Scenes about an Iroquois bark house, from a drawing by Jesse Cornplanter, a Seneca youth, 1905.

The First Peoples

The First Peoples
Shaped by Culture and Environment

For millennia, American Indians have shaped and been shaped by their culture and environment. Elders in each generation teach the next generation their values, traditions, and beliefs through their own tribal languages, social practices, arts, music, ceremonies, and customs.

Culture is a result of human socialization. People acquire knowledge and values by interacting with other people through common language, place, and community. In the Americas, there is vast cultural diversity among more than 2,000 tribal groups. Tribes have unique cultures and ways of life that span history from time immemorial to the present day.1

Today there are eight federally recognized tribes and one state recognized tribe within the boundaries of New York, all contributors to the cultural diversity of the state:


Seneca Nation of Indians | Tonawanda Band of Senecas | Cayuga Nation | Onondaga Nation | Oneida Nation | St. Regis Mohawk Tribe

Tuscarora Nation | Shinnecock Nation | Unkechaug Nation (State Recognized)2


Scenes about an Iroquois bark house, from a drawing by Jesse Cornplanter, a Seneca youth, 1905.
Scenes about an Iroquois bark house, a drawing by Jesse Cornplanter, a Seneca youth, 1905.

Image courtesy of the New York State Library, Manuscripts and Special Collections, Jesse Cornplanter Drawings (SC12845), Image 14.

1From Native Knowledge 360⁰- A National Education InitiativeSmithsonian’s National Museum of American Indian​​​​​​​

2Dr. William Starna

Diverse Cultures

Language is much more than a means of communication, it contributes to our diversity. Native Americans who live and have lived on land we today call New York, speak or have spoken many different languages.

The two families of languages are Eastern Algonquian and Northern Iroquoian. Many Native communities in the region, some of whose names were recorded by arriving Europeans in the 1600s while others were not, spoke an Eastern Algonquian language or dialect. Outside the boundaries of New Netherland were numerous central New England groups known as the Northern Indians, and to their north, the New England and St. Lawrence Algonquians. Within the boundaries of  New Netherland, beginning in the immediate vicinity of Fort Orange, were the Mahicans, speaking a language of the same name. Farther down the Hudson Valley to Manhattan, in northern New Jersey, northeastern Pennsylvania, and on western Long Island, were Munsee-speakers—the Esopus, Wappingers, Minisinks, Tappans, Raritans, Canarsees, Rockaways, and others. Near Long Island Sound and on western Long Island were speakers of Quiripi-Unquachog. Northern Iroquoian languages spoken to the west of New Netherland were Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga and Seneca (Dr. William A. Starna).

View of New England Native American Tribes.
The Native Northeast, 1600-1675.


Image credit: Image courtesy of William A. Starna’s, From Homeland to New Land: A History of the Mahican Indians, 1600-1830 (Nebraska, 2013).