Algonquins belong to a loosely bound, widespread confederation of tribes that share basic characteristics in language as well as similar myths and legends. The name Algonquin may have come from the Maliseet word
, they are our relatives and allies. Another possibility might be from the Micmac word
interpreted as “They harpoon fish”.
There were hundreds of thousands – some historians say as many as a million – who lived in the dense forests of what is now identified as New England.
The Algonquins saw themselves as the “original people” and traced their origins to the “Dawnland,” the eastern seaboard where the sun first rises from the Atlantic Ocean.
In southeastern New England, the leading Algonquian tribes were the Mohegan and Pequot of Connecticut, the Narragansett of Rhode Island, the Patuxet, Wampanoag, Nipmuck, Massachesset and Pennacook of Massachusetts and the Bay area.
The tribes were subdivided into smaller group, consisting of a few hundred sharing a settled village and a common hunting and gathering territory.
To embrace a place-based approach to learning, the place must be understood. A view of the year in the life of an Algonquian family helps define the place in time and space. The following description erases the current city streets of New Haven and describes the landscape and life that existed for thousands of years.
Living in the Northeast region of America required adapting to the seasonally changing climate. Winters can be harsh. Most Algonquian tribes in the Northeast lived in small clusters of dome-shaped wigwams, built in secluded, inland valleys, sheltered as much as possible from harsh winds. Wigwams were constructed with saplings bound together with wood fibers and covered with the bark of elm, walnut or possibly birch trees. Mats made of woven corn husks and cattails might be used as well as an animal skin over the door for protection from the cold winds. An opening in the top of the wigwam allowed smoke to escape from the open fire, which would burn constantly and usually had a stew heating and available for family members any time they felt hungry. Generally wigwams housed on family or possibly two related families, with each having their own space. During the winter months, the Algonquian hunters still searched for white-tailed deer, moose, and any game to bring back to the villages. Starvation was a real threat and during the long, cold months stored grains, dried meat and smoked fish would get used up.
When the spring months arrived, the Algonquin began to collect say from several types of trees, including elder, walnut, hickory, birch and of course, sugar maple. The women of the tribes cut deep slashes into the bark of the maple trees, allowing the sap to flow down a twig into a birch bucket that would keep every special drop of say. The Algonquian legend is that they learned this process by watching the grey squirrel chew the bark of the apple tree and lick the sap as it dripped out.
The Algonquins caught fish and shellfish in plentiful quantities in the northeast region with the coastline as well as many rivers and lakes readily accessible. After the winter months, fishing could begin again. Wooden spears and nets caught the prey. Bright torches lured the fish into the nets at nighttime and fences call weirs stretched across the streams, outlet of lakes or saltwater harbors colleted a great many fish. Some of the fish supplied the families with meals right away and some, smoked and stored winter months, kept families fed through the winter months.
As spring advanced, Algonquian families migrated in groups to fertile ground, staying near lakes, rivers or the ocean. They built portable wigwams, with the openings facing the morning sun. Both men and women worked the soil, planting and weeding using hoes made of wood, large clam shells or the shoulder blades of deer of bear.
The Algonquian tribes productively farmed with much of their diet supplied by the crops they grew efficiently and effectively. Indian cultivation produced substantial yields while using small amounts of both land and labor. The vines and roots of the squash and pumpkins anchored the ground, discouraged weeds, supported the maize plants and preserved moisture by shielding the earth from the sun. Cornstalks provided climbing poles for the vines of bean plants. Not only did this combination of plants provide a balanced diet for the Indians, it maintained a healthy balance in the soil for future crops.
If the gardens produced abundant crops, the families stayed until the fall; if not, they moved on to better farmland.
Throughout the summer months, along with cultivating crops, other important chores needed to be done. Women made baskets from birch bark. They used tough deerskin to make clothes for the winter, first scraping off the fat and flesh and removing the hair. The skins were then soaked in oil and washed, pulled and stretched to soften them and then smoked at a smudge fire to help them last a long time.
As the fall arrived, harvesting began. Surplus corn was dried and stored in baskets and placed in underground cellars with birch bark. Ripened vegetables also dried as they hung out in the sun. Fish and meat, cut into thin strips and smoked over slow-burning fires, became supplies for the cold months ahead.