Monday, October 12, 2020

The Algonquian Language Peoples by Zina Abbott


According to my cell phone calendar, today—traditionally called Columbus Day—is now also known as Indigenous Peoples’ Day. I decided to focus on one large group of people indigenous to North America—the Algonquian language tribes. I have often used tribes from this linguistic group as characters in my stories.

Algonquin Couple

There is an Algonquin (or Algonkin) tribe, who live in Canada. Most live in Quebec. Today, the nine Algonquin bands in that province and one in Ontario have a combined population of about 11,000. The Algonquin peoples call themselves either Omàmiwinini (plural: Omàmiwininiwak) or the more generalised name of Anicinàpe. Culturally and linguistically, they are closely related to the Odawa and Ojibwe, with whom they form the larger Anicinàpe grouping.

The tribe has also given its name to the much larger heterogeneous group of Algonquian-speaking peoples who stretch from the Atlantic seaboard states of the United States, north into Canada, and west as far as the Great Plains. Many Algonquins still speak the Algonquin language, called generally Anicinàpemowin or specifically Omàmiwininìmowin. The language is considered one of several divergent dialects of the Anishinaabe languages.

Pre-contact distribution of Algonquian languages

These are dozens of distinct Native American tribes who speak languages that are related to each other. Before the days of DNA, linguistics was the primary way to trace the different tribes to determine migration patterns and possible common ancestry.

Lenni Lenape Women

It is difficult to make generalizations about "Algonquian” indigenous people because of the differences developed in their cultures based on where they settled and how they adapted to their environments. Life among the northern woodland tribes was much different than among those Algonquian tribes who settled on the Great Plains and hunted buffalo. The Wiyot and Yurok tribes in California also speak an Algonquian-based language.

Lenni Lenape Man


The following tribes are considered Algonquian based on linguistics:

Abenakis, Algonquins, Arapahos, Attikameks, Blackfeet, Cheyennes, Crees, Gros Ventre, Illini, Kickapoo, Lenni Lenape/Delawares, Lumbees (Croatan Indians), Mahicans (including Mohicans, Stockbridge Indians, and Wappingers), Maliseets, Menominees, Sac and Fox, Miamis, Métis/Michif, Mi'kmaq/Micmacs, Mohegans (including Pequots, Montauks, Niantics, and Shinnecocks), Montagnais/Innu, Munsees, Nanticokes, Narragansetts, Naskapis, Ojibways/Chippewas, Ottawas, Passamaquoddy, Penobscots, Potawatomis, Powhatans, Shawnees, Wampanoags (including the Massachusett, Natick, and Mashpee), Wiyot, and Yurok. [I have bolded the names of tribes I personally have researched and written about.]

Since I write mostly western historical romance, most of my research has been on those tribes from the Midwest and the Great Plains. Here is how some of them are organized, based on language:

  Central Algonquian Languages

Ojibwe Woman
      Cree-Innu Languages

          Atujanekw (Tete de Boule)


          Michif (Cree-French creole)


      Ojibwan Languages

          Algonkin (Algonquin)

Ojibwe Man
          Ojibwe (Chippewa, Ojibwa, Ojibway)

          Ottawa (Odawa)



          Mewquaki-Sauk (Sac and Fox)



Blackfoot Man

  Plains Algonquian Languages

      Arapahoan Languages


          Gros Ventre (Atsina)

      Blackfoot (Siksika, Peigan, Blackfeet)


As far as culture goes, I cannot cover it for all the tribes in this post. Each Algonquian tribe had different cultures and traditions. I will leave some of the hyperlinks from some of my sources for readers to click on and follow if interested.

A 16th-century sketch of the Algonquian village of Pomeiock.

Traditionally, the Algonquins lived in either a birch bark wìkiwàm or in wooden mìkiwàm. 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. Those who migrated from the Northern Woodlands area to the Plains used buffalo hides to make tipis, or teepees.

Arapaho village- Harper's Monthly March 1880 - ctsy Wyoming State Archives


Traditionally, the Algonquins were practitioners of Midewiwin; they believed they were surrounded by many manitòk. With the arrival of the French, many Algonquins were proselytized to Christianity, but many still practice Midewiwin or co-practice Christianity and Midewiwin.

After contact with the Europeans, the Algonkins became one of the key players in the fur trade. This led them to fight against the Iroquois because of their rivalry in the fur trade.

Being primarily hunting- and fishing-based societies, mobility was essential. Material used had to be light and easy to transport.  Most Algonquian Indians who lived in the northern woodland areas made birch bark or dugout canoes for transportation by water. They were sewed with spruce roots and rendered waterproof by the application of heated spruce resin and grease. During winter, the northern tribes used toboggans to transport material. People used snowshoes and dogsleds to travel in winter.

Although the historical Algonquin society was largely hunters and fishers, some Algonquins practiced agriculture and cultivated corn, beans, and squash, particularly south of the Great Lakes where the climate allows for a larger growing season. Other notable indigenous crops historically farmed by Algonquins are the sunflower and tobacco. Even among groups who mainly hunted, agricultural products were an important source of food and were obtained by trading with or raiding societies that practiced larger amounts of agriculture. The more southern Algonquian-speaking tribes of New England relied predominantly on slash and burn agriculture. They cleared fields by burning for one or two years of cultivation, after which the village moved to another location.

Ojibwe gathering wild rice in birch bark canoe


The Ojibwe who settled around the great lakes cultivated wild rice. The Ojibwe also collected maple sap and used it for both food and trade.

Hunters and warriors usually used bows and arrows, spears, and heavy wooden clubs.

Lenni Lenape Woman

Children had dolls and toys, such as a miniature bow and arrow or hand-held game. Most Algonquian mothers traditionally carried their babies in cradleboards on their backs. For babies, tikinàgan (cradleboard) were used to carry them. It was built with wood and covered with an envelope made of leather or material. The baby was standing up with his feet resting on a small board. The mother would then put the tikinàgan on her back. This allowed the infant to look around and observe his surroundings, therefore start learning how everyday tasks were done.

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.

Cheyenne Man

One thing of interest to note was, many of the Algonquian tribes were matrilineal. That meant that the people traced their lineage through their mothers’ clans. Even in my research on the Ojibwa people where, in more recent times, they have been patrilineal with the clans being traced through the fathers’ clans, there is a belief that, at one time, the bands were matrilineal.


Cheyenne Girl

The Cheyenne, for all their being a strong warrior society, was matrilineal (and matrilocal, meaning, the daughters and their families in the same clan lived by each other. If a woman lost her husband, she had her brothers and other men in the clan to rely on.) This interesting tidbit I found in The Cheyenne Wars Atlas:

The Cheyenne society was democratic in nature with a social structure built upon the family. They had a reverence for individual freedoms tempered by a respect for the needs of the people. In the Cheyenne tribal organization, the family was the basic social unit. A family grouping, called a kindred, began with the lodge of the family head, branched out with the lodges of his other wives, and again with the lodges of the daughters and their husbands.

I might also point out that among the Cheyenne, although a man might have multiple wives, the additional wives were generally the sisters of his first wife—a practice intended to maintain peace in the family.

As tribes like the Arapaho, Cheyenne, and Blackfeet moved onto the plains and adopted the horse culture, they relied more on hunting than agriculture for their food.

I cannot begin to give an in-depth explanation of the Algonquian-speaking indigenous people of North America. However, I encourage all who have Native American ancestry, or those who write stories that include Native American characters to make a point to do more than a casual research of each tribe of interest. I find the information I've discovered to be interesting and fascinating. I try to share a bit of that “interest” in my own writing.

The last four books I wrote dealt with the Kansas Plains, including references to primarily the Cheyenne, and less to the Arapaho and Sioux tribes (A Siouan-language tribe from the Dakotas and eastern Montana, the former homeland of the Cheyenne). Here are all five of my books set on the Kansas Plains:













Laura Redish and Orrin Lewis, Native Languages of the Americas

Collins, Charles D. Jr., The Cheyenne Wars Atlas. Combat Studies Institute Press; Fort Leavenworth, Kansas

George Catlin was the artist who painted many of the color portraits I used


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