The First People of the Eastern Woodlands

The Woodland Indians lived in the forests from the Atlantic Ocean to the Mississippi River and the Great Lakes to the Gulf of Mexico, east of the area inhabited by the Plains Indians. The Iroquois Confederacy, the Algonquian, the Cherokee, and the Shawnee are some of the many tribes that made up the Woodland culture. Some Woodland Indians were nomadic, but by 1000 BCE most lived in villages near streams or lakes. They built longhouses, wigwams, and round houses, cultivated crops, such as sunflowers, beans, and squash, designed and fired pottery, cured meat they hunted, and traded with each other. The Mound Builders were groups of Native Americans who lived in the Great Lakes region and the Ohio and Mississippi River valleys before the Woodland Indians. The Mound Builders were semi-nomadic tribes who built large flat-topped mounds, rounded cones, and ridges of earth.

The Iroquois Confederacy

The Iroquois comprised several tribes that spoke related Iroquoian languages and lived in the area west of the Hudson River and into the Finger Lakes region. The Iroquois lived in villages near streams or on hilltops. The villagers lived in longhouses that could hold 30 to 60 family members. Some villages built wooden palisades around their land for protection. The Iroquois League formed between 1450 and 1600 and consisted of five original nations, Mohawk, Oneida, Cayuga, Onondaga, and Seneca, and the Tuscarora, a tribe that joined in 1722. Iroquois tradition states that Deganawida and Hiawatha brought a “Great Law of Peace” to the Iroquoian nations and formed them into the League, which expanded Iroquoian territory and hunting grounds. The Iroquois League was governed by the Grand Council, a group of 50 chiefs, or Sachems, who were chosen by the mothers of each clan. The Iroquois had a constitution, called the Great  Law of Peace, which governed their internal and external laws and customs.

The Iroquois were farmers, fishers, hunters, and gatherers. They grew corn, beans, and squash, which allowed them to live in villages. The women gathered other food, such as berries, nuts, and herbs, and the men hunted deer, turkeys, and other animals. The Iroquois were matrilineal; the mother’s family and clan affiliation were passed down through the generations. 


The Cherokee

The Cherokee Indians lived in the southeast United States. The Cherokee lived in villages near rivers in houses made of plaster and river cane. Like the Iroquois, the Cherokee were farmers, fishers, hunters, and gatherers. They grew corn, beans, and squash, gathered nuts and berries, hunted deer and wild turkeys, and fished. The Cherokee were divided into seven clans and spoke an Iroquoian language. The Cherokee Indian Sequoyah developed a syllabary for the Cherokee language in the 1820s that allowed the Cherokee to write in their native language.

Each clan had a war chief and a peace chief, although Cherokee government later changed from a clan system to a tribal council and in 1827, the Cherokee adopted a written Constitution.

The Cherokee allied with the United States government against other Indian tribes. Although the U.S. Supreme Court ruled the order to forcibly remove the Cherokee from their homeland in the southeast unconstitutional, the army under President Andrew Jackson marched 20,000 Cherokee westward to reservations in Oklahoma during the winter of 1838-9. The Cherokee called this removal the “Trail of Tears” because many died during the forced march westward.

The Mound Builders

The Mound Builders lived in the Great Lakes region and the Ohio and Mississippi river valleys before the Woodland Indians. The earliest mound, Watson Brake near Monroe, Louisiana, dates from 3500 BCE. The term “Mound Builders” refers to Native Americans of different cultures and tribes whose common cultural characteristic was the construction of large earthen mounds of various sizes and shapes. The Mound Builder culture was active from 3000 BCE to 1200 AD. Some of the mounds are burial mounds and some are ceremonial. Burial mounds were particularly common between 100 BCE and 400 AD. Some ceremonial mounds are effigy mounds, created to look like important animals. Other ceremonial mounds, more common after 1000 AD, functioned as temples for religious practice. Many mounds form part of villages, which indicates that some of the Mound Builders lived sedentary lives for at least part of every year. Some of the temple mounds show signs of ceremonial axes, gorgets, shells, and ceramics.

The Iroquois and the Cherokee exist today both as cultural groups and tribal governments. Approximately 45,000 Iroquois live in Canada and over 80,000 people of Iroquois ethnicity live in the United States, principally in New York State and the northeast.  There are over 300,000 members of the Cherokee Nation, making it the largest of the federally recognized Native American tribes. There are three federally-recognized tribes of Cherokee today, the Cherokee Nation, the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, and the United Keetoowah Band of Cherokee Indians. The Cherokee Nation and the United Keetoowah Band are headquartered in Oklahoma and the Eastern Band of Cherokee have headquarters in North Carolina.