Menominee Culture

The Menominee, who speak a language of the Algonkian language family, are the only present-day tribe in Wisconsin whose origin story indicates they have always lived in the state. 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."

Subsistence and Seasonality

Traditionally, the Menominee relied on hunted and gathered food resources, but also maintained small gardens of corn, beans, and squash. As mentioned above, they were known for their reliance on wild rice, and also fished intensively, especially for sturgeon. For this work, they used dugout and birchbark canoes, although dugouts were more common. Hunting was done largely by individuals or in small groups using bows and arrows, although they occasionally organized larger hunts for deer and buffalo. According to Menominee oral tradition, humans were descended from bears, so special reverence was paid to bears as well as to other animals. Women also collected a wide variety of wild plant foods, including berries, nuts, roots, and wild greens.

Settlement Pattern, Social Organization, and Kinship

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. Their lifestyle necessitated considerable mobility, with outlying camps and special purpose gathering and processing stations. From their central village, the Menominee traveled within a radius of at least 100 miles from Michigan's upper peninsula and through north-central Wisconsin. For part of the year, their seasonal cycle kept them on the move as they cycled between different harvesting areas and processing points. Their summer villages were composed of rectangular bark cabins with peaked roofs, and winter housing consisted of bark and mat-covered wigwams.

Generally speaking, the Menominee were originally organized into clans which fell into two moieties -- groups of clans -- which were named the Thunderers and the Bears. The clans were exogamous, so individuals could not marry a person of the same clan. Upon marriage, a couple usually went to live with the husband's family. Kin relations demanded respect between those called brothers and sisters (including parallel cousins -- father's brother's children and mother's sister's children) and in-laws of the opposite sex. Joking relationships existed between brothers-in-law and sisters-in-law, and between nieces, nephews, uncles, and aunts. Relationships with elders were founded on the utmost respect.

Leadership and Government

Each lineage -- a group of people related via a common ancestor -- had a lineage chief who served on a village council with other lineage chiefs. Together with the chief of the Bear moiety, who also served as the head chief, the village council regulated civil affairs where necessary. There were also other leaders who were recognized as visionaries because of their dreams or who had gained respect through their reputation in war.

Religious Life, Medicine, and Healing

For the Menominee, the earth was an island separating the upper and lower worlds, each of which represented good and evil respectively. The upper and lower worlds were also divided into layers, the furthest being the most powerful. In the upper world, the sun was at the highest level, followed by the Thunderbirds and the Morning Star, the golden eagles (symbols of war), and the other birds led by the bald eagle. In the lower world, the first level below the earth was occupied by the Horned Serpent which lived in lakes and streams and threatened to capsize boats and carry humans to the underworld. The next lowest level was the home of the White Deer, which was part of the origins of the Medicine Dance. Beneath that was the level of the Underwater Panther. At the lowest level, the Great White Bear -- said to be the ancestor of the Menominee -- lived. The earth itself was inhabited by a variety of giants and little people as well as other spiritual forces which represented the animals. 

For individuals, links with the supernatural revolved around gaining power via a relationship with a guardian spirit gained through dreaming. At puberty, boys and girls would fast for up to ten days, living isolated in a small wigwam built for that purpose. Their dreams of spirits in animal form were interpreted by shamans who delineated what responsibilities the youngster owed to the guardian spirit and what powers could be gained and held through obligation to that spirit. Throughout life, this power was protected and guarded, and through correct ways of life it grew. Elders were the most powerful in terms of spirit.

Shamans of various types maintained high levels of personal spiritual power. Some specialized in hunting charms and love medicines, while others used the shaking-tent to divine cures for patients suffering from spiritual illness. Knowledge of herbal medicines and cures was also strong. Many individuals belonged to the Medicine Lodge, which was organized to ensure good health and long life. However, not all who held power used it for good: A group of individuals who had links with more malevolent powers were said to function together as a Witches' Society.

European Contact, the Fur Trade, and Change

During the 17th and 18th centuries, 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 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. During spring and summer, they camped and gathered maple syrup, fished, planted gardens, and gathered wild rice. With these changes, the role of the clans decreased somewhat and individual families became more important within Menominee society.

At the same time, systems of leadership changed. Success in the fur trade became important, and leaders were known for their ability to get along with Whites and other tribes and lead the people in successful hunting and trapping. Instead of village councils, a tribal council formed to deal with problems which faced the dispersed bands. Contacts with other tribes were especially important to maintain productive trade relationships with other tribes, for instance to secure catlinite for pipes from the Sioux in Minnesota and dried corn and other crops from more agricultural tribes such as the Ho-Chunk.

During the 1700s, the Menominee were involved in a number of intertribal and European wars which both weakened their populations and provided them with strong allies. 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 Nineteenth Century

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 that 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 supposed to lead his tribe there, but he and other tribal leaders asserted that 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.

The reservation era brought about new challenges and disruptions. The various Menominee bands could no longer support a seasonal, dispersed band life on their new reservation, so the band leaders chose areas on the reservation and settled there with the members of their band largely living around them. Some aspects of the old dual division of the tribe still existed, but the line drawn between the groups became focused on those who were traditional versus those who had converted to Christianity. Within the traditional groups, the old divisions of Bears and Thunderers still existed. The bands, now living in different areas of the reservation and led by different individuals, also chose adaptations suited to the areas they occupied, such as farming or logging. Within traditional communities, the Medicine Lodge remained strong, and many Menominee also adopted the Dream Dance or Dream drum from Plains tribes, providing an important cohesive force within and between these communities.

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.

Change in the Twentieth Century

Life on the reservation continued to be focused on the differential adaptations of communities based on the earlier band structure. While many traditionalists worked in the logging operations, others continued to hunt and fish. Having settled on a reservation which was largely forested, harvesting wild rice declined, and some traveled to Minnesota or other areas for the late summer to gather rice there. Others developed ways of life which allowed them to work as seasonal laborers picking fruit in Wisconsin and Michigan and to organize performances for tourists. To some extent, population on the reservation tended to focus in the larger towns of Neopit and Keshena.

Religious and social changes also occurred during the 20th century. While traditional Menominee religion remained strong in some communities such as Zoar, the Peyote religion was also introduced in 1914 by a Potawatomi missionary and the Warrior's Dance or Brave Dance -- a Menominee tradition which had fallen out of use -- was reintroduced in 1925 from the Ojibwe. Like traditional religion, these carried with them sets of obligations for particular kinds of behaviors and strengthened those who practiced them.

Tribal government also operated during the first half of the twentieth century through a tribal council and other interest groups. A tribal constitution was adopted in 1928, actually preceding the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934 which allowed tribes to maintain their own governments. In 1951, the tribe received $8.5 million from the federal government as compensation for losses due to mismanagement of their logging operations in the 1890s. 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 Menominees 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.