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Great Race of Algonquin

Living on the mainland, next to the red men of Newfoundland lay the great race of the Algonquins, spread over a huge tract of country, from the Atlantic coast to the head of the Great Lakes, and even farther west. The Algonquins were divided into a great many tribes, some of whose names are still familiar among the Indians of to-day. The Micmacs of Nova Scotia, the Malecite of New Brunswick, the Naskapi of Quebec, the Chippewa of Ontario, and the Crees of the prairie, are of this stock. It is even held that the Algonquins are to be considered typical specimens of the American race. They were of fine stature, and in strength and muscular development were quite on a par with the races of the Old World. Their skin was copper-colored, their lips and noses were thin, and their hair in nearly all cases was straight and black. When the Europeans first saw the Algonquins they had already made some advance towards industrial civilization. They built huts of woven boughs, and for defense sometimes surrounded a group of huts with a palisade of stakes set up on end. They had no agriculture in the true sense, but they cultivated Indian corn and pumpkins in the openings of the forests, and also the tobacco plant, with the virtues of which they were well acquainted. They made for themselves heavy and clumsy pottery and utensils of wood, they wove mats out of rushes for their houses, and they made clothes from the skin of the deer, and head-dresses from the bright feathers of birds. Of the metals they knew, at the time of the discovery of America, hardly anything. They made some use of copper, which they chipped and hammered into rude tools and weapons. But they knew nothing of melting the metals, and their arrow-heads and spear-points were made, for the most part, not of metals, but of stone. Like other Indians, they showed great ingenuity in fashioning bark canoes of wonderful lightness.

We must remember, however, that with nearly all the aborigines of America, at least north of Mexico, the attempt to utilize the materials and forces supplied by nature had made only slight and painful progress. We are apt to think that it was the mere laziness of the Indians which prevented more rapid advance. It may be that we do not realize their difficulties. When the white men first came these rude peoples were so backward and so little trained in using their faculties that any advance towards art and industry was inevitably slow and difficult. This was also true, no doubt, of the peoples who, long centuries before, had been in the same degree of development in Europe, and had begun the intricate tasks which a growth towards civilization involved. The historian Robertson describes in a vivid passage the backward state of the savage tribes of America. 'The most simple operation,' he says, 'was to them an undertaking of immense difficulty and labor. To fell a tree with no other implements than hatchets of stone was employment for a month. ...Their operations in agriculture were equally slow and defective. In a country covered with woods of the hardest timber, the clearing of a small field destined for culture required the united efforts of a tribe, and was a work of much time and great toil.'

The religion of the Algonquin Indians seems to have been a rude nature worship. The Sun, as the great giver of warmth and light, was the object of their adoration; to a lesser degree, they looked upon fire as a superhuman thing, worthy of worship. The four winds of heaven, bringing storm and rain from the unknown boundaries of the world, were regarded as spirits. Each Indian clan or section of a tribe chose for its special devotion an animal, the name of which became the distinctive symbol of the clan. This is what is meant by the 'totems' of the different branches of a tribe.

The Algonquins knew nothing of the art of writing, beyond rude pictures scratched or painted on wood. The Algonquin tribes, as we have seen, roamed far to the west. One branch frequented the upper Saskatchewan river. Here the ashes of the prairie fires discolored their moccasins and turned them black, and, in consequence, they were called the Blackfeet Indians. Even when they moved to other parts of the country, the name was still applied to them.

Occupying the stretch of country to the south of the Algonquins was the famous race known as the Iroquoian Family. We generally read of the Hurons and the Iroquois as separate tribes. They really belonged, however, to one family, though during the period of Canadian history in which they were prominent they had become deadly enemies. When Cartier discovered the St Lawrence and made his way to the island of Montreal, Huron Indians inhabited all that part of the country. When Champlain came, two generations later, they had vanished from that region, but they still occupied a part of Ontario around Lake Simcoe and south and east of Georgian Bay. We always connect the name Iroquois with that part of the stock which included the allied Five Nations--the Mohawks, Onondagas, Senecas, Oneidas, and Cayugas,--and which occupied the country between the Hudson river and Lake Ontario. This proved to be the strongest strategical position in North America. It lies in the gap or break of the Alleghany ridge, the one place south of the St Lawrence where an easy and ready access is afforded from the sea-coast to the interior of the continent. Any one who casts a glance at the map of the present Eastern states will realize this, and will see why it is that New York, at the mouth of the Hudson, has become the greatest city of North America. Now, the same reason which has created New York gave to the position of the Five Nations its great importance in Canadian history. But in reality the racial stock of the Iroquois extended much farther than this, both west and south. It took in the well-known tribe of the Eries, and also the Indians of Chesapeake Bay and the Potomac. It included even the Tuscaroras of the Roanoke in North Carolina, who afterwards moved north and changed the five nations into six.

The Dawn of Canadian History, A Chronicle of Aboriginal Canada, 1915


Chronicle of Aboriginal Canada

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