Perspectives on the northeastern environment

The northeastern North American environment deeply shaped the experiences of Indigenous and European peoples during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. It provided a framework through which people moved throughout this region and upon which intercultural encounters could occur. And yet, Europeans and Indigenous peoples experienced this space differently. For the region’s Indigenous peoples, this space was home and known intimately; for European explorers, and later settlers, it was a land only slowly revealed, defined more by eastern shorelines and river banks than the networks of rivers and lakes eventually used to move throughout this space.

Despite differences in culture, all of the Indigenous peoples living in the northeast had a close relationship and deep connection with the land. Indeed, many Indigenous societies developed customs – such as acknowledging the sacrifice a hunted animal had made in dying for the hunter – which illustrate the ways in which the environment was to be appreciated, celebrated and acknowledged. This interconnection and reverence is reflected well in the political and clan identities that shaped (and continue to shape) the social and political lives of many of the region’s peoples. The Wendat Confederacy, for example, was comprised of four distinct peoples: the people of the Bear, the People of the Rock, the People of the Cord and the People of the Deer.

The geography of the region was likewise crucial in shaping the diverse trade networks Indigenous peoples established throughout the region. Towns and villages were often positioned near the coast, lakes or rivers as these were areas with an abundant food supply throughout the year and waterways provided the most efficient avenue for moving throughout the region. As you can see in the accompanying map, rivers, lakes and coastal regions connected the region together, enabling the development of trade routes that facilitated the creation of robust relationships between diverse Indigenous peoples.

In the northeast, lightweight material such as birch bark and spliced wood like black ash were used to build canoes, wigwams and baskets, making movement through the region relatively easy. With a vast knowledge of their environment, northeastern Indigenous peoples knew how to modify it to suit their needs. In some places, such as the area that became New England, planned burning enhanced hunting by reducing undergrowth while also increasing the rate at which nutrients were recycled into the soil, promoting a healthy and diverse ecosystem with abundant plants and animals. The items on display in this section of the exhibit illustrate the significance of the role the environment played in the region. For instance, the arrowhead, birch bark basket, and moccasins in the central display case illustrate how natural resources could be put to use by Indigenous peoples.

Though there were exceptional individuals who knew this place well, for much of this period, widespread European environmental knowledge was limited primarily to the coastlines and banks of major rivers, like the St. Lawrence and Hudson. According to historian William Cronon, well into the seventeenth century, Europeans “were limited to areas within a few miles of the coast or along a few major rivers.” The discrepancy between Indigenous and European geographic knowledge in the seventeenth century has led historians such as Michael Witgen to see the European’s discovery of North America as “a discursive act.” Through their writing more than through their physical presence, Europeans justified their harvesting of the region’s resources as commodities for European markets and ultimately their permanent settlement within this space. Throughout the seventeenth century, the northeast remained an Indigenous space.