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Facts for Kids: Algonquian Indian Tribes (Algonkian)

Hardly a week goes by that we don't get email from at least one kid looking for information on the "Algonquian tribe." Adults, too, write to us trying to do genealogical research on their "Algonkian" ancestors or learn the "Algonquian" heritage of their state. There's just one problem with this: THERE IS NO ALGONQUIAN TRIBE! There is an Algonquin (or Algonkin) tribe, who live in Canada. But the word Algonquian (or Algonkian) is a more general linguistic/anthropological definition used to refer to not only the Algonquin tribe but dozens of distinct Native American tribes who speak languages that are related to each other.

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So if you have a school report to write on the culture of the "Algonquians," you may find yourself having trouble. Imagine you had a homework assignment on "Indo-European" clothing. When you looked in the encyclopedia, you'd see that "Indo-Europeans" actually include the Dutch, the Spanish, the Russians, and the Indians in India. What would you write about? The Spanish don't wear saris or wooden clogs, and the Indians don't wear fur hats or lace mantillas. In Siberia it gets to be -40 degrees Fahrenheit, and in Bombay it can be hotter than 100 degrees and humid. You would have a hard time completing this assignment.

Native North America is no different. Algonquian tribes range from the Yurok in California to the Powhatans in Virginia, from the Cheyennes in the Great Plains to the Naskapi Innu in cold northern Labrador. Obviously, the Naskapi couldn't keep warm in their environment wearing grass skirts like the Yurok, and the buffalo-hunting culture of the Cheyennes would have been useless to the Powhatans (no buffalo roamed the woodlands of Virginia!) Making cultural generalizations about "Algonquian Indians" is difficult at best.

So what are you going to do about this homework assignment of yours? Well, that depends. There are three things teachers could mean when they ask you to do a report on Algonquian Indians:

1) Maybe your teacher wants you to report on Algonquian Indians located in your area, but doesn't know those tribes' specific names. For example, the Wecquaesgeek are often just referred to as "New York Algonquians" in textbooks. Especially on the east coast, there were many tribes who lost 75-90% of their people to smallpox and other European diseases. In most cases the survivors of neighboring tribes merged together. This history can make their identities confusing. If you know the regional location of the group of Algonquians you are looking for, you can follow these links to learn more about the general type of clothes and food and shelters they used. The Long Island Algonquians are generally Mohegan Indians. The New York Algonquians are generally Mahicans and Munsee Delawares. New England Algonquians include the Wampanoag in Massachusetts and the Mohegans in Connecticut and Rhode Island. Maine Algonquians are the tribes of the Wabanaki Confederacy. Mid-Atlantic Algonquians include the Lenni Lenape in New Jersey and Pennsylvania and the Nanticokes in Delaware and Maryland. Virginia Algonquians are generally Powhatan, and Carolina Algonquians are generally Lumbee. The Ohio Valley Algonkians are poorly known because most of them were dispersed by smallpox epidemics and Iroquoian attacks, but the Shawnee are one example of an Algonquian tribe from that region.

There are many other Algonquian Indian tribes, including the Cree, the Chippewa, and the Blackfoot, but most non-natives know them by their real tribal names.

2) Maybe your teacher wants you to report on the Algonquin tribe. Anthropologists invented these two confusing terms, intending "Algonquin" to refer to one specific language and "Algonquian" to refer to all the languages related to the Algonquin language (just as Germanic languages are related to German.) The Algonquin tribe call themselves Anishinabe, and they live in Canada. If this is the tribe you are trying to learn about, we have a lot of information about them on our Algonquin page.

3) Maybe your teacher just doesn't realize that the Algonquians are not a single tribe. It is an easy mistake for non-natives to make. If there is enough time before your assignment is due, you can print this page out and talk to the teacher about it. Perhaps you can pick one Algonquian tribe to write your report about. If there is not enough time, maybe you could write your report on Algonquian people who live in your home state (as listed above). Hopefully that will narrow down your research enough that you can finish your project in time.

For your additional information, here are some general facts about Algonquian people, with our answers to the questions we are most often asked by kids and Algonquian pictures and links we believe are suitable for all ages.

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Facts for Kids: Algonquian People

How do you pronounce "Algonquian?" What does it mean?
Algonquian is pronounced "al-GON-kee-un." (GON rhymes with "on.") It doesn't actually mean anything. Anthropologists invented this term to refer to tribes who spoke a related group of languages.

What is the right way to spell "Algonquian"?
It can be spelled either "Algonquian" or "Algonkian." Either spelling is correct.

Are the Algonquians extinct?
Definitely not! There are more than half a million Native American people today belonging to Algonquian tribes. The reason you cannot find online information about contemporary Algonquian people is that they rarely call themselves by this generic anthropology term. You just need to look them up by their real tribal names. There are a few extinct Algonquian tribes, including the Beothuk and Wappinger tribes, but the vast majority of Algonquian tribes still survive today.

Which tribes are Algonquian?
The many Algonquian tribes include the Abenakis, Algonquins, Arapahos, Attikameks, Blackfeet, Cheyennes, Crees, Gros Ventre, Illinois, Kickapoo, Lenni Lenape/Delawares, Lumbees (Croatan Indians), Mahicans (including Mohicans, Stockbridge Indians, and Wappingers), Maliseets, Menominees, Sac and Fox, Miamis, Métis/Michif, Mi'kmaq, Mohegans (including Pequots, Montauks, Niantics, and Shinnecocks), Montagnais/Innu, Munsees, Nanticokes, Narragansetts, Naskapis, Ojibways/Chippewas, Ottawas, Passamaquoddy, Penobscot, Potawatomis, Powhatans, Shawnees, Wampanoags (including the Massachusett, Natick, and Mashpee), Wiyot, and Yurok.

Where do the Algonquian Indians live?
Algonquian people live throughout the United States, from California to Maine, and throughout southern Canada, from Alberta to Labrador. Here is an Algonquian map showing the original homelands of various Algonquian peoples. (Remember that some tribes were forced to move after the Europeans arrived--there are many eastern Algonquian people who live in Oklahoma now, for instance.)

What language do Algonquian Indians speak?
Many different ones. See our page about the Algonquian language family. You can also read an article about some English words that come from Algonquian languages.

All of the Algonquian languages are related to each other, but that doesn't mean the different Algonquian tribes could understand each other. English, French, German, and Russian are all related to each other, but a speaker of one of those languages can't easily understand the others!

What is Algonquian culture like? What tools and weapons did they use in the past?
Each Algonquian tribe had different cultures and traditions. Most Algonquian Indians made birchbark or dugout canoes for transportation by water. Here is a picture comparing Algonquian canoe styles. Northern Algonkian tribes used snowshoes and dogsleds to travel in winter. Here is a picture of Cree snowshoes. Hunters and warriors usually used bows and arrows, spears, and heavy wooden clubs. Here is a website with pictures and more information about Algonquian Indian weapons.

How do Algonquin Indian children live, and what did they do in the past?
They do the same things all children do--play with each other, go to school and help around the house. Many Algonquian children like to go hunting and fishing with their fathers. In the past, Indian kids had more chores and less time to play, like early colonial children. But Algonkian Indian children did have dolls and toys, such as a miniature bow and arrow or a wooden hand-held game. Here are pictures of Algonquian games from two Woodland Algonquian tribes. Swimming and footraces were popular forms of recreation among Native Americans, and in some Algonquian tribes, teenagers played a form of lacrosse. As for babies, most Algonquian mothers traditionally carried young children in cradle boards on their backs--a custom many American parents have adopted.

What was Algonquian social structure like in the past? How are Algonquian tribes governed today?
Each tribe had its own form of government. Most Algonquian tribes had some form of tribal council. Some tribes' councils were made up of the leaders of each village, others were made up of the leaders of each clan (large extended family), and still others were made up of warriors who had distinguished themselves as battle. Usually a principal leader, or chief, presided over the council. In some tribes either men or women could be council members and chiefs, and in others only men could do this. It depended on each tribe's culture. Some tribes didn't have chiefs at all--instead each village or clan had its own leader and they were all equal in stature. Other tribes did not have councils and the ruler was more like a king than a chief. You should look at the fact pages for individual Algonquian tribes to learn more about their governments.

What were Algonquian homes like?
In most Algonquian tribes, each band lived in a village of small round buildings called wigwams. Here is a page of Algonquian wigwam pictures showing how they are built. However, Algonquian tribes on the Great Plains used tepees for shelter instead. Some northeastern Algonquians built longhouses like the Iroquois. Here are some longhouse pictures for you to look at. The California Algonquians lived in redwood-plank houses. Some Algonkian villages, particularly in the east, were permanent and had palisades (fortified walls) around them. Other Algonquian tribes were semi-nomadic and moved their houses frequently.

What was Algonquian clothing like?
Traditional clothes, headdresses, and hairstyles were different in every tribe, and Algonquian Indians could tell each other's tribal identity from their style of dress. One article of clothing shared by all the Algonquian Indian tribes was moccasins. Here are some pictures of Lenape and Chippewa moccasin styles. Algonquian men generally wore breechcloths with leather leggings, and Algonquian women wore skirts or dresses. In northern Algonquian tribes, Indians also wore a shirt, tunic, or mantle, but in southern tribes and in California, they went shirtless. Indian hairstyles typically included long braids for women and partially shaved heads for men. In the Plains Algonquian tribes, men wore long hair and feather headdresses. In colonial times, many Algonquians adapted European fashions such as cloth blouses and jackets, decorating them with fancy beadwork. Here are some of pictures of beaded Algonquian clothing. Today, members of most Algonquian tribes wear their traditional clothing only at ceremonial events such as powwows or a wedding. Here is a link to our page on Native American clothing in general, where you can find photographs and more links about these traditional clothing styles.

What was Algonquian food like in the days before supermarkets?
Algonquian tribes in different climates ate different foods. In New York state and south, most Algonquians were farming people, growing corn, beans, and squash. North of New York state, the Algonquians were primarily hunter-gatherers, with the men chasing big game like elk and moose and the women collecting natural resources like fruits, nuts, and herbs. Western Algonkian tribes of the Plains, like the Blackfoot, hunted buffalo. Near the Great Lakes, Algonkian people like the Ojibwe cultivated wild rice. Most Algonkian Indians also hunted small game like turkeys and rabbits and went fishing in the rivers and ocean. Here is a website with more information about Native American food.

What are Algonquian arts and crafts like?
Each tribe has its own artistic tradition. One art form most of the eastern Algonquian tribes shared was crafting wampum out of white and purple shell beads to use as regalia, currency, and commemoration of important events. Like European tapestries or Celtic tartans, the designs and symbols on wampum often told a story or represented family affiliations. You can see some photographs and read some more details about these art forms at our Native American art site.

How about Algonquian music and dance?
The drum is the most important Algonquian instrument. In most Algonquian tribes drums are very large and several people play them at once during ceremonies or tribal celebrations, such as a pow-wow (a kind of intertribal dance festival common among many tribes.) Here is a video clip of a Canadian Algonquian powwow. However, pow-wows are not traditional in all Algonquian tribes. Some tribes use smaller drums played by a single person. Wooden flutes are also popular instruments in some Algonquian tribes.

What kinds of stories do the Algonquians tell?
There are lots of traditional Algonquin legends and fairy tales. Storytelling is very important to the Algonquin Indian culture. Here is one legend about the flooding of the earth that is told in several different Algonquian tribes. Here's a website where you can read more about Algonquian mythology.

What about Algonquian religion?
Spirituality and religion were important parts of Algonquian life, and some people continue to practice traditional beliefs today. It is respectful to avoid imitating religious rituals for school projects since some Algonquian people care about them deeply. You can read and learn about them, however. You can visit this site to learn more about Algonquian religious traditions or this site about Native American beliefs in general.

Can you recommend a good book for me to read?
There are many good books on the individual Algonquian tribes--visit our tribal pages to see some of our book recommendations. In particular, Abenaki author Joseph Bruchac has written many excellent historical fiction books for kids of various ages, most of which are about Algonquian Indians. We're especially partial to Dog People, a collection of short stories about Indian children and their dogs. (In most Algonquian cultures, dogs were considered an important part of the family.) Algonquian Spirit is a highly recommendable collection of Algonquian legends, songs, and stories from many different Algonquian tribes. For young children, An Algonquian Year is a good picture book illustrating life in the northeast Algonquian tribes. If you are a K12 teacher looking for a good classroom book with information about many different Algonquian tribes, we recommend Encyclopedia of Native American Tribes for elementary school students and A Native American Encyclopedia for high-school students. You can also browse through our reading list of Native American book recommendations. Disclaimer: we are an Amazon affiliate and our website earns a commission if you buy a book through one of these links. Most of them can also be found in a public library, though!

Can I cite your website in my bibliography?
Of course! You will need to ask your teacher for the format he or she wants you to use. The authors' names are Laura Redish and Orrin Lewis and the title of our site is Native Languages of the Americas. We are a nonprofit educational organization working to preserve and protect Native American languages and culture. You can learn more about our organization here. Our website was first created in 1998 and last updated in 2020.

Thank you for your interest in the Algonquian Indians and their languages!

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Learn More About The Algonquians

Algonquian Indian Languages
Algonquian family tree and index of language information.

Algonquian Legends
Overview of Algonquian folklore and mythology.

Algic Words
Algonquian Indian vocabulary lists.

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