Potawatomi Nation Indians Tribe

The lifestyle of the Potawatomi Nation Indian Tribe of the past-where and how they lived.

The Potawatomi were not always known as the Potawatomi. They were the Neshnabek--which means The People. There are various views as to how they got the name "Potawatomi"(People of the Place of the Fire).

Originally a tribe of the Algonquin race, the Potawatomi were once part of a group of three tribes--the others being the Odawas and the Ojibwas. The name "Potawatomi" could be a translation of the Ojibwe word "potawotmink" which translates as "people of the place of the fire".

Another more colorful idea follows: when the Neshnabek met their first white man, Jean Nicolet, a Frenchman, he asked his Indian guide "Who are these people?". His question was misunderstood and his guide answered, "They are making a fire."(In Indian language,of course) He in turn wrote down in French what he thought he heard--"Pouutouatomi". He thought it meant "the Firemakers" but actually it meant nothing at all.

Eventually the Neshnabek came to be known as the Potawatomi, whatever the source might have been.

The Potawatomi originally lived north of Lakes Huron and Superior. Eventually they migrated south and settled along the lower eastern shore of Lake Michigan (from Ludington to St. Joseph).

They had various skills including hunting, fishing, and the gathering of natural plant foods.

They were foragers, or people who got what they needed from the resources available from season to season. The men were mainly hunters and fishers, while the women gathered the food and helped with the fishing.

As they moved from area to area they brought with them the knowledge of making and using snowshoes, tobaggons, and canoes. This gave them advantages over other Indian tribes who were without this knowledge.

When they moved farther south they began to learn how to produce their own food and not just find what was available around them. The women did most of this work, sometimes providing more than half of the food supplies in their villages. Sometimes they were able to sell the surplus and bring income into the tribe.

The Potawatomi lifestyle became more stable. They began building their villages close to their cornfields. They began to stay in one place except for a long winter hunt or if the soil was depleted and not producing enough.

According to French chronicles, in 1641 there were reports of the Potawatomi leaving and heading west of Lake Michigan. This was not according to their desires, but because of parties of warring tribes. They left before the attacks came. They settled on the shores of what is now Green Bay, Wisconsin.

They were attacked by the New York Iroquois. However, they had already learned of the coming attack and had fortified themselves at "Michigami" (Great Lake). The attack failed, as did attacks in later years.

The Potawatomi welcomed the French fur traders because they wanted to have recognition, prestige, and influence among other tribes. They wanted to be the brokers in the fur trade. The French had to firmly make it known that THEY would be the brokers, and NOT the Potawatomi.

In 1668 a great council was held and the French policies were debated at length by the Indians. The end result was a welcoming of the French traders into their villages. They also agreed to aid and protect them. In return, the French agreed to help the Potawatomi and supply them with weapons and other goods. These agreements made the Potawatomi the most favored tribe of the western lakes(which was their original goal anyway!)

When the French first came the Indians called them "Hairy Faces" and believed them to be supernatural creatures. They soon found out that although different in some ways, they were just like them in other human ways.

One of the sadder aspects to this time period was that the Frenchmen had no Frenchwomen with them. They would not come for many years. Therefore they sought mates among the Potawatomi and other tribes. The Potawatomi saw this as a chance to better themselves politically and economically. They began to arrange marriages of their daughters and sisters to the Frenchmen. This custom came to be known as "the custom of the country".

The French authorities and Catholic church did not view these marriages as proper. The Potawatomi, however, believed them to be completely legitimate. The offspring that were born to these unions were the ones who really suffered. Children born of a Frenchman and a Potawatomi were not considered as part of The People. They could not inherit membership in a clan. They also were not accepted by the French--they were "half-breeds".

In the 1680's new migrations had begun. These lasted for more than a century.

The Potawatomi operated by the clan system. The clan membership was inherited through male ancestors.They could not marry within their own clan. The members of a clan were dependent upon one another. All members were considered one--if one member was hurt, they all were hurt. This would result in revenge and retaliation to their enemies. They did not have one main tribal chief. Each clan had its own leader.

The Potawatomi joined with the French against the British in the French and Indian War of 1754-1763. After the French and Indian War the Potawatomi becam impoverished because the British had blockaded and halted shipping from France. By this time the Potawatomi had lost their self sufficiency and depended heavily upon the supplies provided by the French.

When the British victory came the Potawatomi no longer held the favored position that they once had. They no longer had their French allies. The British authorities cut off the annual giving out of goods and supplies for the Indians. The Indians believed that the British were not playing by the rules--which led to what is known as Pontiac's Rebellion. Pontiac was an Ottawa war leader who brought together a number of tribes to rebel against the English. The Indians were actually hoping that their old allies,the French, would come to their aid. This was not to be, and after months of defeating British posts by surprise attacks, the depleted Indian warriors were defeated. The rebellion was over.

Through this incident the British authorities did learn that the Indians needed to be rewarded regularly. They would need to deliver food, arms, and other suplies if they wanted to have peace on the frontier.

By the time the Revolutionary War came in 1776 the Potawatomi were divided. Some sided with the British, some with the Americans, and some stayed neutral.

After the war there was still much conflict. American settlers were coming in greater numbers and they wanted the land same land and resources that the Indians had. It was only a matter of time before the treaties were made and the Indians were forced to leave the lands that they had occupied for generations.

Many treaties were signed(all with the desired end of removing the Indians from their lands). More trouble came when the "half-breeds" or "marginals" began to usurp the resources promised to the Potawatomi tribes. The Americans favored the marginals over the traditional Potawatomi.

Eventually the Potawatomi were forced to move to reservations. They were no longer one People. American authorities faced difficulties in getting the Potawatomi to leave their old homes and resettle in Kansas. It is estimated that fewer than half actually moved there. Some went willingly. Thousands more went into Canada or northern Michigan and Wisconsin. There are settlements yet today in those places of the once proud Potawatomi--the "People of the Place of Fire".

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