north sometimes precluded the growth of crops. In these areas, heavy snowfalls sometimes measured up to eighty inches a year and made snowshoes a necessity for winter travel. Where the growing season was long enough, Native people raised corn, beans, and squash, but their economy was based almost entirely on the exploitation of natural resources. Although it was not always an easy life, they were able to live and often thrive in their environment.
Eastward from Lake Superior to the New England states there was a broad belt of mixed deciduous and coniferous trees. North of this belt, the trees were primarily coniferous; south of it they were mostly deciduous. In the belt stretching from Illinois through Ohio to southern New England were oaks and hickory, while patches of prairie lands were found in the western section. North of this belt, banding across the country from Northern Wisconsin to New York, was the "northern hardwood forest," made up of birch, beech and maple, hemlock, white pine, oaks and including basswood, elm, and ash trees. Wood, bark, and plant fibers were valuable for the arts and artifacts of material culture. The paper birch was especially useful for the Indians' wigwams, canoes, and food and storage containers, while the maple was utilized for its sugar. Basswood yielded fibers from which string or cordage were made, and this cordage was also used to make a variety of bags or soft baskets which had many different purposes. Ash provided the wood for bows used for hunting and, during historic times, baskets of ash splints were woven for use at home and for sale to Whites. Hickory, beech, and other trees also provided nuts, which were an important food source.
The Woodland Indians were extremely knowledgeable concerning the properties and uses of trees and other plants, and they exploited that knowledge to the fullest. Foods such as wild rice, nuts, berries, and fruits were an essential part of their diet. The Woodland area had an abundance of wild food, including cranberries, gooseberries, juneberries, blueberries, black and red raspberries, grapes, cherries, and chokecherries. Nuts were also important, including acorns from the pin oak and the white oak, hickory nuts, hazelnuts, beechnuts, and butternuts. A variety of vegetables were also gathered and eaten, including wild potatoes, wild onions, milkweed, and the root of the yellow water lily. A great variety of medicines were concocted from plants, some of them being used today in our own medicines.
The forests also provided diverse animal life. The food secured by hunting and trapping formed a considerable part of Woodland diet. Deer and moose were hunted, as were several kinds of fox-the red, the black, and the silver gray. Timber wolves, a large prairie wolf, and a smaller prairie wolf that was not considered very good eating were also hunted. The bear was not killed without a special ceremony and apology, for this animal was greatly revered by the Woodland Indians. In addition to those animals which were regularly eaten, smaller animals were valued for their furs, including beaver, otter, muskrat, raccoon, wolverine, and rabbit.
To the Woodland Indians, fishing was a year-round occupation. With plenty of streams and lakes to draw from, they depended on fish for a great part of their diet. A wide variety of methods were used by nearly all the Woodland groups including the use of fishhooks, nets, spears, traps, lures, bait, and a line for trolling. Important fish included trout and other small fish, walleye, sturgeon, and others. Turtles of various kinds were also eaten.