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Subsistence Patterns

Charles E. Cleland
Atlas of Great Lakes Indian History

Living off the land
Thousands of years ago the ancestors of today’s Native Americans filtered into the Great Lakes Region, took up the challenge of adapting to a wilderness untouched by humans, and learned how to survive.

In the seventeenth century, Native People of the Great Lakes relied on the natural world around them for subsistence, as they had for centuries. They fished with spears, gaffs, hooks and lines, weirs, seines, and gill nets. Fish primarily sustained the Ojibwe (Chippewa), Ottawa, and Hurons living at the southern end of Lake Superior and northern shores of Lakes Michigan and Huron. Fish were eaten fresh or preserved by smoking and freezing. They were also used as a trade item. Note the areas of intensive fishing in bright blue and areas of inshore fishing in lighter blue.

North of the Great Lakes, hunting for moose and deer was the main form of subsistence.

Wild rice was the mainstay of Native People west of Lake Michigan and south and west of Lake Superior.

Corn, beans, and squash became mainstays in the diet of those Native People living in lower Ontario, southern Michigan, and Wisconsin, and in southeastern Minnesota. The line on the insert shows the approximate limits of subsistence by cultivation around A.D. 1000. South of this line, the land was frost-free at least 140 days of the year.