Published on February 14, 2012 by Amy
The Ottawa River Valley which forms the present border between Ontario and Quebec.
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At the time of their first meeting with the French in 1603, the various Algonkin bands probably had a combined population somewhere in the neighborhood of 6,000. The British estimate in 1768 was 1,500. Currently, there are almost 8,000 Algonkin in Canada organized into ten separate First Nations: nine in Quebec and one in Ontario.
The source of Algonkin is unclear. Other than the names of their bands, the Algonkin do not appear to have had a name for themselves as a people. Some researchers have suggested that Algonkin came from the Maliseet word for “ally,” but others prefer the Micmac’s “algoomeaking” that translates roughly as “place of spearing fish from the bow of a canoe.” The most likely possibility is the Maliseet word “allegonka” meaning “dancers,” which Samuel de Champlain might have mistaken for their tribal name while watching a combined Algonkin, Maliseet, and Montagnais victory dance in 1603. The first group of Algonkin that the French encountered were the Kichesipirini who, because their village was located on an island in the Ottawa River, were called “La Nation de l’Ilse.” At first, Algonkin was used only for a second group, the Weskarini. However, by 1615 the name was applied to all of the Algonkin bands living along the Ottawa River.
The Iroquois usually referred to them as the Adirondack, a derogatory name meaning literally “they eat trees,” but they also used the name for several other Algonquian-speaking tribes south of the St. Lawrence. Among themselves, the Algonkin differentiated between bands which remained in the upper Ottawa Valley year-round and those that moved to the St. Lawrence River during the summer – the northerners being called “Nopiming daje Inini” (inlanders). The French translated this as Gens des Terres and, in the process, sometimes confused them with Tetes de Boule, their name for the Attikamek (different Algonquian language) who were part of the Montagnais or Cre
The Iroquois usually referred to them as the Adirondack, a derogatory name meaning literally “they eat trees,” but they also used the name for several other Algonquian-speaking tribes south of the St. Lawrence. Among themselves, the Algonkin differentiated between bands which remained in the upper Ottawa Valley year-round and those that moved to the St. Lawrence River during the summer – the northerners being called “Nopiming daje Inini” (inlanders). The French translated this as Gens des Terres and, in the process, sometimes confused them with Tetes de Boule, their name for the Attikamek (different Algonquian language) who were part of the Montagnais or Cree.
Algonquian. If for no other reason, the Algonkin would be famous because their name has been used for the largest native language group in North America. The downside is the confusion generated, and many do not realize there actually was an Algonkin tribe, or that all Algonquian do not belong to the same tribe. Algonquian is a family of related languages, but it has many dialects, not all of which are mutually intelligible. Algonquian-speaking peoples dominated most of the northeastern North America with the exception of Iroquian-speakers in New York, northern Pennsylvania and southern Ontario. Their range extended from Hudson Bay southward along the Atlantic coast to North Carolina and west to the Mississippi River. On the Great Plains, Algonquian-speakers would include Cheyenne, Arapaho, Gros Ventres, Blackfoot, Cree, and Ojibwe, and some have even suggested that the Wiyot and Yurok in northern California speak a distant form of Algonquian. The dialect of the Algonkin themselves is closely related to that of the Ojibwe, Ottawa, and Potawatomi making the Algonkin the easternmost speakers of this group. Although there is some variation between the different Algonkin bands, most still prefer their traditional language with French or English being spoken only when necessary.
Too far north for agriculture, most Algonkin were loosely organized into small, semi-nomadic bands of hunter-gatherers. In this, they resembled the closely related Ojibwe. The Algonkin lived somewhat outside the wild rice region which provided an important part of the diet for other tribes in the northern Great Lakes. Although a few southern bands were just beginning to grow corn in 1608, the Algonkin relied heavily on hunting for their food which made them excellent hunters and trappers, skills which quickly attracted the attention of French fur traders after 1603. The Algonkin also made good use of their birch-bark canoes to travel great distances for trade, and their strategic location on the Ottawa River became the preferred route between the French on the St. Lawrence River and the tribes of the western Great Lakes. Groups of Algonkin would gather during the summer for fishing and socializing, but at the approach of winter, they separated into small hunting camps of extended families. The climate was harsh, with starvation not uncommon. For this reason, the Algonkin could not afford for someone to become a burden, and were known to kill their sick, crippled, or badly wounded.
Beside a common language, most Algonquian-speaking tribes shared comparable creation stories and religious beliefs: a great spirit or supreme creator; lessor spirits who controlled the elements; a hero figure who taught their people the skills they needed to survive; evil spirits who caused mischief, misfortune, or illness; and good spirits who helped the worthy and punished wrongdoers. There was also a shared belief in a life after death where the spirits of dead men pursued the spirits of dead animals. However, in contrast to Christian beliefs, the Algonkin had no concept of a hell or place of eternal punishment. Dreams were of particular importance to the Algonquian peoples, and proper interpretation was an important responsibility of their shamans whose other duties included communication with the spirit world, guiding men’s lives, and healing the sick. On the dark side, there was an almost universal fear of witchcraft, and Algonquian peoples, the Algonkin included, were very reluctant to mention their real names to prevent possible misuse by enemies with spiritual power and evil intent. In various degrees, these beliefs were shared by most native peoples in North America.
The Algonkin were patrilineal with the right to use specific hunting territories being passed from father to son, but some Algonquian tribes used matrilineal descent (traced through the mother) in determining kinship. The Iroquois to the west and south of the Algonkin were matrilineal and differed from the Algonkin in several important ways. The most obvious being that the Iroquois relied heavily on agriculture and lived in large fortified villages. The Iroquois also had a highly developed central political organization, while the Algonkin did not. Despite this, the Algonkin were formidable warriors who used their advantages in transportation and woodland skills to dominate the Iroquois before the formation of the Iroquian confederacies. When one thinks of how powerful the Iroquois ultimately became, it was a remarkable achievement.