Photograph by Nathan Benn, Corbis via Getty Images
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Many tribal members lived in longhouses that looked like this replica. The man’s headdress, called a gustoweh, has one trailing eagle feather to represent the Cayuga tribe.
Photograph by Nathan Benn, Corbis via Getty Images

Native People of the American Northeast

Get facts and photos about the history and culture


People began settling in the Northeast region of North America thousands of years ago, after their ancestors traveled east from Alaska, around the Great Lakes, and eventually ended up along the Atlantic coast. They built their homes near lakes, rivers, and streams, and navigated these waterways in canoes made of hollowed-out logs or bark from birch trees.

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Today Wampanoag people reenact their ancestors’ lives as part of a living exhibit in Plimouth Plantation in Massachusetts.


Each tribe had clan groups that were named after an animal: The Turtle, Snipe, Bear, Heron, and Wolf clans of the Cayuga (pronounced ky-YOO-gah) tribe still exist today. Members would put their clan animal on pottery and clothing, and they sometimes drew the animal to use like a signature.

A clan could have a hundred members, who’d spend most of the year living together in a hundred-foot-long bark house. During summer, many clans moved closer to the coast or to large lakes where they could fish. To stay cool, they lived in dome-shaped shelters called wigwams, which were made of young trees, bark, and cattails.

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These wampum beads were carved from quahog and whelk shells.

Tribes that lived only on the coast—including the Micmac (pronounced MIK-mak) and Pequot (pronounced PEE-kwot)—often ate meat from clams and sea snails, then pounded and polished the shells into beads called wampum. (Purple beads were especially prized because shells of that color were more rare.) They could then trade these beads with members of inland tribes for furs and food.


When Europeans began to arrive in the 1600s, they often fought with tribal members over land. Tribes sometimes made treaties with these immigrants to cease fighting, and these agreements moved the Native Americans to land called reservations—but those areas were often far from their original homes. Today many tribal members choose to live on reservations, where they have their own governments and support themselves with businesses such as forestry and blueberry farming.

Many tribes are working to protect the natural resources of the land that they live on. For instance, the Maliseet (pronounced MAL-uh-seet) people are working to protect bald eagles, and the Penobscot (pronounced puh-NOB-skot) people are active in helping endangered Atlantic salmon.