Potawatomi Culture

Potawatomi speak a language of the Algonkian language family and have lived in the Great Lakes region for at least four centuries. Throughout their history, the Potawatomi have moved and been moved many times, but their aboriginal territory was in Michigan’s lower peninsula. Oral traditions of the Potawatomi, Ojibwe, and Ottawa assert that at one time, all three tribes were one people who lived at the Straits of Mackinac. From there, they split off into three separate groups, and the Potawatomi were "Keepers of the Sacred Fire." As such, they were the leading tribe of the alliance the three Indian nations formed after separating from one another. Linguistic, archaeological, and historical evidence confirms that the Potawatomi, Ojibwe, and Ottawa descended from a common ethnic origin; the three languages are almost identical. In their own language, the word Potawatomi means "Keepers of the Sacred Fire," but they call themselves Neshnabek, which means "the True People."

Subsistence and Seasonality

Traditionally, the Potawatomi relied on hunted, fished, and gathered food resources in the summer but also maintained substantial gardens of corn, beans, and squash. Women also collected a wide variety of wild plant foods, including berries, nuts, roots, and wild greens. Men also planted and grew tobacco. Hunting was done largely by individuals or in small groups using bows and arrows, and deer, elk, and beaver were the most common hunted species. In late fall, the people dispersed in smaller groups and moved to their winter hunting territories, making camp in valleys which sheltered them from winter weather. Toward spring, the people would regroup either into larger groups for communal hunting for buffalo on the prairies or early fishing in streams which emptied into Lake Michigan.

Settlement Pattern, Social Organization, and Kinship

Large villages built in summer were positioned at the edge of the forest, which was near the prairies, prime fishing streams, and Lake Michigan. Chosen village locations were usually on small streams off the lake. The location of these villages allowed the Potawatomi to hunt, fish, and gather a wider variety of resources within a circumscribed area. In these summer villages and in more dispersed winter hunting camps, the Potawatomi lived in dome-shaped wigwams of bent saplings covered with woven mats or sheets of bark.

The Potawatomi were organized into clans, and clans were likely one of the main organizational structures of summer villages. Although Potawatomi clans were patrilineal -- that is, they traced their descent through the father’s line -- individuals were also linked to some extent to the families of their mother’s father, which provided a wider network of kin to interact with and count on in times of stress. Since Potawatomi subsistence required the cooperation of men and women and their respective families for farming, hunting, fishing, and other subsistence pursuits, these additional links to the mother’s family provided valuable flexibility.

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, so each summer village included a group of men and their children who were members of the same clan and members of other clans who had married members of the main clan in that village. The intermarriages of the clans created links between different villages, and these links were both reinforced and encouraged by trade and other bonds. These bonds existed not only within the Potawatomi tribe but also with nearby villages of related Ottawa and Ojibwe, whose members freely intermarried or lived with the Potawatomi.

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.

In addition to the clan structure, there was also an additional division of the people which cut across families and clans to create two opposing groups based on their order of birth within the family. Within each family, the odd-numbered children ( for instance, first, third, and fifth) were assigned to the “senior side,” while the even-number children were in the “junior side.” These groupings operated in games such as lacrosse and in some ceremonies and rituals. Rivalries between these groups were sanctioned and, through fierce competition, allowed some release of tension in some social situations.

Leadership and Government

Each village was led by a senior man of the major clan who functioned largely because of his seniority, the respect he commanded, and his ability to influence the people with his decisions. Traditionally, the Potawatomi probably did not have a chief of the entire tribe, but under some circumstances, such as intertribal warfare or overall agreements, these village leaders might select a single man from one of the villages to speak for them with a single voice.

Group decision-making for major undertakings -- such as war or a large-scale change -- was a slow and involved process. After long discussions of the pros and cons, a decision was reached and a feast was held to cement the peoples’ commitment to it. Thus, all were involved, and no single person had the right or responsibility to dictate to the others.

Religious Life, Medicine, and Healing

Much of Potawatomi spiritual and religious life was organized around the clans. Each clan had a sacred bundle which was the focus of oral traditions which recorded the origins of that clan. Specific songs and dances were also associated with the clan bundles, and each clan had specific ritual obligations as well and types of knowledge, such as particular medicines and ceremonies. The clan structure and the associated bundles were the gifts of the culture hero Wisaka brought to individuals in the past through dreams or visions.

Historically, the Midewiwin or Medicine Lodge was the most important communal religious function, and initiates sought health and long life through its teachings. Religious groups such as the Midewiwin also served as links to other villages and tribes. Other ceremonies carried out by the clans in association with their bundles and relationships with personal guardian spirits gained through vision quests and dreams provided a foundation for individual spirituality which involved specific ritual obligations and taboos.

Shamans were respected and feared for their supernatural power, which could be used for good or evil. Such power was gained through the vision quest but was not used at least until an individual reached middle age. Shamans operated by performing the shaking-tent rite, which identified spiritual causes of illness, by sucking sources of illness out of patient’s bodies, or providing hunting and love charms. In many cases, shamans combined spiritual cures with the application of herbal medicines.

European Contact, the Fur Trade, and Changes

When Jean Nicolet arrived at Green Bay in 1634, he met some Potawatomi there. Since the Potawatomi still lived in Michigan, these people were probably visiting at Green Bay. This situation changed dramatically in the 1640s and 1650s when the League of the Iroquois in upstate New York began to raid Indian tribes throughout the Great Lakes region to monopolize the regional fur trade. Like other tribes in the southern peninsula of Michigan, the Potawatomi were forced westward by the Iroquois onslaught. By 1665, the tribe relocated to the Door County Peninsula in Wisconsin and parts of Michigan’s upper peninsula, travelling to Wisconsin’s interior forests to hunt and fish.

Although the northern parts of Wisconsin had a shorter growing season that their lands in Michigan, Potawatomi agriculture does not seem to have been adversely affected, and some groups summered in the Chequamegon region and raised crops and returned to the Door peninsula after their harvests. The greater Green Bay area had many resources such as wild fowl, wild rice, and fish, and also provided the Potawatomi easy access to French trade goods via the trading post there. Both the Potawatomi and the Ottawa tribe served as middlemen between French traders and other tribes in the region, but quickly took on a new role as arbiters of disputes between other tribes, including the growing number of refugee tribes driven to Wisconsin by the depredations of the Iroquois. In attempting to make themselves agreeable to all of their neighbors and participate successfully in the trade, Potawatomi villages leaders often put the trade before the welfare of their own people, which caused the dissolution of many of the earlier clan villages into smaller, more independent lineages which could support themselves and participate in the fur trade on a smaller scale. 

When the Iroquois threat receded after 1700, the Potawatomi moved south along the western shore of Lake Michigan and also moved back into Michigan, which they had occupied before the Iroquois wars. By 1800, their tribal estate was far larger than it had been before, and included northern Illinois, southeastern Wisconsin, northern Indiana, southern Michigan, and northwestern Ohio. There they continued their seasonal round of summer hunting, fishing, and gardening, and intensive winter hunting in more interior areas.

Like other tribes in the Great Lakes region, the Potawatomi became trading partners and military allies of the French. When the Fox Indians rose up in Wisconsin against the French between 1712 and 1735, the Potawatomi and other tribes participated in many battles on the side of the French. Beginning in 1731 and continuing into the 1740s, many Potawatomi warriors aided the French in putting down the recalcitrant Chickasaw. Some war parties went as far south as present-day Tennessee. Between 1752 and 1756, the Potawatomi again aided the French, this time against the Illinois tribe, who were driven out of northern Illinois. The Potawatomi continued to expand into the territories they took from the Illinois and other tribes.

The Potawatomi remained loyal to France during the century of warfare against Great Britain. Between 1689 and 1763, the French and British fought a series of four wars for control over North America. The Potawatomi fought in the third war, King George's War, in 1746-47. They went to Montreal, and from there they attacked the British colonies as far east as New York and New England. The most important of the colonial wars was the French and Indian War or Seven Years' war from 1754 to 1763. The Potawatomi continued to ally themselves with the French, as did other tribes from Wisconsin and the Great Lakes region. They fought in many famous battles of the war such as Braddock's Defeat in Pennsylvania in 1755 and the infamous Massacre of Fort William Henry in New York in 1757. Despite their loyalty, the Potawatomi were unable to stem the tide of war, which the British finally won in 1763.

With this victory, all French possessions in Canada and the Midwest reverted to British control. The Potawatomi remained wary of their new colonial overlords, particularly the Potawatomi at Chicago and Milwaukee. In 1763, an Ottawa chief named Pontiac led a revolt against the British which involved many Great Lakes tribes including the Potawatomi. The British eventually put down the rebellion, and they established better diplomatic and economic relations with the tribes to prevent any such recurrences. Many Potawatomi bands developed strong ties to the British, but the Potawatomis of Wisconsin along the western shore of Lake Michigan remained anti-British in their sympathies.

This situation became aggravated when the Potawatomi at Milwaukee established trade links to St. Louis in the 1760s. This small French settlement was part of the Louisiana colony, which the French gave the Spanish at the end of the Seven Years' War. The Spanish and British had been bitter enemies for almost two centuries, and British officials in Canada became concerned when Milwaukee Indians began to trade openly with French traders in the Spanish colony. In 1776, the American Revolution began and, although not formerly allied, the United States and Spain both fought Great Britain at the time. A Virginian militia officer, George Rogers Clark, brought a small army of frontiersmen into Illinois in 1778 and conquered the Midwest for the United States. Clark met with Siggenauk, a Potawatomi chief from Milwaukee, and won him over to the American cause. Along with another Milwaukee Potawatomi, Naakewoin and  Siggenauk effected a diplomatic coup over the course of the next two years and managed to turn Potawatomi villages around the southern shore of Lake Michigan against the British. When the British tried to recruit local Indians for their cause, they made little headway. In 1780, Siggenauk and Naakewoin attacked a British force of Indians and French Canadians. The next year, Siggenauk led an Indian force from St. Louis and attacked a British post in southwestern Michigan.

The Americans won the War for Independence and gained the entire Midwest from the British in the peace settlement of 1783. Afterward, Great Lakes tribes soon found out that Americans sought to purchase their lands for White settlers. The United States fought a bloody war against the Ohio Indians from 1790 to 1794. Potawatomi from Michigan and Indiana fought in these battles against Americans. This war further turned many Indians against the United States. Even Siggenauk had a change of heart. Later, many Potawatomi became adherents of Tenskawatawa, or the Shawnee Prophet, and his brother Tecumseh after 1805. The Shawnee Prophet and Tecumseh preached a doctrine of resisting American expansion onto Indian lands in the trans-Applachian region, and the two brothers put together a pan-Indian military alliance that fought on the side of the British during the War of 1812. Once the war started, the Potawatomi massacred the entire American garrison at Fort Dearborn in Chicago. The British and their Indian allies maintained a strong hold over Wisconsin and other parts of the Midwest, but this did not stop the British from returning these lands to the Americans when the war ended in 1814.

The Nineteenth Century

Between 1800 and 1820, the Potawatomi continued to expand their territory through the conquest and displacement of other tribes, ultimately including northern Illinois, southeastern Wisconsin, northern Indiana, southern Michigan, and northwestern Ohio. There they continued their seasonal round of summer hunting, fishing, and gardening, and intensive winter hunting in more interior areas, adapting and diversifying their basic lifeway to the wide variety of environments they occupied. Through the fragmentation of the major clan villages which began in the 17th century and the flexibility of families linked both through their father’s clan and their mother’s father’s family, Potawatomi people quickly expanded to fill their much expanded territory. By 1820, the Potawatomi had established more than 100 villages, including more than 80 in Wisconsin. Since the Potawatomi preferred to settle near waterways, travel and movement between these villages was increasingly by dugout canoes and larger bark canoes. However, as many Potawatomi grew successful though the fur trade and other pursuits, they increasingly adopted horses and used canoes only for local, short-distance travel. Horses were both ridden and used for carrying burdens of trade goods, wild rice, and meat.

While villages continued as an important organizing structure among the Potawatomi, during this period villages were more likely to include several clans instead of being dominated by a single clan. In addition, the clans were less recognizable as being linked to animals, and the role and importance of lineages increased. However, clans still provided an important means to maintain contact, reciprocity, and interaction between dispersed villages.

With their increased dispersion, the Potawatomi seldom, if ever, came to a single agreement about important decisions such as land transactions or trade agreements. The lineages within villages were still linked in some sense to other villages which included the same clans or other related people, and single men sometimes acted as chiefs over a number of villages in a particular area, but these positions involved little actual control over the populations of the villages and involved personal influence more than real authority. Men achieved these positions through their reputations, which in some sense depended on their spiritual power as seen through their successes in hunting and warfare. Order was maintained in the villages by a group of successful warriors who acted as a police force. Decision-making remained largely in the hands of leading men who met and discussed potential decisions, and in this way, no chief could single-handedly undertake any risky actions, such as the sale or cession of tribal lands.

As the Potawatomi moved into new areas, they came into contact with and intermarried with other tribes, often learning new adaptations and ways of life. While winter homes were still bark- or mat-covered wigwams, houses in summer villages could include rectangular, peaked roofed houses adopted from the Menominee or Ho-Chunk. These houses were homes to nuclear or extended families, including polygynous households.

Many Potawatomi fell on hard times in the 20 years following the War of 1812 and were often unable to hunt and grow enough food to eat. They had little choice except to cede their land to the United States in exchange for money so they could survive. The state of Illinois was rapidly settled by Whites, and the governor and other elected officials were anxious to move the Potawatomi out of the state. The Potawatomi ceded some of their land in northwestern Illinois and southwestern Wisconsin in 1829. Many Illinois Potawatomi actively supported the United States Army during the Black Hawk War in 1832 to prevent or delay being removed westward, but this strategy backfired. On September 26, 1833, the Potawatomi of Illinois and Wisconsin signed the Treaty of Chicago, which ceded the last of their lands to the United States. The United States began removing the Potawatomi off of their Wisconsin lands between 1835 and 1838.

During this time, the Potawatomi of the Midwest began to fracture as White settlers flooded the area. After 1833, the Potawatomi in Illinois and southern Wisconsin were still participating in the fur trade to a minor extent, but had no access to beaver. Allying themselves with the Sauk and Fox west of the Mississippi, they adapted more to life on the prairies and plains. Ultimately, they relocated to a reservation near Council Bluffs, Iowa and were later moved with the Mission Band of Potawatomi to eastern Kansas in 1847. The intention of missionaries who supported this move were to Christianize and educate the Potawatomi, but internal tensions drove the community apart. The Prairie Band, which had come together in Iowa, remained in Kansas while the Mission Band removed to Oklahoma and took the name Citizen Band Potawatomi.

Many ultimately moved to many far-flung locations. Some went with the Kickapoo to Texas and Kansas, while others migrated to Canada. Despite this, many stayed in Wisconsin. About 200 of the Potawatomi who went to Iowa and Kansas returned to Wisconsin and settled in the vicinity of Wisconsin Rapids. They joined a group known as the "Strolling Potawatomi" which had moved into northern Wisconsin to resist removal westward. The federal government attempted a final removal of the Potawatomi from Wisconsin in 1851, but many continued to reside in Wisconsin. During the late 19th century, the Potawatomi made their living primarily by working for White-owned logging companies.

By 1870, conditions for the Potawatomi in Wisconsin were extremely difficult. Lacking a land base, they continually shifted between several different areas as more and more settlers moved in, towns were built, and forests were logged. During this period, the Dream Drum religion came to the Potawatomi and Ojibwe from the Sioux, offering a message of cultural solidarity and hope in times of extreme poverty.

Change in the Twentieth Century

By 1907, the total number of Potawatomi residing in Wisconsin was 457. In 1913, the United States Congress determined that the Wisconsin Potawatomi were due money promised to them for their land cessions in earlier treaties. For many years, only the Kansas Potawatomi had received this money. Congress allocated $447,339, with $150,000 to be used by the Forest County Potawatomi to buy their own land, which was then put under federal trust for the tribe. Many Potawatomi families purchased 40- to 80-acre farms in Forest County, Wisconsin. Descendants of Prairie Band Potawatomi people who returned to Wisconsin in the late 1800s also bought some land in Wood County near Wisconsin Rapids, and are a non-reservation community.

The roughly 15,000 acres in Forest County constitute the Wisconsin Potawatomis' reservation today. The Wisconsin Potawatomi are federally recognized, but are included on the tribal roll of the Kansas Potawatomi. In recent years, the Wisconsin Potawatomi have increased the amount of reservation land they have under federal trust. In 1990, the tribe bought about seven acres of land in one of their old village sites, Milwaukee, and opened a high-stakes bingo hall one year later. In the same year, the tribe acquired the old 11.5-acre Concordia College campus site in Milwaukee. The campus had been home to the Indian Community School of Milwaukee since 1986, and the school's board of directors entered into an agreement with the Potawatomi to put the site into federal trust status in the tribe's name. The Potawatomi currently lease the site to the school, which is an independent entity from the tribe.