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Native American culture of the Northeast

GEO (Theme)
KC‑1.1.I.C (KC)
Unit 1: Learning Objective B
Hopewellian culture dominated the Northeast region from 200 BCE to 500 CE, where Native American groups began large-scale three-sister farming and republican political projects.


  • Northeastern Native Americans began to rely primarily on agriculture during the Hopewellian period, from 200 BCE to 500 CE.
  • “Three-sister” farming of squash, beans, and corn established more permanent and larger villages throughout the Ohio River Valley.
  • The Iroquois League, an agreement established between five Iroquoian-speaking groups in the late 1300s, curbed intertribal violence.

Geographic and temporal setting: the Hopewellian period

The geographic area of the Native American Northeast extends from the province of Quebec in modern-day Canada, through the Ohio River Valley, and down to the North Carolina coast. The Northeastern landscape is dominated by the Appalachian Mountains, which include rolling hills and prominent peaks.
Native Americans settled extensively in this area, especially during the Hopewellian period from 200 BCE to 500 CE, due to the temperate climate, accessible waterways, and good farming conditions. The most notable groups in this area include the Algonquians, Iroquois, Susquehannocks, Mohicans, and Hurons.
A map depicting the divide between Iroquois (left) and Algonquian (right) peoples in modern New York
A map depicting the divide between Iroquois (left) and Algonquian (right) peoples in modern New York. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

Common food practices: a shift towards three-sister farming

The Hopewellian period included the cultural shift from hunting and gathering to budding agricultural systems. Some historians estimate that Native Americans were farming squash in Illinois as early as 5000 BCE. Corn farming spread through trading networks to the Ohio River Valley from the Southwest by 350 BCE. They soon began to plant and grow beans.
Together, the corn, squash, and beans, became known as the sacred "three sisters,” a term coined by the Iroquois people. According to the Iroquois, the three crops would only thrive if planted close together.
Algonquians retained hunting and gathering as a source of food while beginning to farm. Women would gather berries and cultivate the cornfields, while men would hunt and occasionally aid in farming. Northeastern indigenous people living near rivers would fish salmon and collect shellfish, as well. With an abundance of food, Iroquois and Hurons made intricate pottery to store the surplus. They also wove baskets to aid in the farming process.
Print showing Iroquois women harvesting the three sisters.
Print showing Iroquois women harvesting the three sisters. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

Societal structure: villages and communities

All “three sisters” quickly became cash crops, a crop in high demand by Native Americans on the Plains and West Coast who were eager to trade. They received large shells, pearls, copper, and silver in return for the foods. Groups within the region would trade food and commodities with other Northeastern peoples, depending on their area’s niche good. For example, the Susquehannocks of Pennsylvania traded wampum beads for nets and furs from the Hurons of the Great Lakes region.
Indigenous people in the Northeast generally lived in villages with a few hundred residents. Hochelaga, modern-day Montreal, was inhabited by several thousand people and surrounded by extensive cornfields. In agricultural Hopewellian societies, men planted and harvested, while women worked in the home, took care of the children, and processed the crops.
Hopewellian culture began the tradition of mound-building, which would extend down to the Southeast into the next century. Throughout the Ohio River Valley, Native Americans built mounds in the earth, which may have served burial and ceremonial purposes. Large mounds and animal-shaped earthworks still exist throughout this area today.
Photograph of the Hopewell mounds in modern Ohio, now part of the Mound City Group National Monument.
Hopewell mounds in modern Ohio, now part of the Mound City Group National Monument. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

Social and religious norms: establishing alliances and democratic principles

As the Northeast became more agricultural, the region became more urbanized. Although we consider agricultural areas less densely-populated today, farming required people to live together in fortified villages to protect their harvests. Many indigenous people in the Northeast lived in longhouses, dwellings up to 100 feet in length. Since Algonquians farmed while also maintaining hunting and fishing, they “commuted” from less permanent villages of wigwams. But as certain groups, like the Iroquois, began having farming and thereby trading success, intertribal violence intensified.
A depiction of the traditional Iroquois longhouse. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Trade competition led to ongoing conflict between the Iroquois and Algonquians. In hopes of ending intertribal conflict, the Mohawks, Oneidas, Onondagas, Cayugas, and Senecas established the Iroquois League, or the Great League of Peace between 1100 and 1400 CE. During this time period, the Iroquoians met for about a year to devise a solution to this cyclic pattern of violence and retribution between tribes.
The Iroquois League devised a system in which each member group could maintain a level of autonomy over local affairs, but the League would unite over trade policies and diplomacy issues. The Iroquois League put forth republican principles, and a dual system of federalism, or balancing local and national powers, for the first time in North America. Therefore, many historians argue that the Iroquois League was the first American democracy, established at least four hundred years earlier than the US Constitution of 1787.

What do you think?

How did agriculture contribute to the settlement types of indigenous people in the Northeast?
Make your own hypothesis about why Native American communities constructed mounds. Draw a connection to relevant historical evidence.
How does the political organization of Iroquois League resemble the United States of America? What is different and what is the same?

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