Economic activities, trade networks, waterways

Questions to ask yourself:  

What was life like before the arrival of the Europeans?

What you will be able to do:

Know the economic activities practiced by Indigenous peoples.

Describe trade relationships.

Explain the importance of waterways.


Iroquoians growing the “three sisters”: corn, squash and beans] © New York State Museum. 

Engage by comparing ways of life:

What do the two documents suggest would have been different about the daily life of the two peoples represented?

Different groups practiced different types of economic activities

Economic activities differed depending on the way of life of the people or peoples in question.  And this (as we have seen before) often changes depending on location and the land around them, and the available resources,  the climate, etc.

Iroquoians-speaking peoples were generally sedentary, and they lived in fertile lowland areas.  It follows then that their main economic activity was the production of agricultural products.  While the more nomadic Algonquian-speaking peoples were involved in the creation of craft materials, or any tools that made their lives easier.  Though both peoples made many tools that they used to improve their daily lives.

Texts based on scripts by Matt Russell

Images and copyright information at Algonquian Image Gallery at  Algonquian Image Bank – Societies and Territories 

Images and copyright information at Iroquoian  Image Gallery at Iroquois around 1500 Image Bank – Societies and Territories 

Uneven distribution of resources led to trade

Since resources were not equally available everywhere,  many trade relationships developed, and large trade networks crisscrossed the entire continent and possibly beyond.  

An economic interconnectedness existed, occasionally including crafted items, but especially involving the transfer of raw materials.  

Amongst the raw materials that were in great demand but were not available everywhere were obsidian, copper, silica, shell beads used in wampum.  And amongst the manufactured goods that were traded, (i.e. beyond the occasional pipe or pot that was exchanged too) there were even some Asian goods that may have found their way across the ocean and along these same routes into places even before the Europeans arrived.  And what of the possibility of early between Vikings and the Dorset hunters or the Beothuk!

Texts based on scripts by Matt Russell

Source: U.S. Geological Survey  List of Illustrations PP 144  at  Copyright status unknown.

Early trade networks  (Obsidian Trade).  Part of old animation originally available via

The Canadian Atlas Online - Early trade networks - Historical Atlas of Canada 

China's Qing Dynasty [Credit: James Mooney/Ecofor Consulting Ltd] Source

Trade was important to many aspects of everyday life

Many features of Indigenous societies were affected by the interaction and trade between the local tribe or nation and other nations.  

Alliances were sealed through trade and trading relationships.  However, remember that the acquisition of goods was not done in order to accumulated wealth.  As we saw in previous sections, the exchange of goods in and of itself resulted in prestige, as it often proved the ability of one leader to give gifts to the other.  And as above, exchange was sometimes required to fill certain needs.

The method used for trade amongst most Indigenous people was bartering, where one trades one good for service for another. "The Algonquian speaking people, who hunted and fished, exchanged skins, fur, and meat with other nations who did not have any. In exchange, they received, especially from the Iroquoians, agricultural products such as corn, squash, beans and tobacco."  These exchanges gave rise to various "bartering languages" or common or mixtures of languages used for trade, including the Southwestern Ojibwe dialect which dominated around the great lakes and in Southern Ontario (Source), and the later use of Michif by the Métis (Source) in the west when the French were involved. 

Texts by Matt Russell and Paul Rombough, and by RECITUS via /societies/algonquians-around-1500/bartering/  and/societies/iroquois-around-1500/bartering-trading-between-nations/  and other sources as indicated.

Trade was carried out through waterways

Trade was carried out through a well-known system of waterways that were essentially the highways of early North America.  These networks were built on the interconnectedness of lakes and river systems, and these water routes allowed for goods to be transported from one community to another in an easy fashion.

"How did they travel long distances? The Iroquoian people used the many rivers that crisscrossed their territory. Thanks to the birch bark canoes that the men made, they could travel just about anywhere. Just like with snowshoes, their canoes differed slightly from one nation to the next. The Hurons, for example, used birch bark, while the Iroquois mostly used elm, because there was no birch on their territory. As a result, their boats did not have the same qualities."

Texts by Matt Russell and Paul Rombough, and by RECITUS via/societies/iroquois-around-1500/getting-around-in-iroquoia-rivers-and-forest-trails/ 

Note:  Above page sections are under construction. 

While student texts and other media are being produced and organized, browse  our larger curation of available online documents and suggested teacher strategies.   

2018 version - Origins to 1608 -- (#4) Indigenous peoples & Colonization (Economic activities, trade networks, waterways)
Indigenous Peoples - Hyperdoc shared by C. Clarke. (LBPSB)

Indigenous Peoples' Experience  

To help students to review the various territories of Indigenous groups who lived (and still live!) in the Québec-area before the arrival of the Europeans, consider using parts or all of the Google Slide deck:  Indigenous Peoples - Hyperdoc shared by C. Clarke. (LBPSB)

See also available RECITUS tasks and document collections:

Indigenous territory before the arrival of Europeans  Go to site

The Society of the Iroquoians  Go to site

The Algonquian Society  Go to site