In early historic times, the Potawatomi, an Algonkian-speaking tribe closely related to the Ottawa and the Ojibwa, lived in the lower peninsula of Michigan, eastern Wisconsin, northeastern Illinois, and northwestern Indiana. Between 1836 and 1841 a large segment of the tribe moved west of the Mississippi to Iowa, Kansas, or ultimately Oklahoma. Others moved to Canada and Wisconsin, and still others chose to remain in lower Michigan. Their descendants now live on a number of reserves in Canada, intermingled with other Canadian Indian groups, and on a number of reservations and trust areas in the United States. These include the Potawatomi Indian Reservation in Kansas (the Prairie Potawatomi, a very conservative group), the Citizen Band Potawatomi Tribe of Oklahoma, the Potawatomi Indian Reservation in Wisconsin, and the Hannahville Community in Wilson, Michigan. In addition, many Potawatomi have merged with the general U.S. population or with other Indian groups—for example, with the Kickapoo in Mexico and the United States. Their estimated population in 1600 was about 4,000; in the first half of the nineteenth century there were probably 9,000-10,000 Potawatomi. The population in recent times is difficult to establish, with estimates ranging from about 2,700 to about 13,500. It is not possible to make meaningful comparisons of these latter figures with earlier estimates because of the lack of comparability of degree of blood or sociocultural characteristics between the groups.
The Potawatomi do not seem to have had an overarching tribal organization. The most important political unit was the village, which was moved periodically. Each village had its own chief who was assisted by a village council and a specialized warrior sodality, which acted as a police force. An important local chief might dominate a large number of villages. There was a strongly functioning patrilineal corporate clan system, with a secondary emphasis on matrilineal bonds. There may have been as many as thirty clans, later organized into six phratries or larger units. At one time the clans may have been localized, but with the historical population movements they became distributed among numerous villages. The clan system added cohesion to the tribe as a whole and acted as a means of social placement.
Villages were shifted annually from summer to winter quarters and varied greatly in size, from fifty inhabitants to more than a thousand. Nuclear and extended families existed, with some of the larger extended families running to four generations under the same roof. Polygyny was the preferred form of marriage.
Subsistence was based on a seasonal mixed economy with the summer devoted to horticulture (maize, beans, melons, and squash), the collection of a variety of plant foods, hunting of large game (deer, bear, and in some areas bison), and some fishing. In the winter they dispersed to smaller camps where they continued to hunt. The winter camps combined in the spring for communal hunting drives and fishing expeditions.
Each clan had an associated medicine bundle, origin myth, ritual practices, and obligations. Clans had sodalities (including the Midewiwin, a society of influential sorcerers) and various types of shamans and diviners. The individual vision quest was very important. In later years, they were heavily missionized by several religious denominations.
Clifton, James A. (1977). The Prairie People: Continuity and Change in Potawatomi Culture, 1665-1965. Lawrence: Regents Press of Kansas.
Clifton, James A. (1978). "Potawatomi." In Handbook of North American Indians. Vol. 15, Northeast, edited by Bruce G. Trigger, 725-742. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution.
Landes, Ruth (1970). The Prairie Potawatomi: Tradition and Ritual in the Twentieth Century. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.
"Potawatomi." Encyclopedia of World Cultures. . Encyclopedia.com. (June 17, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/potawatomi
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POTAWATOMI. Closely allied with the Ottawas and Ojibwes, the Potawatomis occupied a broad homeland; from southern Wisconsin it stretched across northern Illinois, northern Indiana, and southern Michigan, to Detroit. From the seventeenth century onward, the Potawatomis were close allies of the French, and of ten assisted them in their colonial wars with the British. During the American Revolution, the easternmost Potawatomi bands supported the British, while Potawatomis from Wisconsin and Illinois were neutral or assisted the Americans. In the post-Revolutionary period, Potawatomis joined the Indian coalition that resisted the American occupation of Ohio and participated in the border warfare of the 1790s. Many Potawatomis later became followers of Tecumseh and the Shawnee Prophet and fought with the British during the War of 1812.
After the War of 1812, many Potawatomis, both men and women, were prosperous traders in the Midwest. During the 1830s, part of the tribe was removed to Iowa and Kansas, and in the decade that followed, consolidated on a reservation near Topeka, Kansas. After the Civil War, the Citizen Band moved to Oklahoma, where they maintained tribal offices in Shawnee. The Prairie Band, a more traditional community, continues to occupy a reservation near in Mayetta, Kansas. Since 1913, the Forest Band has resided on a reservation in Forest County, Wisconsin. Other Potawatomis maintain reservation communities in Michigan and southern Ontario.
Clifton, James. The Prairie People: Continuity and Change in Potawatomi Indian Culture, 1665–1965. Lawrence: The Regents Press of Kansas, 1977.
Edmunds, R. David. The Potawatomis: Keepers of the Fire. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1978.
———. Kinsmen through Time: An Annotated Bibliography of Potawatomis History. Metuchen, N.J.: Scarecrow Press, 1987.
Sleeper-Smith, Susan. Indian Woman and French Men: Rethinking Cultural Encounters in the Western Great Lakes. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2001.
See alsoPottawatomie Massacre; Tribes: Prairie; Wars with Indian Nations, Colonial Era to 1783; Wars with Indian Nations, Early Nineteenth Century (1783–1840).
"Potawatomi." Dictionary of American History. . Encyclopedia.com. (June 17, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/history/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/potawatomi
"Potawatomi." Dictionary of American History. . Retrieved June 17, 2019 from Encyclopedia.com: https://www.encyclopedia.com/history/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/potawatomi
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Potawatomi (pŏt´əwŏt´əmē), Native North Americans whose language belongs to the Algonquian branch of the Algonquian-Wakashan linguistic stock (see Native American languages). They are closely related to the Ojibwa and Ottawa; their traditions state that all three were originally one people. The Potawatomi are of the Eastern Woodlands cultural area (see under Natives, North American).
In the early 17th cent., when first encountered by the whites, the Potawatomi lived near the mouth of Green Bay in Wisconsin. By the end of the century, however, they had been driven (probably by the Sioux) S along Lake Michigan and were settled on both sides of the southern end of the lake. After the Illinois were conquered (c.1765), they advanced into NE Illinois, S Michigan, and later NW Indiana. They were friendly to the French and aided them against the English. The Potawatomi supported Pontiac's Rebellion, fought against the United States in the battles headed by Little Turtle, took part in the battle of Fallen Timbers, and signed the Treaty of Greenville (1795). They sided with the British in the War of 1812. With the advancing frontier, the Potawatomi retreated westward to Iowa and Kansas, although a portion went to Walpole Island in Canada. From the reservation in Kansas where they had gathered, a large group moved (1868) to Oklahoma Indian Territory; this group, which held lands in severalty, became known as Citizen Potawatomi. They also have reservations in Michigan and Wisconsin. In 1990 there were close to 17,000 Potawatomi in the United States; another group has a reserve in Ontario. Their name is also spelled Potawatami, Pottawatami, and Pottawatomi.
See R. Landes, The Prairie Potawatomi (1970).
"Potawatomi." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Encyclopedia.com. (June 17, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/reference/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/potawatomi
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"Potawatomi." World Encyclopedia. . Encyclopedia.com. (June 17, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/environment/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/potawatomi
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The name Potawatomi (pronounced pot-uh-WOT-uh-mee ) comes from the Ojibway “potawatomink,” which means “people of the place of fire.” The Potawatomi call themselves Nishnabek, meaning “true or original people.”
The Potawatomi originally lived on the east coast of the United States. In the mid-2000s, they lived on scattered reservations and communities in southern Michigan and the upper peninsula of Michigan, in northern Indiana, northeastern Wisconsin, northeastern Kansas, and central Oklahoma. They also resided on several reserves in Canada. (Reserve is the Canadian term for reservation.)
In the early 1800s there were an estimated 9,000 to 10,000 Potawatomi. In the 1990 U.S. Census, 16,719 people identified themselves as Potawatomi. About 2,000 more lived in Canada. Beginning with the 2001 census, Canada no longer provided separate population statistics for the Potawatomi. The tribe was grouped with the other two members of the “Three Fires Confederacy,“the Ottawa and Ojibway (see entry). In 2000 the U.S. census showed that 16,164 Potawatomi lived in the United States.
Origins and group affiliations
The ancestors of the Potawatomi lived on the east coast of the United States, but according to their traditions, after receiving a message from the spirit world, they migrated westward. Sometime before the early 1600s they split into three factions near the Michigan Straits of Mackinac. The three groups came to be known as the Potawatomi, the Ojibway, and the Ottawa. After separating, the “Three Fires Confederacy” retained a special relationship, often living in the same communities and supporting each other in battles with Europeans and Americans.
Potawatomi history is marked by tribal expansion and transformation from a hunter-gatherer culture to a farming culture and later to a buffalo-hunting culture. Before Europeans came, the tribe lived near the rivers and lakes of lower Michigan. After contact with the French, they replaced their canoes with horses and became fur traders and buffalo hunters. Due to a series of treaties and white settlement on their land, many Potawatomi were relocated to the south-central states. In the mid-2000s the Potawatomi were scattered throughout the Midwest and Prairie states; some lived on reservations, but many lived in cities and other rural areas.
Early Potawatomi were hunter-gatherers living on the west side of the Great Freshwater Sea, Lake Huron. They clustered in what is now southern Michigan, residing in villages beside streams and lakes, which provided abundant fish and waterways for traveling. By the end of the 1500s the Potawatomi had also settled in northern Indiana.
In the 1600s European settlers moved westward from the Atlantic coast. As the settlers pushed west they displaced the tribes who, in turn, moved farther westward themselves. Facing an influx of hostile tribes the Potawatomi moved to the west side of Lake Michigan into present-day Wisconsin. After a prolonged war with the invading Iroquois Confederacy (see entry) the Potawatomi yielded southern Michigan and moved farther into mid- and northern Wisconsin and northern Michigan.
c. 1640: The Potawatomi meet their first Europeans, French traders in search of beaver and missionaries seeking converts to the Roman Catholic faith.
1656: The Iroquois win the war against the Algonquin confederation (which includes the Potawatomi). Potawatomi flee to northern Michigan and Wisconsin.
1690: The Iroquois’s hold on Michigan weakens; Potawatomi resettle in lower Michigan and move into Illinois and southern Wisconsin.
1761: The Potawatomi switch allegiance from the French to the British; they later help the British by attacking American settlers during the American Revolution.
1795: Representatives of defeated Potawatomi sign the Treaty of Greenville with the United States, ending hostilities. U.S. government takes over Potawatomi lands for white settlement.
1830: The Indian Removal Act is passed. United States forces Native tribes to leave their lands and resettle on reservations.
1953–54: The Prairie Band successfully fights to avoid termination of its federal tribal status under leadership of tribal chair Minnie Evans.
1990: The Hannahville Potawatomi open the Chip-in Casino at Escanaba, Michigan.
1998: The Prairie Band Casino opens, employing 750 people, and the Citizen band adds a radio station to their other holdings.
Alliance with the French
The move west brought the Potawatomi into contact with farming tribes, and they soon added farm crops to their diet. They also met the French for the first time. French fur traders and Catholic missionaries had arrived about 1640. The tribe began to hunt furs for the French, and some converted to Roman Catholicism. A military alliance with the French made the Potawatomi stronger than their neighbors, and they soon controlled trade routes. By the 1670s the Potawatomi were strong enough and had forged enough alliances with other tribes to push the Iroquois out of Michigan.
After the Iroquois were driven from Michigan in the 1690s the Potawatomi returned, and tribal expansion began in earnest. From being farmers the Potawatomi evolved into traders and wide-ranging hunters.
Impact of horse and buffalo
Contact with European settlers brought two major changes to the Potawatomi economy. It introduced metal weapons and tools, such as hoes and rakes. It also encouraged the Potawatomi to replace their traditional means of travel, the birchbark canoe, with horses. Use of horses meant the Potawatomi could participate in the autumn buffalo hunts on the prairies. Horses also extended their traveling range, bringing the Potawatomi into contact with new tribes and new territory. Sometimes this contact resulted in battles as the Potawatomi clashed with tribes already living in these areas.
The buffalo brought about another change in Potawatomi life, allowing them to become nomads who could roam more widely. The tribe became less dependent on living near rivers or lakes since they now had an alternate food source. They built villages farther inland, used buffalo hides for shelter and clothing, and used other parts of the animal to make tools.
The Potawatomi used French-supplied weapons and horses to lay claim to an ever-expanding territory. At their height in the mid-1800s the Potawatomi homeland stretched from southern Michigan through northern Indiana and northeastern Illinois, and around the southern end of Lake Michigan in southeastern Wisconsin.
When the French lost control over the Great Lakes region around 1695 the Potawatomi allied themselves with the British, the new military force in the area. At British urging the Potawatomi harassed American settlers who were pushing their way into the Midwest. The Native Americans also fought as British allies during the American Revolution (1775-83; the American colonists’ fight for independence from England). In 1795 battles between the Potawatomi and the Americans ended when the Potawatomi and other Native Americans signed the Treaty of Greenville.
Dealings with the U.S. government
The Treaty of Greenville began an era of decline for the Potawatomi as the U.S. government desired their land for American settlers. Their territory shrank, and food became scarce. Between 1795 and 1837 the Potawatomi signed 38 treaties with the United States, yielding more than half their land in exchange for cash, food, goods, services, and eventually, reservations.
Along with this loss of land came the U.S. government policy called “removal.” Under this policy Native Americans were relocated from their ancestral lands to places farther west. Relocating the tribes left their lands open for white settlement.
In the case of the Potawatomi the Indian Removal Act of 1830 meant that the majority of the tribe left their homelands for reservations west of the Mississippi River. The Indiana Potawatomi were moved to Kansas during a forced march called the “Trail of Death.” More than 150 Potawatomi died during this terrible journey, half of them children. The Potawatomi from Wisconsin and Illinois were removed to Iowa and then Kansas. In Kansas the Mission band separated from the Prairie band, and in 1867 they moved to a reservation in Oklahoma, where they now live as the Citizen band.
Not all Potawatomi were willing to go to the reservation and some fled into Canada. Others hid out in Michigan and eventually received permission to settle on a reservation there. The relocation process lasted from 1835 to 1867.
The Potawatomi today
In the late 1990s six distinct bands of Potawatomi lived in the United States and a seventh band lived in Canada. The Canadian band numbered about two thousand people, descendants of the Potawatomi who fled from the United States during the “removal.”
In 2007 seven bands resided in the United States. There were also several reserves with significant Potawatomi populations in Canada, but because different tribes live on the same reserves there and intermarriage is common, separate population statistics for the Potawatomi are no longer kept. They are generally grouped with the Ottawa and Ojibway, the other two members of the “Three Fires Confederacy.“
Of the seven U.S. bands the Citizen band in Oklahoma is the largest. The Citizen Potawatomi are the most assimilated, meaning they have blended into white culture, and many are Christians. The federal government recognizes them as a tribe. This means that the U.S. government negotiates with the tribe as if it were a distinct nation, the same way it negotiates with other nations. Federally recognized tribes are also entitled to financial and other assistance.
The Forest County band, by contrast, is the most traditional, using the Potawatomi language and keeping tribal religious rituals and customs alive. They live in northern Wisconsin and are a federally recognized tribe.
The Hannahville Potawatomi were recognized as a tribe by the federal government in 1936. They live in upper Michigan where they settled after fleeing the forced removals of the 1830s.
The Huron Potawatomi moved from southern Michigan to Kansas during the removal period. Although they were once federally recognized as a tribe recognition was withdrawn in 1902. Without federal recognition the tribe does not exist as far as the government is concerned, and it is not entitled to financial and other help. In 1995 the Huron Potawatomi regained their federal recognition.
Pokagon Potawatomi escaped removal because of a treaty. They have remained in southwest Michigan. Due to the influence of French missionaries many members of this tribe became Roman Catholics. The Pokagons lost their tribal status with the federal government in 1934 but were re-recognized in 1994.
The Prairie Band of Potawatomi. who now live in Kansas, were originally from the lands west of Lake Michigan. They were first removed to Iowa and later to Kansas as white settlement pushed ever westward. They are a federally recognized tribe.
In 1999 the Match-E-Be-Nash-She-Wish Band, also called the Gun Lake Tribe, won federal recognition. Since that time the tribe has been working to create a 146-acre (59-hectare) reservation. They also have plans to open a casino in western Michigan.
Traditional Potawatomi religion is not a separate practice, but runs through every aspect of tribal life. Religion connects the tribe to their community, to nature, to their ancestors, and to the supernatural world. Potawatomi are connected to their ancestors through the Great Chain of Being (Matchimadzhen ), which links past, present, and future generations.
Supernatural beings include the cultural hero, Wiske, and his more evil brother, Chipiyapos. Potawatomi people communicated with the spirit world and gained protection and guidance through visions. They achieved visions through fasting (not eating) and through the power of a personal medicine bundle, a collection of sacred objects.
A number of religious leaders ranging from various types of shamans (pronounced SHAH-munz or SHAY-munz ) to the priests of the Midéwiwin society, provided spiritual direction for Potawatomi communities. The Midéwiwin, or Medicine Society, was open to both men and women of any village who had special powers for foretelling and influencing the future. Each Potawatomi clan had its own sacred bundle, along with its own special dances, songs, and chants. The clan established its own rules of behavior for the members.
Contact with European settlers exposed the Potawatomi to Protestant and Catholic missionaries, and some converted to the new religions. Others reacted to the white influence on their culture by joining movements they encountered in neighboring tribes that revived the old ways. One such movement originated with the Shawnee Prophet, a Kickapoo Indian who attracted many Potawatomi followers (see Shawnee entry).
One religious movement, the Dream Dance, began with the vision of a Santee Dakota (see Dakota entry) woman in 1876. In her vision she saw the end of U.S. expansion and Native American domination of the land. By the 1950s the Dream Dance found expression among many Native Americans who saw it as a message of hope and brotherhood. The Prairie Potawatomi, for instance, read the message as a need to express their cultural identity and to preserve their traditional values.
In the early twenty-first century religion in the Potawatomi communities embraces Christianity, the Dream Dance, and the Native American Church. The tribe blends these beliefs with their traditional emphasis on a balanced relationship with nature, respect for elders, and humility before the powers of the spiritual world.
The Potawatomi spoke a version of the central Algonquin language that shares many sounds and words with the languages of the Sac and Fox (see entry), and Kickapoo tribes. In structure the Potawatomi language is similar to southern Ojibway and Ottawa.
Historically each Potawatomi village was ruled by a chief, called a wkema, or leader. The chief, a senior member of the clan and a man of good character, was selected by his village. If he were strong and wealthy enough he could rule over several villages, but this did not happen often.
The chief was assisted by a council of adult males who approved the chief’s decisions and a society of warriors called the wkec tak. A man called the pipelighter carried announcements, arranged ceremonies, and called council meetings.
Relationships among the widely scattered Potawatomi villages (they had villages in four states) were kept strong through social ties such as marriage. As the Potawatomi nation expanded new villages were founded, but the people retained close ties to their old villages and clans. The clans, such as the Bear Clan and the Wolf clan, were large extended family groups that originally had animal symbols.
Potawatomi Population: 2000 Census
According to the U.S. Census Bureau 16,164 people said they were Potawatomi in 2000. Because the census no longer provides statistics for groups with populations less than 50, no figures are available for the Hannahville and Huron Potawatomi. Other tribe members identified themselves this way:
“2000 Census of Population and Housing. Matrix 7: American Indian and Alaskan Native summary file.” Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Commerce, Bureau of the Census, Data User Services Division, American FactFinder, 2004.
In 2007 each Potawatomi community lived on its own reservation. Federally recognized tribes were sovereign (in charge of their land and affairs). They had their own governments, laws, police, and services, similar to any other independent country. Most Potawatomi groups are governed by elected tribal councils.
In early times the Potawatomi were hunter-gatherers, living according to the seasons. They settled near rivers, streams, or lakes and hunted the creatures that flourished there. After European contact they traded the pelts of the small animals they captured to the French and later to the British.
After the Potawatomi were forced to flee northward to escape the Iroquois about 1640 they learned agricultural methods from their new neighbors, the Sac, Fox, Kickapoo, and Winnebago and became farmers. The women of the tribe tended crops, while the men hunted. By now, however, the men tracked the larger game abundant in the northern woods, such as elk, bear, deer, and beaver. The Potawatomi economy depended heavily on trading these animal hides for European weapons, tools, cooking utensils, and cloth.
As of 2007 the Potawatomi held a wide variety of jobs. Many of the Prairie band, who lived on a reservation in Kansas north of Topeka, had turned to the gaming industry and had opened a casino and bingo parlors. The Prairie Band Casino and hotel, a $37-million complex, opened in 1998 and provided jobs for many people both on and off the reservation.
In the first half of the twentieth century the Hannahville Potawatomi in northern Michigan relied on farming and forestry. They farmed small plots whose crops included corn, squash, beans, pumpkins, and potatoes. Hunting and fishing rounded out their diet. Cash came from running sawmills, which turned the local timber into building materials. By the 1950s the timber was exhausted, and the tribe sought a new source of income. In 1990 they opened the Chip-in Casino in Escanaba, which provides them with regular employment and money to invest in programs to help the tribe.
The Wisconsin Potawatomi, the Forest County band, relied on timber for jobs and income into the 1950s. When their forests were exhausted they too turned to casinos and now own two, one in Milwaukee and the other in Carter. They also own a gas station, lease a smoke shop, and have their own logging crew.
The Potawatomi in southern Michigan, the Huron and the Pokagon, traditionally farmed and fished. Many of the Huron Potawatomi still live on the 120-acre (48-hectare) Pine Creek Reservation. The Pokagon have no reservation, and many have assimilated, participating in the culture of the cities around them. In the mid-2000s they developed the Four Winds Casino Resort, which has a casino, a hotel, retail businesses, and restaurants all under one roof to provide jobs for many tribal members and those in nearby communities.
The Citizen Band Potawatomi in Oklahoma intermixed with the white culture, and many are of mixed blood. They hold powwows (see “Festivals”) each June to preserve their Native heritage. The tribe owns and operates a golf course, a restaurant, gaming parlors, convenience stores, a bank, a museum and gift shop, and a racetrack. In 1998 they also purchased a radio station that broadcasts from Shawnee.
As children Potawatomi learned to bravely accept hardships like hunger and danger. Both boys and girls played with toys that prepared them for traditional adult roles in the tribe. Boys used bows and arrows, while girls played with cornhusk dolls.
In the 2000s some tribes run Native American schools on their reservations, while other children attend public schools. Potawatomi people in the late twentieth century have turned their energies to the revival of Native language skills and cultural traditions. Many communities periodically hold powwows where they express their spiritual beliefs through dancing, singing, and drumming.
The Forest County group operates the Even Start program, which provides weekly language classes, as well as flash cards and videotapes for use in the home. It also runs the Fire Keeper Alternative Education Program to provide basic academic instruction for students who are having difficulty in school. The school also teaches cultural subjects such as language, singing, drumming, and crafts.
Originally Potawatomi summer homes were rectangular wigwams on the shores of lakes and rivers. They used saplings that grew nearby as a skeleton for the wigwam, draping it with woven mats or sheets of bark. A smoke hole in the roof provided ventilation. Dome-shaped winter wigwams were smaller to conserve heat. Later some Potawatomi lived in log cabins like their white neighbors.
Traditionally fish was a staple in the Potawatomi diet. They also hunted wild game, such as muskrat, squirrel, raccoon, porcupine, turtle, duck, goose, and turkey. Meat from wolves and dogs was featured at certain rituals. Later large game such as buffalo and deer became common. The Potawatomi also gathered local wild foods, such as wild rice, red oak acorns, sap for maple syrup, grapes, chokecherries, plant roots, and a large variety of berries.
Farm crops included corn, beans, squash, and tobacco. Modern Potawatomi crops vary according to the tribe’s location and climate. A traditional meal might include meat, gravy, corn soup, frybread, boiled potatoes, and hominy (a dish made from corn).
Clothing and adornment
The Potawatomi wore clothing made from the hides of the animals they ate. They also wore woven fabric garments. Originally they used shells found alongside streams as beads to decorate their hair, body, and clothing. Later they used metal decorations.
Both men and women wore their hair long. Women usually wore one long braid at the back. In times of war warriors shaved their heads except for a scalplock, a long lock of hair on the top of a shaven head. They put red and black paint on their faces.
Before their contact with white settlers the Potawatomi relied heavily on their oral (spoken) tradition to pass down stories and rituals from one generation to the next. They also used a system of pictographs (picture symbols) to help people remember complicated rituals and story details. These pictographs were drawn on birch bark scrolls.
Potawatomi elders told stories to instruct Potawatomi children in how to live a respectful and spiritual life. In the twenty-first century many Potawatomi communities continue to share knowledge and cultural traditions through storytelling.
Potawatomi and Native American culture continue to fascinate people today. In 1994 Potawatomi dances were the subject of a ballet performed by the Milwaukee Ballet. The ballet was danced to an original composition based on Potawatomi legends.
The Adventure of a Poor Man
The following story emphasizes the need to show respect for the dead by performing the proper rituals and reveals the importance of hospitality in Potawatomi society. The story begins with a poor man with few friends leaving for a hunting expedition. He kills a deer and sets up camp to cook it. Suddenly two strange, silent men appear.
“Hau,” said the man, “My friends, you frightened me.… I am poor. No one brought me up to know what to do under such circumstances. I should like to know who you are, but I do not know how to ask.” The two smiled and nodded to him in a friendly manner, so he went on: “Well, I shall feed you, and do what I can for your comfort.” They nodded again. “Are you ghosts?” the hunter inquired. Again they smiled and bowed, so he began to broil meat on the coals, as one does for the souls of the dead.
Now it happened that this man was camped right in the midst of an ancient and forgotten cemetery, and, guessing something of the sort, he offered prayers to the dead in his own behalf, and for his wife and child. He offered to make a feast of the dead, and always to mention the names of the two visitors, or at least to speak of them.
The very next day he killed four bucks right in the trail and luck went with him wherever he traveled. When he got home, he told his wife what had happened, and how he had been frightened when these two naked, soundless men stood there. He told her to help him prepare a feast for them, although he did not know their names, for he hoped that these ghosts would help them to become accepted by society. He made a scaffold and invited one of the honorable men of the tribe, and told him of the strange adventure which had befallen him. He explained that he did not know how to go about giving a feast of the dead, and he turned it over to the elder.
The old man said that the poor man had done the right thing, and that the appearance of these ghosts was a good omen. So the feast was held.
A long time passed, and the poor man became a very great hunter, but he never forgot to sacrifice holy tobacco to the two spirits. He could even find and kill bears in the wintertime, something that no one else even thought of doing, but he could locate their dens at will. At length he even became one of the leaders of the tribe, and held the office of the man who was supposed to apprise the people of the arrival of visitors. He was the first to give presents to visiting strangers, and his name was N’wä’k’to, or “Keeps-on-even-with-everything.”
Skinner, Alanson. “The Adventure of a Poor Man.” Bulletin of the Public Museum of the City of Milwaukee. Vol. 6, No. 3. Milwaukee: 1927.
Potawatomi children were called by different names as they grew up. During the first year a child was simply called “infant.” On the child’s first birthday the clan gave him or her a name. During their youth children were called “young boy” or “young girl.”
Childhood ended for Potawatomi at puberty. A girl was considered a woman after she started her menstrual cycle, and girls typically married at a younger age than boys. Boys reached maturity through dream quests and hunting.
The Citizen band Potawatomi in Oklahoma hosts one of the country’s largest annual powwows, a several-day celebration of Native culture. Events include meals with traditional foods and storytelling. Also popular with Native and non-Native audiences are the highly competitive dance contests, with dances such as the Grass Dance (in which dancers wear a bunch of grass at their belts) and the Northern Shawl Dance.
Death and burial
Traditionally Potawatomi funeral rituals were conducted by the clan of the deceased. They dressed a body of man in his best clothing and laid him out with prized and everyday belongings, such as his moccasins, rifle, knife, money, ornaments, food, and tobacco.
The dying person decided how to dispose of his body. Bodies could be buried in a variety of positions—standing, sitting, or lying down. Or the corpse could be placed above ground in the fork of a tree. The burial site was marked with a post painted with pictograms to show the dead person’s clan. After a death the chief mourner adopted a replacement relative from the clan.
Current tribal issues
As with many other Native American tribes a major issue for the Potawatomi has been to convince the U.S. government of the legality of Potawatomi claims to land, fishing and hunting rights, and self-rule.
Other tribal issues include creating jobs that allow the Potawatomi to live and work on reservations so they can maintain their culture. Many Potawatomi continue to live in poverty because of high unemployment. With the opening of casinos many tribes added more jobs, but on reservations where seasonal employment is the main livelihood, unemployment can be as high as seventy percent during the off-season.
The tribe’s high-school dropout rates are higher than in the rest of the U.S. population, and many groups seek to bring job-training programs to the reservations. Social services include alcohol treatment programs, day care, and legal assistance.
The Potawatomi are concerned with protecting their natural resources. The Forest County community formed part of an action group that opposed the proposed establishment of a zinc-copper sulfide mine in northeastern Wisconsin. To prevent the mine and the environmental damage that would occur, along with the Sokaogon Chippewa Mole Lake Band, they bought the mine site in 2003 with casino profits. In 2006 they purchased additional rights from the owners of the Crandon Mine site, so the site cannot be used for mining in the future.
The Hannahville Potawatomi manage their own forest, farm, and wildlife. They also hope to get federal approval to build a casino more than 450 miles (724 kilometers) from their reservation. An off-reservation gaming facility is unusual, but they have the support of city officials in Romulus, Michigan, where the facility is to be built. Revenues from the casino would not only benefit the tribe, but also the city and state.
In the early 1990s Canadian Potawatomi, who fled to that country during the U.S. “Indian Removal,” filed a lawsuit for compensation for the land they lost. Although they should be entitled to money, which the U.S. Potawatomi tribes received, the federal government is reluctant to pay tribes outside the country’s borders. As of 2007 they were still waiting for a settlement.
One of the most influential individuals in twentieth-century Potawatomi history was Minnie Evans (d. 1971), tribal chair of the Prairie Band of Kansas in the 1950s. In 1953 the U.S. government decided to terminate the federally recognized tribal status of this band of Potawatomi. Through the policy of termination, aimed at many Native American tribes in the 1950s, the government sought to end its trust relationship with those tribes deemed capable of assimilating (blending) most easily into mainstream society. As termination would have ended vital government-provided services and threatened protection of tribal resources, Minnie Evans led the Prairie Band in fighting the process. Along with Prairie Band tribal members James Wahbnosah and John Wahwassuck, she testified before Congress in 1954, leading an opposition movement that prevented the termination of her tribe.
Letourneau (Blackbird) was chief of the village of Milwaukee in the eighteenth century; he kept his people safe by convincing many of his warriors not to side with the British during the American Revolution. Main Poche (French for “withered hand”) was a war chief and medicine man who led resistance to American colonization during the early 1800s.
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Landes, Ruth. The Prairie Potawatomi: Tradition and Ritual in the Twentieth Century. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1970.
Levier, Frances, and Patricia Sulcer. Grandfather Tell Me a Story; an Oral History Project Conducted By the Citizen Band Potawatomi Tribe of Oklahoma. OK: The Citizen Band Oatawatomi, 1984.
Mayrl, Damon. The Potawatomi of Wisconsin. New York: Powerkids Press, 2003.
Mcmullen, John William. The Last Blackrobe of Indiana and the Potawatomi Trail of Death. Mansfield, MA: Charles River Press, 2006.
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Larry, Mitchell. The Native Blog. (accessed on July 15, 2007).
Match-e-be-nash-she-wish Band of Pottawatomi. (accessed on July 15, 2007).
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Pitawanakwat, Lillian. “Ojibwe/Potawatomi (Anishinabe) Teaching.” Four Directions Teachings. (accessed July 15, 2007).
Pokagon Band of Potawatomi Indians. (accessed on July 15, 2007).
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Wasauksing First Nation (Georgian Bay, Ontario, Canada). (accessed on May 20, 2007).
George Cornell, Ph.D.; Associate Professor, History and American Studies, Michigan State University; Director, Native American Institute
"Potawatomi." U*X*L Encyclopedia of Native American Tribes. . Encyclopedia.com. (June 17, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/potawatomi-0
"Potawatomi." U*X*L Encyclopedia of Native American Tribes. . Retrieved June 17, 2019 from Encyclopedia.com: https://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/potawatomi-0