Some notes on North American Indians

These notes were gathered some years ago because of an interest in the Connecticut area of the United States. The Anorak’s family has links there, although not with the natives. Many of the phrases are probably no longer considered politically correct but no offence is intended.

The two main tribes in Connecticut are the Mohegans and the Pequots, both members of the Algonquian group. Both also extend north into Vermont and New Hampshire.

General Information
The various Native North American tribes are divided into culture areas, which each have their own language families. Many of the language families also overlap so  there are Algonquian language families in California, the Plains, south-east and sub-Arctic as well as in New England.

The term tribe is an uncertain word that can mean a variety of things from local band or group of bands, to any group linked by political association or common ancestry. The members themselves prefer the term “Nation”.

The tribes were organised into clans, arranged on either a patrilineal or matrilineal basis, which had their own totem. Each clan was often divided into two halves or moities who competed against each other in sporting events and friendly challenges.

Algonquians (pron. Al-GON-kwee-an)
The Pequots and the Mohegans are part of the New England Algonquian group and have links with many others including the Abnaki, Massachuset (after whom the state was named), Narraganset (Rhode Island), Nipmuc (Massachusetts), Passamaquoddy, Pennacook, Penobscot and Wampanoag. The neighbouring Mahicans (New York State) were part of the Hudson River group.

The Algonquian social structure was formed into confederacies under a grand sachem, or chief, and lesser sachems, known as sagamores, ruled individual bands or villages.

Traditional food included many of the dishes associated with Native North Americans in general such as beans and squash. They were farmers and grew their own crops but also tracked game to supplement the diet. They had no domesticated beasts but did keep dogs.  Hunted game included deer, rabbit, squirrel, beaver, moose, elk, turkey, partridge, duck and goose. Methods of hunting included spears, arrows and clubs, traps, snares and deadfalls. They also fished with harpoons, hooks, nets and fish weirs as well as collecting shellfish.  Plant foods included a variety of nuts, berries, roots, stalks and leaves.

Corn, pumpkin, maple sugar, wild rice, cranberries, blueberries, lobster, clams and oysters were all introduced into the white diet by native Algonquians!

These were a wigwam dwelling people and their homes consisted of a frame of bent wood covered in strips of birch bark sewn together. They were mostly of a dome construction but sometimes were the more familiar pointed kind.

Birch bark was also used to cover canoes, which were capable of sailing on both river and ocean, and they were waterproofed with resin from the spruce tree. Maple was used for the struts and braces as well as the paddles.

Clothing was sewn from buckskin and had short fringes on the seams and edges. Many had quillwork decorations or shell and stone beads and embroidery in moosehair or feather.  In winter the clothes were supplemented with fur robes.

The Algonquian arts and crafts included birchbark containers known as mocuck; watertight boxes smeared with pitch. The toolkit also included grass baskets and wooden bowls, long, slab-made pots with round or pointed bottoms and incised decoration. Strings of wampum, quahog clam shells made into purple and white beads, were used as money. After the area was settled by whites Dutch and English glass versions were introduced into the culture.  The calumet, or peace pipe, also featured in Algonquian ritual. It was made of pipestone, or catlinite, which hardens on exposure to air, and decorated with feathers. The pipe bowls were set onto wooden stems and used to smoke home-grown tobacco or kinnikinnik, a mixture of tobacco and other plant materials such as willow bark.

The Algonquian religion featured animal totems and the “Great Spirit”, which pervaded all existence. The spirit was known as the Gitche Manitou and it had many manifestations such as Thunderbird, the bringer of rain.  Shamans led a variety of rituals that involved singing, dancing and drumming to ensure success in the unt as well as farming.  One legend was about Manibozho or Manabush, the Great Hare, who rebuilt the world after bad spirits had destroyed it with a flood. The Windigos were bad spirits of the north forests who ate unwary people.

Some Algonquian words:  hickory, hominy, moccasin, moose, papoose, powwow, sachem, squash, squaw, succotash, tomahawk, totem, wigwam and woodchuck.

Pequod or Pequots  (top)
The name Pequot means “destroyer” and came about because of the tribe’s fearsome reputation. The group was powerful and warlike and were supposed to have migrated from the Hudson Valley until they controlled the whole of the coast from the Connecticut River to Rhode Island. They fought the Narragansets and the Niantics for land and even took on the Montauks from Long Island.

Their chief sachem was a man named Sassacus whose village was on the Thames River. One of his subordinate sagamores was Uncas, who broke off to form his own tribe, the Mohegans, and whose alliance with immigrant colonists led to disruption among local tribes.

The first major conflict of the New England settlement was in 1636 when trader John Oldham was killed after his boat was hijacked by Pequots. They took the rest of the crew to Block Island and an expedition, led by John Endecott, attacked the island and burned the indian villages. However, Block Island was Narragansett territory and so a conflict grew up as a result of the mistake.

Endecott set off to find the Pequots in Connecticut and the settlers at Fort Saybrook tried to talk him out of it for fear of reprisals but he continued and nine colonists were killed when Sassacus laid siege to the fort in the winter of 1836/7. Thus the army became involved and, in spite of the earlier error, the Narragansets and Niantics joined forces with them against the Pequots. In May 1637 the army attacked Sassacus’s village and set fire to the camp, killing up to 1,000 people. Sassacus himself escaped and fled to Mohawk country but he was there beheaded because the Mohawks did not want trouble with the British. Captured Pequots were sold into slavery to the Mohegans, Narragansetts and Nantics and their descendants were not freed until 1655 when they were allowed to settle on the Mystic River.

The Mohegans and the Mahicans (top)
The British eventually turned against the Mohegans too and took most of their land. The Last of the Mohicans, by James Fennimore Cooper, was roughly based on the tribe but historically inaccurate. The book was one of five known as the Leatherstocking Tales. It is possible that he was confused with the Mahicans, a neighbouring tribe who, according to Mohegan legend, were once part of the same family. All three names come from an Algonquian word for wolf.

The Mahicans lived at the north end of the Hudson Valley in New York State but also spread into Vermont and Massachusetts. They grew corn, beans and squash and lived in long bark lodges as well as birch bark wigwams. They also believed in the Gitche Manitou.  After the Europeans arrived they began trading for iron goods but suffered badly from imported diseases as well as being particularly susceptible to alcohol. Dutch settlers using the Hudson traded guns with the Mahicans’ traditional enemies the Mohawks, who eventually drove them out of the Hudson River Valley into Massachusetts, Pennsylvania and Indiana.   

Waldman, Carl (1988) Encyclopaedia of Native American Tribes. Facts on File. New York  Top of page