views updated May 23 2018



Menominee (pronounced muh-NOM-uh-nee) means “Wild-Rice People.” This name comes from their reliance on wild rice. The French also called them Folle Avoines, or “Crazy Oat Indians”.


The Menominee Indian Tribe of Wisconsin Reservation is located 45 miles (72 kilometers) northwest of Green Bay. The reservation contains about 235,000 acres, most of them thickly forested. The reservation has two main villages—Neopit and Keshena—a smaller village called Zoar, and a somewhat scattered community called South Branch.


In 1634, there were from 2,000 to 4,000 Menominee. In 1768, the number had dropped to 800, but increased to 1,930 in 1854, and 2,917 in 1956. In the 1990 U.S. Census, 8,064 people identified themselves as Menominee. About 3,400 of them lived on the reservation. According to the 2000 U.S. Census, there were 8,691 Menominee.

Language family


Origins and group affiliations

The Menominee are believed to have occupied areas in Michigan and Wisconsin for five thousand years or more. The Menominee say they originated near Sault (pronounced SOO) Sainte Marie in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula; around the year 1400 they were forced westward by the Potawatomi and Ojibway. Together with the Winnebago and Ojibway, the Menominee are the original tribes of Wisconsin and parts of Michigan. All three tribes share characteristics with newer arrivals such as the Sac and Fox and the Potawatomi.

At one time the Menominee controlled nearly 10 million acres, lands that stretched from the Great Lakes to the Mississippi River. Mainly hunter-gatherers, they also did some hunting and fishing. The Menominee, a brave and generous people, managed to survive although surrounded by larger and more powerful tribes. American settlers and loggers, however, took more and more Menominee land until the Natives were finally confined to a reservation after 1856. As of 2007 the Menominee were a relatively prosperous people whose traditional culture remains vital.


French disrupt peaceful existence

The Menominee have inhabited their territory for at least five thousand years, the longest of any Wisconsin tribe. Their first encounter with Europeans happened when Frenchman Jean Nicolet (pronounced Nik-o-LAY; 1598–1642) passed through their territory in 1634, looking for a passage to China. Over the next thirty years the Menominee had little interaction with French traders, but they suffered at the hands of other tribes who did, largely because of the fur trade.

The fur trade in Canada and around the Great Lakes resulted in intense rivalries among Native tribes. Eager to trade furs for French goods, some hunters began to expand their activities onto lands others regarded as theirs. Stronger tribes began forcing weaker ones westward. Refugees from the Ojibway and Potawatomi tribes crowded into Menominee lands. The invasion was disruptive for everyone. Wars broke out among tribes competing for food and land. Many people starved to death or became victims of warfare and diseases.

Trading post established

Contact between the Menominee and the French began when the French established a trading post at Green Bay, Wisconsin, in 1667. By then there were fewer than four hundred Menominee left, and they became dependent on fur trading. French trade goods such as metal kettles, steel tools, cloth, needles, and scissors made life easier. Trade altered forever the Menominee’s ancient way of life, turning a people who had once hunted only for what they needed into a people who hunted for profit. But trade may also have saved the tribe from dying out. The French maintained peace among rival tribes to protect trade, and the Menominee were spared more warfare. Eventually, over-trapping led to a surplus of furs, and the French abruptly ended trade in the area in 1696.

Important Dates

c. 3000\ bce: The Menominee inhabit homeland in Michigan.

1400: The Menominee are pushed westward into their present homeland near Green Bay, Wisconsin.

1817–56: The Menominee make eight treaties with United States and move to a reservation.

1909–30: Tribal sawmill provides employment but tribe must sue for managerial control.

1954: Menominee federal tribal status is terminated; it is restored in 1973.

1979: The Menominee form a tribal legislature.

Involvement in white men’s wars

The Menominee resumed their hunting, fishing, and gathering lifestyle, but throughout the 1700s found themselves caught up in warfare between the French, British, and American colonists, who fought to dominate North America. When they could not avoid conflict, the Menominee sided with the French, who had never tried to take over Native lands. After the French were defeated in the French and Indian War (1756–63; war fought in North America between England and France involving some Native Americans as allies of the French), the Menominee allied with the British. They fought against the colonists in the American Revolutionary War (1775–83; the American colonists’ fight for independence from England) and in the War of 1812 (1812–15; a war in which the United States defeated Great Britain). By this time at least ten Menominee villages existed. The Menominee at last befriended the victorious Americans, who built a fort at Green Bay in 1815. Soon a trading post operated at the Menominee village of Minikani.

Treaty period

Americans wanted land. Vastly outnumbered, the Menominee surrendered more and more land, not always peacefully. Between 1817 and 1856, the Menominee made eight treaties with the United States. A treaty signed in 1831 granted them eight cents an acre for three million acres of wooded land. By 1850 nearly all tribal lands were in the hands of whites. The Menominee fought, but the pressure was too much for them. The Wolf Treaty of 1854 established a reservation in northern Wisconsin. Later, a small group of Potawatomi joined them there.

Loggers come

The Menominee sent 125 volunteers to the Union Army during the American Civil War (1861–65; a war between the Union [the North], who were opposed to slavery, and the Confederacy [the South], who were in favor of slavery). This was an amazing number considering that the tribe numbered only about 2,000. Menominee warriors fought at the battles of Vicksburg and Petersburg. Menominee also guarded the men charged in the conspiracy to assassinate President Abraham Lincoln (1809–1865; served 1861–65), while they awaited their trial and execution.

After the Civil War, American timbermen came to Wisconsin to exploit the forests. They tried every means they could think of, legal and illegal, to deprive the Menominee of their timber, but they failed.

“Model” community fails

In the 1800s reformers decided the friendly Menominee should be converted and “civilized,” meaning they should adopt a more European American-based culture. In 1831 the reformers constructed a community called Winnebago Rapids. It was to serve as a model for future “civilizing” of other Native communities. Winnebago Rapids consisted of a dozen houses, a school, farm, blacksmith shop, and sawmill. But this experiment in peaceful coexistence through education and good example was a total failure. The Menominee rejected the model homes; some even used them to stable their horses. They tore up the flooring for firewood, and slept in their own traditional shelters pitched nearby. They refused to listen to the lessons of the teachers and preachers.

By 1870 the Menominee had established three villages along the Menominee River, another eight or so to the south, and a Christian mission at Shawano. They resisted efforts to turn them into farmers and based their economy on logging. They were remarkably successful in this endeavor.

Logging success nearly destroys tribe

By 1890, with their logging profits, the Menominee built a hospital and school and set up their own police and court system. At a time when most other Native American tribes were adjusting to reservation life, the Menominee were seen as a model of prosperity and modern thinking. Oddly enough, this success nearly caused their destruction when the U.S. Congress adopted a termination policy in the 1950s.

Termination was part of the larger U.S. plan to assimilate Native Americans to make them more like white Americans. Termination of a tribe ended the special relationship between the tribe and the U.S. government, thus ending certain government funding and services and making the tribes subject to state taxes. Many Menominee could not pay their taxes and lost their land. Soon the Menominee were among the poorest people in the state of Wisconsin.

Anger over termination grew. In 1970 the Menominee formed a protest movement called Determination of Rights and United for Menominee Shareholders (DRUMS). Through demonstrations and court actions, DRUMS slowed the sale of tribal lands. Finally, in 1973, President Richard Nixon (1913–1994; served 1969–74) signed the Menominee Restoration Act, restoring tribal status to the reservation. In the early twenty-first century, the tribe’s enterprises were once again thriving.


The Menominee believed in a Great Spirit, who made the Sun, the stars, the Earth, and animal spirits. In their creation story, one of those spirits, Great Bear, asked the Great Spirit to transform him into a man. His wish was granted, but he soon felt lonely, so he asked a golden eagle, Thunderer, to become his brother. Great Bear then asked a beaver to join him, and she became Beaver Woman. This small family then “adopted” other spirits, who became the first Menominee. An All Animals’ Dance was occasionally held to honor the characters of the creation story.

Like the Ojibway, the Menominee had a religious society called the Medicine Lodge Religion (Midewiwin), whose main purpose was to prolong life. The society taught morality, proper conduct, and a knowledge of plants and herbs for healing. Another religion, the Drum (or Dream) Dance Religion, holds that dreams can make a person sick if they are not acted out. Many Menominee retain elements of these two traditional religions, even those who belong to Christian churches.

Today, Roman Catholicism, introduced by the French in the 1600s, is the most common religion among Menominee. The Native American Church has been embraced by some Menominee in rural areas. The church combines Christian and Native beliefs and practices, and features an all-night ceremony of chanting, prayer, and meditation.


The dialect, or variety, of the Algonquian language spoken by the Menominee is most closely related to Cree and Fox. The Menominee used the language of the Ojibway (see entry) in the fur-trade days as a second language for speaking with outsiders.

By the 1920s the Menominee language was rarely used, and by 1965 only three hundred to five hundred people spoke it. In the early to mid-2000s, the language was being used and taught at four tribal schools on the reservation and at the College of the Menominee Nation in Keshena.

The Menominee language frequently borrows from Ojibway, Siouan, and French languages. Having no word of their own for “warrior,” the Menominee, Plains Cree, and Western Chippewa use the Dakota word for warrior: akicita as okiccita.Po So Na Mut is a Menominee greeting.


In the early days the Menominee were loosely organized, with a tribal council that governed informally. After Native refugees from the fur-trade wars arrived and threatened the Menominee way of life, a more formal type of government became necessary. Members of the tribal council, usually elders from each clan, or group of related families, appointed a chief to take command during wars with the refugees. Later, the job of the chief evolved to maintain order, approve tribal policies, direct ceremonies, and look out for the welfare of his people.

When the Menominee reservation was established in 1854, the tribe became subject to U.S. laws. Programs were set up to assimilate the people to white culture and turn them into farmers so they would blend into the general population. The Menominee resisted and became successful loggers. They also established their own police and court systems. They enjoyed success and prosperity until the federal termination policy in the 1950s placed tribal government in the hands of the state of Wisconsin. As a sovereign nation independent of the United States the Menominee had not paid taxes in the past. When their reservation became a county of Wisconsin, they were forced to sell valuable lake property to pay taxes. Struggling to keep their lumber operations going, they soon became impoverished.

In 1973 the Menominee Restoration Act was signed, reestablishing the former reservation. In 1977 the tribe adopted a constitution, and in 1979 they formed a tribal legislature. The nine-member tribal legislature elects a chairperson, a body of judges, and a general council. Although in the past, the chiefs, or okenaws, inherited their positions, now they are elected.


Farming rejected

Before the coming of Europeans, the Menominee supported themselves mainly by hunting and gathering the abundant wild rice of their territory. They believed that to plant crops other than rice would offend the Creator.

Reformers in the 1800s tried to turn the Menominee into farmers. The Menominee chose instead to sell white pine commercially. In 1909 the U.S. government supplied the Menominee at Neopit with a state-of-the-art sawmill, providing full tribal employment, but failed to turn over management of the mill to the tribe.

Economy based on forests

In 1930 the Menominee sued for greater tribal management of the mill. Thirteen lawsuits were filed, but the Menominee received no satisfaction from the courts. Meanwhile, more than 200 Menominee served in World War II (1939–45; a war in which Great Britain, France, the United States, and their allies defeated Germany, Italy, and Japan), and back home, 50 women kept the tribal sawmill going. In 1954 the federal government terminated Menominee tribal status resulting in a loss of certain federal benefits. The 2,917 Menominee were plunged into poverty. They were forced to sell prime lakefront sites to white developers. Upset, Menominee united behind the organization called Determination of Rights and Unity for Menominee Shareholders (DRUMS). By 1973 they recovered their federal tribal status, and logging activities resumed in full.

The Menominee have become known for their successful forest management techniques. For every tree harvested, the Menominee plant one in its place. They increased their wooded acreage by 10 percent in the twentieth century. Sometimes called “Timber Indians,” they manage the maple, beech, birch, hemlock, oak, basswood, black spruce, tamarack, cedar, and red, white, and jack pine trees that forest 220,000 acres of their 234,000-acre homeland. Menominee Tribal Enterprises limits the annual cut to 29 million feet.

The Menominee manage their land using three basic principles. Menominee president Lawrence Waukau described them when he spoke before the United Nations in 1995: “First, [forest land] must be sustainable for future generations. Second, the forest must be cared for properly to provide for the needs of the people. And third, we keep all the pieces of the forest to maintain diversity.”

Other economic pursuits

By the end of the twentieth century, the tribe had expanded its economic base to include a casino and a hotel, which provided much-needed jobs. The Menominee Nation has become the largest employer in the area. In addition to tribal government and industrial employment, the casino and the school district provide the greatest number of jobs. Since the tribe joined the Northwoods Niijii Enterprise Community (NNEC) in 1998, it has been actively developing new businesses.

Daily life


Because the Menominee had ample food to meet their needs, they also had leisure time. Lacrosse, a game of Native American origin, was a favorite pastime for Menominee men. It is played on a field by two teams of ten players each. Participants use a long-handled stick with a webbed pouch (a racket) to get a ball into the opposing team’s goal. The Menominee played lacrosse with a deerskin ball stuffed with hair and a racket made of saplings.

Children played with dolls, bows and arrows, and hoops made of birch bark. In winter, entire families gathered around the fire to listen to stories.

Ma’nabus Held by the Trees

Many Native American tribes told stories to their children to teach them lessons. In many Menominee tales Ma’nabus often did wrong and ended up in trouble.

Ma’nabus once killed some game. Two trees near him rubbed together by the wind squeaked loudly. Ma’nabus climbed up to see what the trouble was and the trees held him fast, despite his entreaties, while the animals stole his meat. When it was all gone the trees released him and he went away hungry.

Skinner, Alanson, and John V. Satterlee. “Ma’nabus Held by the Trees.“Anthropological Papers of the American Museum of Natural History, Vol. XIII, Part III: Folklore of the Menomini Indians. New York: The American Museum of Natural History, 1915. Available online at: (accessed on June 16, 2007).


Then …

The Menominee traditionally lived in large villages in the summer. They built dome-shaped wigwams with frames made of sapling (young trees), covered with mats of cedar or birch bark. Inside, mats made of cattails provided insulation and protection from rain; they were sometimes colored with dyes made from fruits and berries. Animal skins or grass mats were placed on the ground or on raised sleeping platforms. The Menominee preferred to cook and eat outside, weather permitting.

In the winter smaller groups of extended families retreated to their hunting grounds, where they built dome-shaped wigwams similar to their summer homes. Outlying buildings included sweat lodges for purification before ceremonies or for curing diseases, a lodge where women retreated during their menstrual periods, places for dreaming and fasting, and a lodge for the medicine man.

… and Now

As late as the 1950s a few elderly Menominee still lived in bark houses. An exhibit on display at the tribally-operated Logging Camp Museum in Keshena shows a restored Menominee camp typical in the early twentieth century. It features a bunkhouse, cook shanty, wood butcher’s shop, blacksmith shop, saw filer’s shack, horse barn, office, 100-foot cedar-roof shed, and a loggers’ locomotive.

In the mid-2000s most Menominee lived in homes no different from non-Natives, with one exception: some families posted small totem poles outside the front door.

Clothing and adornment

The early Menominee wore little clothing in warm weather. In cool weather they wore buckskin breechcloths (garments with front and back flaps that hung from the waist), leggings, and moccasins, with cloaks for formal occasions, much like their Ojibway neighbors. Snowshoes made winter travel easier. They used oil and grease to soften their long hair and skin and sometimes painted their skin as well.

They adorned their clothing with satin ribbon and porcupine quills in geometric patterns including diamonds, triangles, leaves, crosses, deer heads, and thunderbirds. European glass beads were woven into hair streamers and sashes.

In the nineteenth century full gathered skirts similar to those worn by white women became popular. Fashionable men’s wear at the turn of the twentieth century included cotton shirts, sometimes with ruffles, silk ribbons, and decorative pins made of a nickel alloy called German silver.

An early twentieth-century photograph shows Menominee men wearing checkered loggers’ shirts and slouch hats intermingling with men in suits or feathered fur caps and elaborately embroidered robes. Women are dressed like their German-American neighbors, except for the addition of turquoise and silver or beaded jewelry.


Menominee means “Wild-Rice People.” Wild rice is a cereal grass that grows in lakes and streams. Menominee women stood in a canoe and reached for the tall, hollow rice stalks. They held them over the boat and shook them; the wild rice fell into the canoe. The Menominee considered harvesting wild rice to be both a spiritual and an economic activity. Wild rice was boiled and often flavored with maple syrup. Today some Menominee gather and sell both wild rice and maple syrup.

Women also gathered nuts, fruits, and berries. Menominee men supplemented the diet by hunting ducks and geese. They caught fish with spears and nets made of animal sinew; their favorite catch was sturgeon. All this combined to make a very healthy, well-rounded diet. Early explorers commented on the good health of the Menominee people.

Nineteenth-century Menominee who were willing to take up farming grew rye, potatoes, oats, corn, melons, fruit trees, and hogs in addition to beans, peas, turnips, wheat, and buckwheat. Farmers and wild-rice gatherers often shared the fruits of their labors.

Healing practices

Menominee believed that illness came from supernatural powers and evil witches, so they relied on a shaman (pronounced SHAH-mun or SHAY-mun), or medicine man. He brought a bag of remedies that he had received from his father or his teacher. His bag might contain healing roots and herbs, charms such as deer tails, carved wooden puppets, and a medicine stick for offerings to the spirits.

Herbal remedies were many and varied. Treatments for swellings, sores, loose mucus, and colds came from trees. They used mint for pneumonia. They had herbal medicines for poison ivy and boils, female disorders and childbirth, urinary and venereal diseases, stomach and intestinal disorders, diarrhea, sleeplessness, and lung trouble. Insecticides, enemas, eyewashes, and pain-killers were important. The herb called Seneca snakeroot became so popular as a healing remedy that the Menominee traded, over-collected, and almost exterminated it. They used skunk cabbage and wild or chokecherries on wounds.

During the French and Indian War, Menominee warriors brought smallpox back to their villages; more than one-quarter of their people died. U.S. soldiers carried smallpox and cholera into Wisconsin in the 1830s; another 25 percent of the population died. The Natives had no effective defense against the diseases until inoculation (shots) became widespread.

In 1977 the tribe built the first Native American-owned and operated health facility in the country. They also ran a treatment center that offered outpatient services, drug and alcohol abuse programs, and family therapy.


Menominee children traditionally learned by example. Soon after moving to the reservation in 1854, the Menominee built a school, but they lost it when a 1954 law terminated the reservation. In modern times, with the profits acquired from timber, the Menominee have been able to build a college and four reservation schools attended by more than five hundred children. The College of the Menominee Nation, opened in 1993, offers a variety of degree programs and has agreements with other colleges so students can complete work in fields such as human services and nursing.


Clan structure and rituals

The Menominee are divided into groups called Bear and Thunderer (see “Religion”). Each group consists of clans whose members consider one another brothers and sisters. Membership is passed down through the father. The Bear symbol was a female bear with a long tail, and Thunderer was represented by an eagle, the most beautiful and powerful bird of the country, perched upon a cross.

Today the Menominee retain some of their ancient rites. For example, they leave tobacco offerings at a stone called Spirit Rock to please the hero Manabozho, who turned a greedy warrior to stone for requesting eternal life. Menominee legend states that when Spirit Rock crumbles away, the Menominee will perish.


Menominee of old held a Beggars’ Dance in the fall, which celebrated the maple syrup season. Modern Menominee hold two annual powwows: the Veterans Powwow over Memorial Day weekend and the Annual Menominee Nation Contest Powwow the first weekend in August. At these powwows members of several different tribes participate in dance contests and tribal drumming performances.

Hunting and gathering rituals

Before gathering wild rice, the Menominee threw tobacco (considered a sacred substance) onto the water to please the spirits. When hunting, they took only what they needed for food, clothing, and sleeping mats. They hunted with bows lubricated with bear grease and arrows made of pine or cedar. Bear was a favorite prey, and when one was killed a special ceremony and feast was held, to which all a hunter’s friends were invited.


The dead were buried and a spirit house marked the grave. Some Menominee still follow this burial custom.

Current tribal issues

The Menominee have found themselves engaged in quarrels with sportsmen and conservationists regarding how they use their ancestral lands. Some claim Native Americans should not be able to use modern technologies when fishing, for example. Others claim the Menominee gave up their fishing rights entirely. In 1996 federal judge Barbara Crabb decided against the Menominee. She said that the Menominee have no special rights to these lands because the federal government had never told them that they would retain the right to hunt, fish, and gather on their ceded lands. The tribe hoped to appeal, but decided it would be too costly.

Menominee leaders are concerned about their environment and have objected to storage of nuclear waste on the reservation and to a planned copper mine that would degrade the Wolf River. To deal with these and other issues, they have formed an environmental services department to clean up hazardous waste and implement programs to improve the environment and restore the wildlife.

Notable people

Ada Deer (1935–) is a life-long advocate for social justice. She helped create Determination of Rights and Unity for Menominee Shareholders (DRUMS), which was instrumental in convincing Congress to reinstate the Menominee tribe after it was terminated in 1954. When Congress confirmed her nomination as the first woman to head the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs, she said: “I want to emphasize [that] my administration will be based on the Indian values of caring, sharing, and respect.… These values have been missing too long in the halls of government.”

Tribal leader Oshkosh (1795–1858), also known as Claw, was known for his efforts to promote peaceful co-existence with white settlers. Despite his best efforts, Menominee lands were taken, and he was forced to oversee the removal of his people to a reservation that was only a tiny portion of their former homeland.

Bial, Raymond. The Menominee. New York: Marshall Cavendish Benchmark, 2006.

Fowler, Verna, David Jeffery, and Herman J. Viola. The Menominee. Austin, TX: Raintree Steck-Vaughn, 2001.

Ourada, Patricia K. The Menominee. New York: Chelsea House, 1990.

Paterek, Josephine. Encyclopedia of American Indian Costume. New York: W. W. Norton, 1994.

Peroff, Nicholas C. Menominee Drums: Tribal Termination And Restoration, 1954–1974. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2006.

“Menominee Culture.“Indian Country. (accessed on July 7, 2007).

“Menominee Indian Tribe of Wisconsin.“Great Lakes Inter-Tribal Council. (accessed on July 7, 2007).

“Menominee Oral Tradition.“Indian Country. (accessed on July 7, 2007).

“Native Languages of the Americas: Menominee.“Native Languages of the Americas: Preserving and Promoting American Indian Languages. (accessed on July 7, 2007).

Sultzman, Lee. “Menominee History.” (accessed on July 7, 2007).

George Cornell, Ph.D.; Associate Professor, History and American Studies, Michigan State University; Director, Native American Institute

Laurie Edwards


views updated Jun 08 2018


ETHNONYM: Menomini


Identification. The name of this American Indian group, "Menominee," derives from the Chippewa mano mini, meaning "wild rice people."

Location. In the seventeenth century the Menominee inhabited the region bounded by Green Bay, Lake Michigan, and Lake Superior. Since the mid-nineteenth century they have occupied a reservation on the Wolf River in northEastern Wisconsin. The region is dominated by northern hardwood forests, mixed with spruce forests north of the Menominee River. Annual precipitation averages about thirty inches per year. Temperatures may reach as high as 90° F in the summer and dip as low as 30° F in the winter.

Demography. The first estimates of the Menominee Population are late and postdate a long decline following exposure to European disease. In 1820 the Menominee numbered 3,900. In 1834, following a smallpox epidemic, the population dropped to 2,500. By 1915 the population was increasing because of a declining death rate and the addition to the tribal rolls of mixed-bloods and persons married to Menominee. The Menominee numbered 2,917 in 1956 and about 2,700 in the late 1970s.

Linguistic Affiliation. Menominee is an Algonkian Language. It has been classified as a member of the Central Algonkian subgroup, but is not closely related to any other distinct language in the subgroup.

History and Cultural Relations

In the mid-seventeenth century the native groups neighboring the Menominee included the Chippewa to the north, the Winnebago to the south, and the Sauk, Fox, and Kickapoo to the west. The tribes that maintained the closest relations with the Menominee until immediately prior to the reservation period were the Winnebago and Chippewa. Intermarriage with these groups was so extensive that close links have continued through the modern period. Contact with French fur traders occurred about 1667 and with Jesuit missionaries in 1671. As close allies of the French, the Menominee prospered in the fur trade and by 1736 had become one of the dominant tribes in the region. In 1815 the Menominee came under the Control of the United States. At about this time, game in the Menominee territory was being rapidly depleted, and consequently the Menominee began ceding their lands to the United States. By 1854 the Menominee had ceded all of their lands and were removed to a four-hundred-square-mile Reservation along the upper Wolf River in the heart of their former territory. In 1961 federal jurisdiction over the Menominee reservation, guaranteed by treaty in 1854, was terminated and then restored in 1973.


In aboriginal times the Menominee followed a semisedentary seasonal village pattern organized around hunting, fishing, gathering, and horticulture. As a result of Menominee involvement in the fur trade, the village pattern disintegrated and was replaced by a more nomadic way of life oriented toward hunting, trapping, and trading. When the Menominee were removed to their reservation in 1854 a more sedentary settlement pattern was required. For a half century the Menominee dispersed widely across the reservation, but since 1900 they have tended to concentrate in the village centers of Neopit and Keshena, the latter being the location for the buildings and operations of the U.S. Indian Service.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities. The precontact Menominee had small gardens in which they grew squash, beans, and maize, but they were basically hunters and gatherers. They also harvested wild rice and made extensive use of the resources of streams, particularly sturgeon. Hunting was done by individuals and small groups, with occasional larger hunts for deer and bison. After contact with the French the Menominee became heavily involved in trapping and trading activities and remained so until the early part of the nineteenth century. Since game and fish were not available in sufficient quantities on their reservation, after 1854 some Menominee turned to farming, although this never proved to be a successful activity. Beginning in the late nineteenth century and up to the present day lumbering has been the primary source of subsistence for many Menominee. In the 1950s, incomes from lumbering were supplemented by seasonal agricultural work and a wide range of relatively minor economic activities, including farming, hunting, fishing, trapping, and gathering wild fruits.

Industrial Arts. The precontact Menominee made birch-bark and dugout canoes. They wove bags and baskets of vegetable fiber, bark, and bison hair, and manufactured pottery and bark and reed mats.

Trade. In precontact times the Menominee obtained catlinite originating from the Sioux quarries in present-day Minnesota and copper from the Lake Superior region and traded stone and wood manufactures to the Winnebago.

Division of Labor. Traditionally, men's responsibilities included hunting and fishing, warfare, ceremonial activities, preparing sacred artifacts, and manufacturing canoes and hunting and fishing equipment. Women's responsibilities included cooking, caring for children, collecting wild foods, gathering firewood, carrying water, dressing skins, making clothing, weaving mats and bags, and manufacturing pottery and household utensils. In the 1950s there was extensive sharing of economic roles between men and women among traditional Menominee. In addition, there was considerable occupational diversity among Menominee, most of it related to the lumber industry.

Land Tenure. During the fur trade period families claimed customary rights over particular river paths and hunting Territories, as game was depleted and hunting parties were forced to range over progressively wider territories.


Kin Groups and Descent. In aboriginal and early contact times the Menominee were organized into two moieties subdivided into totemic descent groups or clans. This system began to disintegrate in the 1700s under the impact of European contact and the nomadic way of life required by involvement in the fur trade. Totemic descent groups were patrilineal.

Kinship Terminology. Kinship terminology is of the Omaha type. One of the main features of Menominee family relationships was a classificatory system of terminology that was still in use in the 1960s.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. In aboriginal and early historic times marriages were arranged by kin groups and polygyny was practiced. A newly married couple usually lived with the husband's Parents. With the growing emphasis on mobility and smaller groups accompanying involvement in the fur trade, Monogamous marriages gradually became the norm.

Domestic Unit. The large extended family groups characteristic of the aboriginal and early historic Menominee were replaced during the fur trade period by small nomadic family hunting groups. In the 1950s Menominee were divided into approximately 550 households, most consisting of a nuclear family or an old couple with grandchildren or an unmarried daughter and her child.

Inheritance. Inheritance is bilateral. Sacred objects of the totem group are inherited from either the paternal or the maternal side.

Socialization. Traditionally, children were believed to be close to the supernatural through the event of birth and thus were considered extremely important. Infants were usually kept in cradle boards until the age of two or until they were able to walk and were nursed for as long as they would reach for the breast. Child training often took the form of story-telling, a common theme of which was constraint and self-control. Disciplining of children was left largely to the women. There was a distinct sanction against striking any child until he or she was eight years old. For punishment a child might be whipped about the legs, but never struck around the head, for it was believed that to do so would make the child dumb. Other punishments included throwing cold water in the child's face, scolding, or immersion in water. The favored form of coercion consisted of threats by reference to the owl or other creatures of the night. Many of these values and practices persisted in the 1950s among the traditional Menominee.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. Prior to contact with Europeans the Menominee were organized into semisedentary villages of extended family groups. Involvement in the fur trade undermined this system and led to the development of a band System of social organization that persisted until the reservation period. After their arrival on the reservation many Menominee grouped according to their band affiliations, but with a more sedentary way of life, band identities gradually disappeared.

Political Organization. The formal political structure of the aboriginal Menominee consisted of a tribal chief, who was the head of the Bear moiety and whose position was inherited, and several lesser hereditary chiefs, who were heads of the various totemic descent groups. Descent group chiefs constituted a village council and regulated civil affairs to a limited extent. In addition, there were chiefs who won Prestige through dreams or special prowess and who served as keepers of the war medicines and as public spokesmen for the hereditary leaders. Under the influence of the fur trade, Leadership qualifications were modified to include success in obtaining furs, directing hunting and trading expeditions, obtaining credit, public speaking, and getting along well with Whites and other Indian tribes.

Social Control. A strong belief in witchcraft functioned as a form of social control among the aboriginal and historic Menominee and persists today among traditional Menominee. The witch could be any powerful elder, and his victims, deviant members of the group who failed to observe the group's prescriptions for behavior.

Conflict. The Menominee were unprepared for self-government when their reservation status was terminated in 1961, and significant health, housing, education, and general welfare problems developed as a result. In the 1970s, after tribal status was restored, severe intratribal differences emerged, as the Menominee sought to find solutions to these problems.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. The Menominee belief system was dualistic, with a continuing cosmic conflict between good spirits above the earth and evil spirits below. The highest tier of the universe above the earth was the home of the supreme deity, Mecawetok, and below him were the Thunderbirds or Thunderers, the gods of war, and the Morning Star. Beneath the earth and in the lowest tier was Great White Bear, the main power of evil. Others who resided in the evil underworld were Underground Panther, White Deer, and Horned Hairy Serpent, who inhabited the lakes and streams and tried to cap-size boats in order to drag people to the underworld. The earth itself was believed to be peopled with evil spirits and hobgoblins. The central experience of Menominee religion was the dream revelation, in which individuals obtained special power in the form of a guardian spirit. With some changes, the pattern of securing a guardian spirit through fasting and dreaming persisted among traditional Menominee in 1960.

Religious Practitioners. Medicine men and diviners possessing powers obtained from their guardian spirits were organized into ceremonial societies, but worked more or less as individuals.

Ceremonies. A variety of ceremonial organizations developed among the Menominee after European contact, and some of these persisted in varying forms among traditional Menominee in the mid-1900s. These included the Medicine Lodge Society, whose ceremonies are intended to prolong the life and ensure the good health of the members; the Dream Dance or Drum Dance, which involved petitioning the spirits for help in the activities of everyday life; and the Warrior's Dance, borrowed from the Chippewa in 1925 and intended to protect men being drafted and participating in Contemporary wars.

Arts. Precontact art forms show a well-developed geometric art and indicate the use of highly conventionalized figures. Postcontact art forms included work with porcupine quills and animal hair with a religious motif. About 1830 a new phase in Menominee art was initiated in which the older geometric motifs were replaced with elaborate floral and realistic designs and the skin and quill work was replaced by cloth and beadwork with new color pigments. This art form persists in special events and dancing for tourists.

Medicine. Illness was believed to be the result of the loss of one's soul through witchcraft. Diviners with special powers consulted with the spirits to find the source of the illness and then would attempt to coax the soul of the patient to return and enter a small wooden cylinder where it was imprisoned and delivered to the patient's relatives. The cylinder was then attached to the patient's breast for four days so that the soul could return to the body.

Death and Afterlife. Traditionally, after death the deceased was placed on a scaffolding or buried beneath logs on the ground. Grave goods included the deceased's weapons, tools, and ornaments. Early observers of the Menominee Reported that a corpse was painted red to signify happiness at the privilege of the soul in departing to the spirit land. The ghosts of the dead were believed to linger around the grave indefinitely and to have a strong influence on the living. In spite of the fear of ghosts, mourners visited the burial place to offer food and games, and ritual activities were performed to keep the ghosts contented. Until the mid-twentieth century it was a common practice for the deceased to have his totem painted, usually upside down, on a grave stick at his place of burial. In modern times the dead are buried in a coffin in the ground beneath a small houselike structure with an opening through which food and other offerings can be placed.


Hoffman, Walter J. (1896). The Menomini Indians. U.S. Bureau of American Ethnology, 14th Annual Report (1892-1893), Pt. 1, 3-328. Washington, D.C.

Keesing, Felix M. (1939). The Menomini Indians of Wisconsin: A Study of Three Centuries of Cultural Contact and Change. Memoirs of the American Philosophical Society, no. 10. Philadelphia.

Skinner, Alanson B. (1913). Social Life and Ceremonial bundles of the Menomini Indians. American Museum of Natural History, Anthropological Papers 13, 1-165. New York.

Skinner, Alanson B. (1921). "Material Culture of the Menomini." Indian Notes and Monographs (Museum of the American Indian, Heye Foundation), misc. ser. 20(1). New York.

Spindler, George D. (1955). Sociocultural and Psychological Processes in Menomini Acculturation. University of California Publications in Culture and Society, no. 5. Berkeley.

Spindler, Louise S. (1962). Menomini Women and Culture Change. American Anthropologial Association, Memoir 91. Menasha, Wis.

Spindler, Louise S. (1978). "Menominee." In Handbook of North American Indians. Vol. 15, Northeast, edited by Bruce G. Trigger, 708-725. Washington, D.C: Smithsonian Institution.



views updated May 29 2018


MENOMINEE. The name of the Menominee tribe refers to the wild rice that grew in the tribe's homeland, 10 million acres in what is now eastern Wisconsin. Although the Menominees were forced to cede their land in a series of treaties between 1817 and 1856 and were scheduled to be moved west, they negotiated a treaty in 1854 securing a reservation of nearly 300,000 acres in their ancestral homeland. Menominee history is marked by a continuing struggle to keep and protect their remaining land, where subsistence hunting, fishing, and gathering were supplemented by gardens of corn, beans, and squash. The people managed village and tribal affairs according to a patrilineal clan system and a hereditary chieftainship that changed to a system of elected tribal officials. Nominally Roman Catholic since their first significant European contacts with French fur traders and Jesuits in the 1650s, the tribe's native religious practices continue among an active enclave of traditionalists.

As they were drawn into a money economy, the Menominees recognized the value of their timberland. They strongly opposed clear-cutting and devised the sustained-yield forestry system now widely practiced. Resisting the

federal allotment policy of the 1880s (see Dawes General Allotment Act), the Menominees were the only reservation tribe in Wisconsin and one of the few across the nation to escape its disastrous consequences. Lumbering operations provided employment, financed reservation services, paid salaries of Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) personnel, and supported the Catholic-run hospital and schools. The tribe also had nearly $10 million in working capital. Its relative prosperity made them appear "less Indian" than the many poor tribes and a prime candidate for the termination policy adopted in 1953 to eliminate reservations and force dispersal of the Indian tribes. The Termination Act was passed in 1954 over strenuous Me-nominee opposition; however, the tribe managed to delay its implementation until 1961. Meanwhile the tribe's lumber mill deteriorated and tribal resources were spent on a complicated self-management plan and to transfer tax-free federal land to county status for purposes of taxation. The tribe began termination with a $300,000 deficit. Their business operations were dominated by white government appointees, leaving the tribe with less control over their own affairs than under the BIA. Soon the hospital and schools closed, reservation services were abolished, and unemployment and health problems skyrocketed. Desperately needed revenue was raised through land sales. Termination also brought statutory genocide as tribal rolls were closed at 3,270 members in 1954.

A grassroots resistance movement to overturn termination began in late 1970 among urban Menominees, who then rallied the fearful reservation people. With legal help from Wisconsin Judicare and the Native American Rights Fund, the Menominees united as a tribe, developing a successful lobbying campaign that resulted in the precedent-setting Menominee Restoration Act signed by President Richard Nixon on 22 December 1973. But the damage wrought by termination could not be undone by the historic Restoration Act alone. Three decades later the tribe, then numbering over 8,000 (according to the 2000 Census), was still striving for the social and economic well-being enjoyed before termination.


Keesing, Felix M. The Menomini Indians of Wisconsin: A Study of Three Centuries of Cultural Contact and Change. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1987.

Lurie, Nancy Oestreich. "To Save the Menominee People and Land." In Approaches to Algonquian Archaeology: Proceedings of the Thirteenth Annual Conference, the Archaeology Association of the University of Chicago. Edited by Margaret G. Hanna and Brian Kooyman. Calgary, Alberta, Canada: University of Calgary Press, 1982.

Peroff, Nicholas C. Menominee Drums: Tribal Termination and Restoration, 1954–1974. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1982.

Shames, Deborah, ed. Freedom with Reservation: The Menominee Struggle to Save Their Land and People. Keshena, Wis.: College of the Menominee Nation Press, 1995.

Spindler, Louise S. "Menominee." In Handbook of North American Indians. Edited by William C. Sturtevant et al. Volume 15: Northeast, edited by Bruce G. Trigger. Washington D.C.: Smithsonian Institution, 1978.

Ada E.Deer

See alsoTermination Policy ; Tribes: Great Plains .


views updated May 21 2018

Menominee (Menomini) Algonquian-speaking tribe of Native North Americans once occupying the Menominee River, Wisconsin, to the area around Michilimackinac. Today c.3,500 inhabit the Menomini Reservation in ne Wisconsin.