Menominee History

Early Life in Wisconsin

The Menominee, an Algonkian-speaking people, are the only present-day tribe in Wisconsin whose origin story indicates they have always lived in Wisconsin. The Menominee refer to themselves as Mamaceqtaw (pronounced ma-ma-chay-tau), meaning "the people." Other Indians called them Menominee (also spelled Menomini), derived from manomin -- an Algonkian word for wild rice -- because it is a major food source for the tribe. The Menominee lived around Green Bay when the French explorer Jean Nicolet arrived there in 1634. The French called the Menominee Folles Avoines --  "the wild oats people." Prior to the coming of the French, the Menominee settled in village sites at the mouth of the Menominee River. Their main village, called Menekaunee, was located near present-day Marinette, Wisconsin.

After Nicolet's visit, Indian tribes from southern Michigan fled to Wisconsin because of the encroachment of Iroquois tribes from New York. The Iroquois sought to monopolize rich Midwestern fur-bearing lands, and sent war parties as far west as the Mississippi. The Menominee did not have direct contact with the Iroquois but, along with other refugee tribes, they suffered starvation, disease, and intertribal warfare, thus reducing their population.

In 1667, the French began to trade for furs with the Menominee. This encouraged the Menominee to abandon their large permanent villages and instead live in bands that spent spring and summer in semi-permanent villages of several hundred people. By the early 1800s, Menominee villages existed along the Fox, Wolf, and Oconto Rivers, Lake Winnebago, Green Bay, and even as far west as the Wisconsin River. In the winter months, the Menominee dispersed into small winter hunting camps to gather furs to trade for guns, knives, cloth, metal cooking utensils, and other European goods. Besides traders, the French also sent Jesuit missionaries among the Menominee. In 1669, the Jesuits established the mission of St. François Xavier at Green Bay and two years later moved it to nearby DePere.

Wars of the Midwest

In the early 1700s, the Fox (or Mesquaki) Indians rose up against French authority in Wisconsin. The Menominee sided with the French against the Fox during what are known as the Fox Wars. Jesuit missionaries left the area in 1728, but French soldiers and traders remained in Wisconsin throughout the 1700s. The Menominees retained strong ties to the French and fought alongside them during the French and Indian War. Having lost the war, the French gave up Canada and the Midwest to Great Britain in 1763. Many Great Lakes tribes did not want the British to replace the French as the colonial overlords. The Ottawa chief Pontiac at Detroit led a general uprising against the British in 1763, and sent envoys to the Menominee to ask them to join him. The Menominee refused and became allies of the British.

The Menominee, like most tribes in Wisconsin, fought alongside the British during the American Revolution. The United States won the war and gained possession of the Midwest, including Wisconsin. Despite this, the Menominee maintained strong ties to British and French traders in Canada. When Tenskwatawa (the Shawnee Prophet) began preaching his doctrine of resistance to American encroachment in 1805, some Menominee traveled to Ohio to hear his teachings. His brother, Tecumseh, assembled a pan-Indian military force to fight the Americans. Tomah, one of the most influential Menominee chiefs, refused to support Tecumseh, but did not stop other Menominee from joining Tecumseh and the British against the United States during the War of 1812. This was the final war for control of the Midwest, and the United States gained undisputed sovereignty over the region.


The Menominee were initially reluctant to make peace with the United States, but finally did so in 1817. Soon afterward, the Menominee became embroiled in a disagreement with the Oneida, Stockbridge-Munsee, and Brothertown Indians. These three tribes emigrated from New York to escape settler encroachment. With the federal government's sanction, the New York tribes negotiated two treaties with the Menominee and Ho-Chunk for lands in Wisconsin. The first, in 1821, ceded a small tract along the Fox River, but the second in 1822 ceded over 6.7 million acres.

The Menominee and Ho-Chunk later argued these agreements were invalid because they had not been informed of all of the treaties' provisions. Between 1831 and 1832, the federal government negotiated three new treaties, which ceded about 3.5 million acres of Menominee land. While some of this land went to the three New York tribes, the United States retained a significant portion.

In two subsequent treaties, the 1836 Treaty of the Cedars and the 1848 Treaty of Lake Poygan, the Menominee sold their remaining lands to the United States. In exchange, the government offered them about 600,000 acres along the Crow Wing River in Minnesota. Oshkosh, the Grand Chief of the Menominees, was to lead his tribe there, but he and other tribal leaders asserted they had signed the 1848 Treaty under pressure. In 1852, the President allowed the Menominee to stay on a temporary reservation on the Wolf River in northeastern Wisconsin. An 1854 treaty made this quarter-million acre reservation permanent, and in 1856, about 46,000 acres in the reservation's southwest corner were granted to the Stockbridge-Munsee.

Government Policies

The reservation era brought about new challenges and disruptions. In the 1860s, epidemics of smallpox, dysentery, and other diseases introduced from Europe killed hundreds of Menominee. White-owned logging companies, known as the "Pine Ring," coveted rich reservation timber. The Pine Ring received federal permission to harvest dead and downed trees on the reservation, but illegally cut standing timber as well. By 1872, the Menominee gained temporary federal permission to harvest and sell their own timber. This soon became a success, but the Pine Ring continued their efforts to purchase tribal timber lands. To protect Menominee forests, Congress made a permanent provision in 1890 for the Menominee to harvest their timber under government supervision. Waste, inefficiency, and fraud marred the effort and the Menominee lost substantial revenues. In 1951, the tribe received $8.5 million from the federal government as compensation for these losses.

Within three years of this decision, the Menominee became one of the first tribes in the United States to undergo a new federal program called Termination, signed by President Dwight Eisenhower in June of 1954. This policy terminated the United States jurisdiction over the Menominee Tribe and ended their tribal sovereignty. The Menominee underwent Termination early because the federal government felt the tribe possessed the economic resources necessary to succeed without governmental supervision. On April 30, 1961, the reservation ceased to exist and became Menominee County. All tribal property and assets were held by Menominee Enterprises, Incorporated.

All federal services ended with the assumption that the tribe could service itself. The reservation hospital at Keshena closed due to the lack of federal funds. Only one other tribe, the Klamath in Oregon, had been terminated by Congress, and the problems that they and the Menominee faced convinced other tribes to resist the government's policy. Termination of the Menominee Tribe led to a drastic decline in tribal employment, increased poverty, and brought about devastating reductions in basic services and health care.

The Menominee's greatest fear was that without federal protection, their tribal lands would pass into the hands of non-Indians. In 1970, a few Menominee banded together and created the Determination of Rights and Unity for Menominee Shareholders (DRUMS) group, which sought to end termination and restore the Menominee status as a federally recognized tribe. Under the direction of Ada Deer, a Menominee woman, DRUMS pushed for the restoration of the Menominee federal status. On December 22, 1973, President Richard M. Nixon signed the Menominee Restoration Bill into law. In April 1975, the lands of Menominee County reverted back to reservation status, and in 1976, the Menominee approved their new tribal constitution. The new tribal legislature took over governance of the tribe in 1979.