Great Lakes Traditional Culture


Regionally, Great Lakes Indians are part of what is called the Woodland Culture Area. The Woodlands include the forested eastern part of North America, east of the Mississippi River and north of Cape Hatteras and extending north of the Great Lakes and the Saint Lawrence seaway into the Canadian Maritimes. In their basic pattern and way of life, Woodland Indian cultures are broadly similar, but also include regional environmental and cultural differences. Traditionally, Woodland Indians were farming, hunting, and fishing people. Their cultures were adapted to the area's environments: forests and park-like woods, rivers, streams and lakes, and coastal areas. Living in settlements and villages of varying size, the people worked out consensual agreements in village and inter-village councils and often came together for larger gatherings which included the people of many villages.


South of a line drawn from central Maine to central Wisconsin, Native people relied, at least in part, on agriculture. Women raised corn, beans, and squash, while men hunted deer and moose with bow and arrow, and fished on land and from dugout canoes using nets, hooks, and fish traps. Women also collected shellfish and wild foods. In coastal areas, Native people generally lived near the shore in agricultural hamlets and moved to villages inland for fall and winter hunting. For inland areas, different patterns applied, and tribal groups could have permanent, settled villages, or move between two or three central settlements within their territory throughout the year, including sending hunting parties onto the prairies for buffalo or into the deep woods for other animals. Their dome-shaped wigwams and longhouses, of saplings covered with bark or woven mats, were furnished with sleeping mats and furs, pottery cooking vessels, wooden spoons and bowls, baskets, bags, and other tools and equipment. Their leather and fur clothing provided opportunities for painted and other decorations, including designs symbolizing plants and animals.

To the north, where the limited growing season made agriculture unreliable, Native people depended on hunting with bows, arrows, and spears, fishing on land and from birchbark canoes, and gathering wild foods. Coastal groups moved from summer fishing hamlets near the coast to inland winter hunting camps, gathering at large, freshwater-fishing villages in spring and fall. Interior groups moved between prime fishing and wild-food gathering spots -- where they might also have small gardens -- to areas farther north for intensive fall and winter hunting. In the Northeast, northern people lived in conical wigwams covered with birchbark and their household goods were much the same as their neighbors to the south, except that they depended heavily on containers of folded and stitched birchbark, and their clothing was better suited to colder climates. In the Great Lakes region, dome-shaped wigwams were the norm. In many parts of the Great Lakes, particularly northern Wisconsin, Indian people depended on wild rice as a dietary staple. Where sugar maples grow, Great Lakes Indians established sugar-making camps in early spring and made sugar from tree sap as part of their seasonal round.


Traditionally, most Woodland tribes spoke languages of the Algonkian language family. There are at least thirty Algonkian-speaking tribes in the Woodlands, and those in the Great Lakes region include the Ojibwe, Ottawa, Potawatomi, Menominee, Cree, Sauk, Fox, Kickapoo, Miami, Peoria, Illinois, Shawnee, Piankashaw, and Prairie Potawatomi. Outside the Great Lakes area, the people of Northeast, including the Penobscot, Passamaquoddy, Micmac, Mohegan, Pequot, Lenni Lenape (Delaware), and others also spoke Algonkian languages. While most Algonkian speaking tribes were part of the Woodland cultural pattern, the Blackfeet of Montana and Alberta also speak an Algonkian language. 

Besides Algonkian languages, the Woodlands also include languages of the Iroquoian and Siouan language families. In New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Quebec, and Ontario, the Seneca, Cayuga, Onondaga, Oneida, Mohawk, Susquehannock, Huron, Erie, Conestoga, Neutral, and other tribes spoke Iroquoian languages. Santee Sioux and Ho-Chunk are languages of the Siouan family.

European Contact and Subsequent Change

In various parts of the Woodland, tribes were exposed to Europeans and their influences at different stages. From the late-15th century onward, Native people in New England and the Northeast encountered European explorers, exchanging furs and agricultural surplus for metal tools, beads, and other trade goods. In the Great Lakes area, these contacts occurred about a century later. Following 17th-century epidemics that decimated Native populations and radically altered their ways of life, colonists flooded some areas, taking over prime fishing and agricultural areas. As with European contact in general, these kinds of changes also occurred later in the Great Lakes region, with intensive settlement beginning in the 18th century.

Through a series of wars, treaties, and tribal movements brought about by the encroachments of the Iroquois and white settlers, Native people often lost political control over much of their land. Some groups remained in the area, adapting themselves to ways of life which depended on relations with Euroamericans, while others sought new lands far from the disruptions brought about by Euroamericans. For some, these movements brought about major changes in their ways of life. For instance, in the Great Lakes region, a number of tribes who had adapted to a way of life in forested areas --including the Sauk, Fox, Kickapoo, and Prairie Potawatomi -- were driven onto the prairies, where they developed greater reliance on agriculture and the animals and wild-foods of the prairies.

Despite these changes, Native people maintained a strong sense of communal life and family organization and continued in traditional ways of life as best they could. As the areas around them filled with Euroamericans in the 18th and 19th centuries, many Native people found ways of accommodating their craft production and ways of life to these newcomers, making decorated baskets, birchbark containers, woodenware, and beaded items both for their own use and for sale to non-Natives, and later adapted these traditions to suit the tastes of Victorian-and-later tourists to their areas. In the Great Lakes region, lumbering, sugaring, harvesting wild rice, and other work tied to lands have also remained important as ways to make a living. While their lives have been very much changed by colonization and they are members of modern American society, Indian people of the Woodlands have retained much of their culture, and remain a strong Native presence in local society today.