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.
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.
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.
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
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
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
The Mohegans and the Mahicans
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