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Native American culture of the Northeast

Hopewellian culture dominated the Northeast region from 200 BCE to 500 CE, where Native American groups began large-scale three-sister farming and republican political projects.


  • Northeastern Native Americans began to rely primarily on agriculture during the Hopewellian period, from 200 BCE to 500 CE.
  • “Three-sister” farming of squash, beans, and corn established more permanent and larger villages throughout the Ohio River Valley.
  • The Iroquois League, an agreement established between five Iroquoian-speaking groups in the late 1300s, curbed intertribal violence.

Geographic and temporal setting: the Hopewellian period

The geographic area of the Native American Northeast extends from the province of Quebec in modern-day Canada, through the Ohio River Valley, and down to the North Carolina coast. The Northeastern landscape is dominated by the Appalachian Mountains, which include rolling hills and prominent peaks.
Native Americans settled extensively in this area, especially during the Hopewellian period from 200 BCE to 500 CE, due to the temperate climate, accessible waterways, and good farming conditions. The most notable groups in this area include the Algonquians, Iroquois, Susquehannocks, Mohicans, and Hurons.
A map depicting the divide between Iroquois (left) and Algonquian (right) peoples in modern New York. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

Common food practices: a shift towards three-sister farming

The Hopewellian period included the cultural shift from hunting and gathering to budding agricultural systems. Some historians estimate that Native Americans were farming squash in Illinois as early as 5000 BCE. Corn farming spread through trading networks to the Ohio River Valley from the Southwest by 350 BCE. They soon began to plant and grow beans.
Together, the corn, squash, and beans, became known as the sacred "three sisters,” a term coined by the Iroquois people. According to the Iroquois, the three crops would only thrive if planted close together.
Algonquians retained hunting and gathering as a source of food while beginning to farm. Women would gather berries and cultivate the cornfields, while men would hunt and occasionally aid in farming. Northeastern indigenous people living near rivers would fish salmon and collect shellfish, as well. With an abundance of food, Iroquois and Hurons made intricate pottery to store the surplus. They also wove baskets to aid in the farming process.
Print showing Iroquois women harvesting the three sisters. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

Societal structure: villages and communities

All “three sisters” quickly became cash crops, a crop in high demand by Native Americans on the Plains and West Coast who were eager to trade. They received large shells, pearls, copper, and silver in return for the foods. Groups within the region would trade food and commodities with other Northeastern peoples, depending on their area’s niche good. For example, the Susquehannocks of Pennsylvania traded wampum beads for nets and furs from the Hurons of the Great Lakes region.
Indigenous people in the Northeast generally lived in villages with a few hundred residents. Hochelaga, modern-day Montreal, was inhabited by several thousand people and surrounded by extensive cornfields. In agricultural Hopewellian societies, men planted and harvested, while women worked in the home, took care of the children, and processed the crops.
Hopewellian culture began the tradition of mound-building, which would extend down to the Southeast into the next century. Throughout the Ohio River Valley, Native Americans built mounds in the earth, which may have served burial and ceremonial purposes. Large mounds and animal-shaped earthworks still exist throughout this area today.
Hopewell mounds in modern Ohio, now part of the Mound City Group National Monument. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

Social and religious norms: establishing alliances and democratic principles

As the Northeast became more agricultural, the region became more urbanized. Although we consider agricultural areas less densely-populated today, farming required people to live together in fortified villages to protect their harvests. Many indigenous people in the Northeast lived in longhouses, dwellings up to 100 feet in length. Since Algonquians farmed while also maintaining hunting and fishing, they “commuted” from less permanent villages of wigwams. But as certain groups, like the Iroquois, began having farming and thereby trading success, intertribal violence intensified.
A depiction of the traditional Iroquois longhouse. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Trade competition led to ongoing conflict between the Iroquois and Algonquians. In hopes of ending intertribal conflict, the Mohawks, Oneidas, Onondagas, Cayugas, and Senecas established the Iroquois League, or the Great League of Peace between 1100 and 1400 CE. During this time period, the Iroquoians met for about a year to devise a solution to this cyclic pattern of violence and retribution between tribes.
The Iroquois League devised a system in which each member group could maintain a level of autonomy over local affairs, but the League would unite over trade policies and diplomacy issues. The Iroquois League put forth republican principles, and a dual system of federalism, or balancing local and national powers, for the first time in North America. Therefore, many historians argue that the Iroquois League was the first American democracy, established at least four hundred years earlier than the US Constitution of 1787.

What do you think?

How did agriculture contribute to the settlement types of indigenous people in the Northeast?
Make your own hypothesis about why Native American communities constructed mounds. Draw a connection to relevant historical evidence.
How does the political organization of Iroquois League resemble the United States of America? What is different and what is the same?

Want to join the conversation?

  • leaf blue style avatar for user batman
    Are American Indians still around?
    (53 votes)
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  • starky seedling style avatar for user meimeimeyer
    How big was the war between the Native American tribes? (The one they mentioned in the article)
    (19 votes)
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    • old spice man green style avatar for user Jonathan Ziesmer
      Inter-tribal warfare, before the interference of Europeans, was mostly symbolical.
      Very few combatants died. It wasn't a goal to kill your enemy, just to prove that you and your tribe was stronger and force the enemy to leave the area.
      However, after the Europeans came and introduced guns and a new political factor, some conflicts became much more deadly. For example, the Iroquois almost completely wiped out the Hurons.
      I hope this helps!
      (44 votes)
  • female robot amelia style avatar for user vashti17carl
    Are there still mounds all around the United States?
    (15 votes)
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  • blobby green style avatar for user Michael James Haley
    Is it possible that mound-building was used as a technique to hide crops from opposing tribes?
    (12 votes)
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    • male robot donald style avatar for user Tyler Devoe
      I've never thought about the mounds in that sense, but I can definitely see how that could somehow work. Maybe, but from my research it seems they were mainly for ceremonial purposes and burials. Given the lack of information about them it would be pretty funny if they were made for that general purpose. I believe It would be easier to just build a fence if that was their goal! XD
      (12 votes)
  • winston baby style avatar for user Bella
    In paragraph "1" what does BCE stand for?
    (4 votes)
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    • male robot johnny style avatar for user AmericanBoy660
      BC it known as Before Christ BCE stands for Before Common Era The letters CE or BCE in conjunction with a year mean after or before year 1. CE is an abbreviation for Common Era.
      BCE is short for Before Common Era. What is relatively new is that more and more countries and their educational institutions have officially replaced the traditional abbreviations AD/BC with CE/BCE.

      England and Wales introduced the CE/BCE system into the official school curriculum in 2002, and Australia followed in 2011. More and more textbooks in the United States also use CE/BCE, as well as history tests issued by the US College Board.

      Hope this Helps!
      (6 votes)
  • duskpin sapling style avatar for user Duskflight
    Why was the Hopewellian period called the Hopewellian period
    (5 votes)
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    • aqualine tree style avatar for user David Alexander
      There's a place which, after European invaders arrived, became named "Hopewell" (European invaders didn't care what earlier people had called it, they just gave places their own names.) Eventually, traces of an earlier culture were found there. These traces were called, "Hopewellian" after the European name of the place where they were found. When other, similar, traces of early cultures were found, these were lumped into the name given to the original discovery.

      It happens like that when invaders and settler colonists arrive.
      (11 votes)
  • piceratops seed style avatar for user Joshua Antony
    It's really fascinating to see how the Native American tribes functioned in the pre-Columbus world. The Iroquois Confederacy is especially amazing. They had a constitution, a federal system of government, representative democracy. Their union's most important roles were foreign policy and national defense, much like the Articles of Confederation and the subsequent Constitution.
    Their Great Law of Peace even outlined the importance of property, which America's founders greatly valued, with how it outlined leaving a stick in a certain way to indicate a building or a house was yours and no one could enter even though you were not actually there.

    There's so much to Native American history that hasn't been widely taught before and I am so happy to be learning about it! I never knew they were this advanced and complex. The Iroquois Confederacy formed as a democracy in the 1100s when the rest of the world was still totalitarian feudal monarchies!
    (7 votes)
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  • blobby green style avatar for user Kay.Kay30
    Why are there so many articles? COuldn't the teacher just put the information in videos because this is a LOT.
    (3 votes)
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    • aqualine tree style avatar for user David Alexander
      Dear Kay.Kay,
      Articles are easy to produce, and don't cost much more than paying the writer, the editor, and the typist. Videos are more complicated and cost more. If you can find a rich donor who will contribute enough to Khan Academy for the purpose of changing these articles to videos, perhaps that could be done. So, now, go out and find that rich donor, and point them in the direction that you want them to go.
      (5 votes)
  • blobby green style avatar for user Alexander lee smith jr.
    i feel bad that native americans and afican americans got treated bad just because the color of there skin
    (5 votes)
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  • blobby green style avatar for user AlanysDP
    About how many miles long was the area dominated by taiping forces in the early period?
    (3 votes)
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