The history and culture of the Algonquin Tribe 

Not to be confused with the Algonquian-speaking tribes of the northeast, the Algonquin tribe refers to the Native American and First Nation people group that inhabited northern Michigan and southern Canada. 

While the Algonquin tribe is very similar to their neighboring tribes, the Innu and the Ojibwa, they are unique in their own right. 

If you’re curious and want to know more about the Algonquin tribe, you’ve come to the right place. 

Many Native American groups we’ve looked at recently are from the US, but the Algonquins are as much a Canadian First Nation group as they are Native American. We’ll discuss those details and much more in the article to follow. 

 Colonist Roger Williams meets with members of the Narragansett tribe.

What Does Algonquin Mean? 

While Algonquin and Algonquian might sound similar, they don’t mean the same thing. Algonquian refers to a collection of more than 20 different tribes who spoke the Algonquian dialect. 

The Algonquins were one of these tribes. They spoke the Algonquian dialect but didn’t heavily associate themselves with other Algonquian tribes. 

The exact meaning of the word Algonquin is unclear, as is the origin of the word. The consensus, however, is that it comes from a Malecite word that means “they are our relatives.” 

Because of this meaning, many think that the Algonquins were part of a larger group of people, which could have been the Algonquians. 

While the Malecite word from which Algonquin is derived has a meaning related to family and relatives, Algonquin itself means something entirely different. 

Most people believe that Algonquin means “at the place of spearing fishes and eels from the bow of a canoe,” while others say it means “those that are dancing.” 

Where Did the Algonquins Originate From? 

While we don’t know where the Algonquin word or meaning originated from, we do know where the Algonquin tribe originated from. 

For an estimated 8,000 years before European colonization, the Algonquin tribe was spread out along the Ottawa River in northern Michigan and southern Quebec and Ontario. 

While Michigan used to have a larger population of Algonquin, they were eventually driven completely into Canada by the Iroquois Confederation. 

Therefore, while the Algonquins played a small part in American history, they are more significant and well-documented in Canadian history. 

Because of their fluid lifestyles and culture, the Algonquin tribe lived across vast swaths of land in the Ottawa Valley. Before Quebec and Ontario became individual provinces, the Algonquin moved freely across the Ottawa River and lived on both sides. 

While they still live in both Ontario and Quebec, movement is much less fluid, and the tribe is split between the two provinces. 

What was the Algonquin Culture Like? 

Like most other Algonquian-speaking tribes, the Algonquins didn’t have a centralized form of government.

 Instead, the tribe consisted of many smaller clans or bands that had their own civil chiefs and war chiefs. 

These clans were self-ruling and lived a semi-nomadic lifestyle where they could move entire villages if necessary. 

Unlike many other Algonquian-speaking tribes, the Algonquins were patriarchal in nature rather than matriarchal. As a result, the individual bands or clans divided themselves according to relations on the father’s side of the family rather than the mother’s side. 

Each clan lived together in its own longhouse, usually measuring between 40 and 200 feet in length, depending on the size of the clan. 

If multiple clans lived together in the same village, there were multiple longhouses, each one housing a different clan. 

As was the case with most other Native American and First Nation tribes at the time, the Algonquin subsisted mostly on hunting, fishing, gathering, and farming. 

While they planted a number of crops, the Algonquin were best known for cultivating maize, aka corn. Because the possible meaning of Algonquin has to do with eels and fishing, it’s presumable that fishing played a major role in the Algonquin culture and economy. 

The Algonquins in the 16th and 17th Centuries 

The first documented contact that the Algonquins made with European settlers was with Samuel de Champlain in 1603. De Champlain was a French explorer and fur trader who set up the first permanent French settlement on the St. Lawrence River. 

Contact between the French and Algonquin was peaceful and civilized enough that Algonquin scouts accompanied French explorers during future expeditions. 

The Algonquins used this relationship with the French to their advantage in the near future when fur trading became a major economic factor. 

The Algonquin quickly became a prominent player in the fur trade thanks to its proximity to the Ottawa River, Quebec, Ontario, and Michigan. The fur trade and the corn trade helped the Algonquins survive and thrive during periods of uncertainty in the 1600s. 

How War Tore Them Apart 

Life was looking good for the Algonquins up until the 1620s when war and fighting tore their people apart. It all started when the Algonquin and a neighboring tribe invaded two tribes that were members of the Iroquois Confederacy. 

That started nearly 80 years of fighting, known as the Beaver Wars. During that time, there was frequent fighting between the Algonquin and neighboring Iroquois tribes. 

The Algonquin’s numbers were further depleted when a large chunk of the tribe converted to Christianity and left the Ottawa Valley. Because of depleted numbers and a deteriorating relationship with their French allies, the Algonquin were driven further and further north by the Iroquois Confederacy. 

The Algonquin tribe continued to partner with France in the future during the French and Indian War and then sided with the British during the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812. 

The Algonquins Today

While the Algonquins had a long journey through history, most of their surviving tribe members have settled back where their journey began in the Ottawa Valley.

 There are currently an estimated 8,000 Algonquin tribe members, all of which live in Quebec and Ontario. 

Of those 8,000, 5,000 live on ten different First Nation reservations, and the remaining 3,000 are scattered throughout Canada.  

Despite their long, troubled history, the Algonquin remains one of the proudest First Nation tribes in Canada. Each reservation has its form of government and is self-sufficient. 

Their settlement areas are also significant employers and houses of non-Algonquin people living in the area. 

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Scroll to Top