How the Environment Influenced the Organization of Native American Societies

The environment in which a child lives—her parents, friends, and neighborhood—greatly impacts who that child will become. In the same way, the environment in which a society is placed influences the development of that society. Native American societies varied according to the type of ecosystem, or environment, a tribe inhabited.

Native American economies were greatly affected by their ecosystems, and thus their ability to plant and grow food. The tribes migrated toward food and water during the different seasons. These changes in climate caused the people to find methods that helped them adjust to their environments.

Different ecosystems made different methods of survival necessary. In a fragile ecosystem like the one the Northern Algonquians inhabited, a hunter and gatherer technique was used. Societies would fish and gather food in the spring and summer while hunting during the winter. For these Native Americans, late winter and early spring became the time of hunger. This ecosystem was easy to alter due to the few animals and plants. As a result, the tribes needed to be small and very mobile. The Northern Algonquians’ small villages led to a less complex society compared to other tribes.

In contrast to the fragile ecosystem, sturdy ecosystems like the one in which the Iroquois lived had a greater variety of plants and animals. The Iroquois established an agricultural society. They planted in the spring, harvested in the fall, and hunted during winter. Their fertile ecosystem allowed them to grow a variety of foods and contributed to their ability to set up more permanent communities. 

The agricultural Iroquois were able to establish more complex social organizations than the hunter and gatherer societies. Within an Iroquois village were households which consisted of a number of families together in a long house. The Iroquois ecosystem provided more authority for women because women were responsible for the planting and harvest and most of the society’s nourishment came from the women’s work. In contrast, in the Northern Algonquian tribe the men were more valued because they hunted and hunting was their society’s main source of food. Within both of these ecosystems Native Americans shared land but individuals could own food they produced or gathered.

The political organization of the Iroquois also gave women power because of their harvesting skills. In the Iroquois League, women chose the male members of the councils which governed the tribes. The society remained in the control of men, however, so that no women became chiefs. Fragile ecosystems did not allow for as much female authority in their government. Each Native American society provided different methods of growing food, social and political organization depending on the environment in which the people lived.


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