What is a Tribe?

A tribe is an Indian group which possesses certain qualities and characteristics that make it a unique cultural, social, and political entity.

The nature of what constitutes an Indian tribe and the very nature of tribes have changed considerably over the course of centuries, but certain characteristics have remained.

Cultural Bonds

When Europeans first encountered Woodland Indians, what bound tribes together was probably more cultural than political. Tribes had common languages, customs, rituals, social organizations, and religious beliefs. Europeans saw tribes much as they saw their own nations of France, Spain, and England, but, unlike European nations which were generally unified politically, North American tribes tended be less structured. Tribes were often (but not always) composed of generally autonomous and independent bands and villages. Although the people of these bands and villages shared common languages and cultures, Indian tribes seldom had permanent political structures that unified them throughout the year. Instead, there were mechanisms which brought together the people of different bands or villages for particular purposes, such as spring fishing, ceremonial and religious gatherings, trade, and the like.

Through these gatherings, different bands and villages created bonds with one another which were necessary in hard times or which could be called upon for defense against a common foe. During the times when tribes came together, different structures operated to bring the people together, including councils of village or band chiefs who met together or ceremonial groups with members from all of the constituent bands or villages. At other times of the year, villages and bands were largely independent of one another. Many of these structures and organizations depended on whether the people were agricultural or whether they lived largely by hunting and gathering wild foods.

Councils and Villages

This pattern of autonomy and cooperation is particularly true of the tribes in Wisconsin. Little is known about them before they made contact with Europeans, but some, such as the Menominee, appeared to live in large, autonomous villages, while the Ho-Chunk may have lived in a single, politically unified village. These structures changed rapidly after the Indians began to trade with Europeans. To acquire the furs that French and later British and American traders desired, the Indians began to spread out into smaller, more mobile villages. Each village was independent, but when they found it necessary, all of the leaders from each village would come together in a tribal council to make decisions. This tribal council constituted the governing body of the tribe, but it usually lacked the power to compel the individual communities to follow a uniform course of action. Indeed, its success as governing body depended upon the voluntary cooperation of all the independent villages, and if a community did not want to follow the policies of the tribal council, it did not do so.

The Ho-Chunk provide an excellent example. In 1827, the Ho-Chunk village at LaCrosse attempted to lead an uprising against the United States, but only attracted those Ho-Chunk who lived in villages along the Wisconsin River. Ho-Chunk communities along the Fox and Rock rivers decided not to join their brethren to the north and west. In other situations, threat of invasion by another tribe often became the impetus for tribal villages to unite in concerted action. From the 1730s to the 1850s, for example, Ojibwe communities of northern Wisconsin and upper Michigan often came together to fight the Santee Dakota (also called the Sioux) of Minnesota.

Political Change

When the United States made treaties with Indians, it made them with entire tribes, and this had significant political impacts on the tribes. Leaders from all of the tribe's different villages and communities would come together to negotiate the treaty. As they had more and more dealings with the federal government, tribal governing bodies slowly came to have more power, especially since the United States preferred to work with a single governing body rather than many. Chief Oshkosh of the Menominee, for example, was made the Grand Sachem (or chief) of all of the Menominees in 1827 because the United States wanted to deal with a single person in treaty councils, and federal officials persuaded all Menominee villages to recognize Oshkosh's authority.

Once they became confined to reservations, tribes tended to coalesce into political as well as cultural bodies. In the case of the Menominee, the various villages and bands all moved to their reservation along the Wolf River after 1856 and, in the process, the local Menominee communities that once stretched from Green Bay to the Wisconsin River ceased to exist. The United States continued to deal with the Menominee as single political unit, and the tribe developed a single tribal council that came to be the governing authority for the entire tribe.

Separate Ojibwe Reservations

This was not the case for all of the Wisconsin tribes. The Ojibwe continued to maintain six different locations in Wisconsin, and to this day the six Ojibwe bands in Wisconsin (Mole Lake, Lac du Flambeau, Lac Courte Oreilles, Red Cliff, Bad River, and St. Croix) are all independent of one other and from Ojibwe bands in Michigan, Minnesota, North Dakota, Montana, and Canada. Nevertheless, the Ojibwe are still a single tribe in the sense that they continue to share a common culture, language, customs, and history. Other tribes are split politically and consider themselves separate tribes. Part of the Oneida continue to reside in New York, while others live in Wisconsin and Ontario. Part of the Ho-Chunk moved to Nebraska in the 1800s, and they are independent of the Wisconsin Ho-Chunk.

U.S. Recognition

While tribes should first be thought of as cultural entities rather than political ones since they are united by ties of culture, language, and common origins, the term tribe also means something politically with respect to relations with the U.S. government. To qualify as a tribe in relations with the U.S., the federal government must recognize the right of an Indian tribe to exist as a sovereign entity. This means that the tribe and the United States maintain a government-to-government relationship with one another. Those groups who have had treaties or other long-term political relationships with the federal government have been recognized as tribes for many years, while others can qualify through a process called federal recognition or federal acknowledgment to be recognized as tribes which retain their sovereignty in the view of the U.S. government. In Wisconsin, the only Indian group which is not recognized as a sovereign tribe is the Brothertown Tribe.