The Native land of the Northeast was a vast and diverse region, and included many large confederacies such as Iroquois and Wendat. A lot was common between these two, but they also sometimes had differing views. Then, how did they show a united front with the advent of the Europeans at first contact? And, what was a wampum treaty belt?
Let’s begin with an overview of the St. Lawrence Lowlands and Great Lakes-Riverine areas to get a sense of how diverse this vast region was at the time of contact in the 17th century.
St. Lawrence Lowlands
The St. Lawrence Lowlands stretch from southern Ontario in present-day Canada through upstate New York and across the St. Lawrence and Susquehanna River valleys.
This is a fertile ground, interspersed with heavy forests, rivers, and lakes. The peoples who called the St. Lawrence Lowlands home took advantage of the environment by combining hunting, fishing, and gathering with agriculture, and extensive trade networks knit this and surrounding areas together.
If you followed the St. Lawrence River from the Atlantic coast to Lake Ontario, you would encounter Northern Iroquoian speakers such as the St. Lawrence Iroquoians, the Iroquois, Wendat, Wenro, Petun, Neutral, and Susquehannock, as well as Algonquian language speakers, including the Algonquin.
Great Lakes-Riverine Area
The Great Lakes-Riverine area includes all of the Great Lakes and reaches down to what is today referred to as the Ohio River Valley.
It features a combination of forests and prairies that allowed for varying degrees of agriculture. Many people practiced seasonal migratory patterns—hunting deer, bison, birds, and small game, and supplementing their diets with bountiful supplies of fish.
In the summer, the main villages typically consisted of multifamily houses with peaked roofs and bark-covered frames. In the winter, these were exchanged for dome-shaped structures covered with mats and cattail reeds.
Most of the people in the Great Lakes-Riverine region, including the Anishinaabeg, Myaamia, Illinois, Shawnee, Ho-Chunk, and Menominee, spoke languages from the Algonquian and Siouan language families.
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Iroquois and Wendat: Similar Language, Lifeways
The Wendat and Iroquois had a lot in common with each other. They were all speakers of languages that belonged to the Northern Iroquoian language family.
They also practiced similar lifeways. For instance, both the Iroquois and Wendat lived in sedentary villages supported by a mixed economy of agriculture, fishing, hunting, and gathering.
Iroquois and Wendat: Social Organization
Women were the primary agriculturalists, and since they cultivated the land, they owned it in a sense. And, this economic power translated into political power.
Matrilineality, for instance, meant that one’s identity was rooted in the mother’s clan, and the right to lead rested on the authority of clan mothers.
Men, on the other hand, hunted, fished, traded, and waged war. And, with the support of clan mothers, they represented their people in the context of village, national, and international politics.
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Iroquois and Wendat: The Differences
The Iroquois and Wendat had a lot in common, from language and agricultural practices to foodways, gender roles, and homes, and they also engaged in trade with one another. But all was not peaceful.
In fact, hostilities between the Iroquois Confederacy and surrounding peoples, including the Wendat, were escalating just as Europeans began establishing their presence along the Eastern Seaboard.
The French Enter, Diplomatic Relations Forged
In 1603, French navigator Samuel de Champlain reached the Northeast. And, to promote trade and compete with the Dutch, Champlain forged alliances: the Innu to the north, the Algonquin along the St. Lawrence River, and the Wendat around the Great Lakes became intermediaries in a far-flung trade network.
Given the intensifying hostilities with the Iroquois and a desire for trade goods, Wendat civil leaders forged political and military alliances with the French. In fact, as early as 1609, they convinced Champlain to join them in an attack on a Mohawk war party south of Lake Champlain.
Following this early alliance, the French continued to meet Native expectations for diplomatic protocol—from patterns of speech to the giving of gifts. And in so doing, the French acknowledged the idea of a measured separatism, highlighted through the 1612 treaty belt.
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Wampum Treaty Belt and Measured Separatism
In 1612, at the headwaters of the Ottawa River east of present-day Ottawa, Canada, a Wendat delegation presented their Iroquois neighbors with a belt made of purple and white wampum beads. Throughout the Northeast, wampum served an important role in Native diplomacy.
This particular treaty belt is a living record of the establishment of peace between the Wendat and Iroquois. The belt is made predominantly out of white beads fashioned from whelk shells. A square made of purple quahog clamshell beads represents the Wendat. Alternating white and purple horizontal stripes on the left and right sides of the belt represent different peoples walking together in peace, an idea Lumbee legal scholar Robert A. Williams refers to as a measured separatism.
Deeper investigation reveals that the measured separatism this treaty forged was intended to make it possible for both the Wendat and Iroquois, people often at odds with each other, to benefit from the presence of French newcomers who had established a settlement further to the east.
Through the treaty belts and other means, Native people in the Northeast made sense of European newcomers from contact through the end of the 17th century, and tried to establish and maintain a measured separatism even as their lives became ever more intertwined.
Common Questions about Native Northeast and Iroquois and Wendat Confederacies
The St. Lawrence Lowlands of the Native land stretched from southern Ontario in present-day Canada through upstate New York and across the St. Lawrence and Susquehanna River valleys.
The Great Lakes-Riverine area of the Native Northeast included all of the Great Lakes and reached down to what is today referred to as the Ohio River Valley.
The wampum treaty belt was treated as a living record of Native diplomacy. It was made out of white beads fashioned from whelk shells and purple quahog clamshell beads.