views updated Jun 11 2018


ETHNONYMS: Gens des Puants, Hocangra


Identification. Located on Green Bay at the time of Contact, the Winnebago later expanded across southwestern Wisconsin and northwestern Illinois. They are now two separately organized groups: one on tribal and individual trust lands scattered over a dozen counties in central Wisconsin and the other on a reservation in Nebraska. Linguistically, they are closely related to the Chiwere Siouan-speaking Iowa, Missouri, and Oto.

Location. This historic territory is characterized by numerous lakes and marshes, generally well drained, with part deciduous and part coniferous forests and patches of prairie. It lies within the line of 120 consecutive frost-free days necessary for maize cultivation.

Demography. Estimates place the aboriginal population at thirty-five hundred to four thousand. Large population decreases occurred after contact, but the group's numbers have now risen to more than thirty-five hundred people each in the Nebraska and Wisconsin enclaves, with perhaps another two thousand in urban areas, primarily in the northern Midwest.

History and Cultural Relations

Various clues point to Winnebago intrusion into Wisconsin from the Southeast. At the time of contact, most of the people congregated in a large village, Red Banks, on the south side of Green Bay. The French learned of the Winnebago from the Ottawa in the early 1620s, though it was not until 1665 that documentation of Winnebago history began. At that time they had recently experienced a period of intertribal wars, epidemics, and famine and were reduced to some 450 to 600 people in all. They made peace and intermarried with neighboring tribes, eventually recouping their population loss. Borrowing extensively from other Algonkian-speaking tribes, they reorganized their socioeconomic patterns to engage in the fur trade. By the eighteenth century, the tribe had withdrawn from Green Bay, and the village groups began separating. They eventually gained firm control of an area bounded on the east and south by Lake Winnebago and the Rock River, on the north and east by the Fox-Wisconsin portage route and the Black River, and on the west by the eastern watershed of the Mississippi River, their territory extending to the river north of Prairie du Chien. They occupied more than thirty villages of one hundred to three hundred people each, trading at major fur company posts in Portage and Prairie du Chien and with independent traders.

The Winnebago signed boundary treaties with the United States in 1825, 1827, and 1828, and treaties ceding their southern lands between the Rock and lower Wisconsin rivers in 1829 and 1832. The Winnebagos' remaining Wisconsin land between the Mississippi and upper Wisconsin rivers was not adequate to support all the people and the 1832 treaty provided a reservation along the Mississippi in Iowa. When the government wanted their last Wisconsin land, the Winnebago sent a delegation to Washington to oppose the sale. Pressured to sign a treaty if they hoped to return home, the group agreed to a treaty that gave them only eight months to move, which created a permanent split in the tribe. The southern villagers, whose land had been overrun by lead miners and already ceded had little recourse but to accept removal, but the northern villagers repudiated the treaty and led a fugitive existence in Wisconsin for nearly three decades. The removed group signed treaties in 1846 and 1855 for new reservations, ending up at Blue Earth, Minnesota. The 1862 Sioux uprising in Minnesota prompted an executive order to remove them along with the dissident Sioux. By the summer of 1863, all had fled the barren land assigned to them in South Dakota, with about twelve hundred arriving among the Omaha in Nebraska. In 1865, they ceded their South Dakota land by treaty for a reservation on what had been the northern strip of the Omaha reservation.

The government initiated allotment in 1871 which was completed under the General Indian Allotment Act of 1887. Generally, the people settled in the unallotted timber land along the Missouri River. They leased and later sold their farmland to Whites. By World War I, most of the western two-thirds of the reservation had passed out of Winnebago ownership. The Indian Bureau repressed traditional leadership and social organization. When the Indian Reorganization Act was passed in 1934, the Nebraska Winnebago established a constitutional government under its provisions.

After 1837, the defiant Winnebago hiding out in central Wisconsin were periodically rounded up by the government and moved to whatever reservation the rest of the tribe currently occupied. But they always returned to Wisconsin. When the Homestead Act of 1862 was extended to Indians, some Wisconsin Winnebago took up homesteads after 1874, but many were afraid to appear before White authorities. In 1881, all the Wisconsin Winnebago were assigned homesteads under special legislation. They retained many of their governing and religious structures. Settlements sprang up with a western focus in the Black River Falls area, where the Evangelical and Reform church established a mission and day school in 1878 and later a boarding school at Neillsville, and an eastern focus near Wittenberg, where a Norwegian Lutheran mission and boarding school opened at Tomah in the 1890s. As the twentieth century wore on, traditional religion and with it traditional social organization came under increasing threat from inroads of mission Christianity and the Peyote or Native American Church.

A new sense of tribal unity was set in motion in Wisconsin when the people elected a claims committee in 1947 to work with the Nebraska tribal council on a common claim before the U.S. Indian Claims Commission. The claim of about $4.5 million was not settled until the late 1970s, when both the Nebraska and Wisconsin groups opted for per-capita payments that were soon spent. The Wisconsin group's economic condition had steadily worsened after World War II and led to organization under the Indian Reorganization Act in 1962. They acquired land under tribal trust status at their major settlements to qualify for housing and other federal benefits. Political power struggles occurred over programmed federal funding, but the late 1980s brought increasing stability under new federal policies of self-determination and the generation of unencumbered income from bingo and smoke shops.


The villages throughout the Wisconsin-Illinois domain may have been divided into northeastern and southwestern halves. Permanent dwellings were long wigwams covered with bark in summer and cattail mats in winter. Villages also contained long wigwams for councils and religious rites, small menstrual lodges for women, and sweat lodges for men. Bark-covered tipis were built at temporary hunting camps. Winnebago in Nebraska and Wisconsin today live in wooden frame houses often built under government auspices. Some Wisconsin families have roofing paper wigwams for family rituals and to house guests.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities. The Winnebago originally had a mixed economy heavily dependent on women's gardens of maize, beans, and squash. New fields were cleared every few years with men's help and when unproductive were left to revert to forest and brush. Tobacco, a ceremonial plant, was raised by men. Parties of families gathered wild plants in season and dried them for winter use, particularly blueberries, roots and seeds of the American lotus that grew along the Mississippi, and "Indian potatoes" (Apios americana ). There are old traditions of parties setting out in dugouts in the late summer for communal deer hunting and also mentions of crossing the Mississippi to hunt bison. Fishing with spears and bows and arrows was important, particularly for sturgeon. Horses were introduced during the eighteenth century and became a necessity for transport. In the early fall, many families moved with ponies and wagons to campsites along waterways to trap for the fur trade; in later times this was largely confined to the area around La Crosse. The Wisconsin Winnebago moved from a trading to a money economy, selling wild blueberries in the summer and cranberries in the fall to Whites. Income from the sale of blueberries was replaced by wage work harvesting cranberries, cherries, corn, potatoes, peas, and other crops for Whites after 1917. After World War II severe financial deprivation set in as crop work became mechanized and required a much smaller labor force. Few people were prepared for other employment. Aboriginally, the dog was the only domestic animal. By the end of the nineteenth century, a few families used horses for plowing as well as transport and kept cows, hogs, and chickens, but for the most part the Wisconsin Winnebago preferred the independence and immediate returns of an itinerant economy.

Industrial Arts. Women tanned hides and made moccasins, but clothing was largely made of trade textiles with beads and later ribbonwork replacing old embellishments of porcupine quillwork. Aboriginal pottery quickly gave way to metal trade kettles. The arts of splint basketry and silver and nickel-silver jewelry were adopted from the Oneida and Stockbridge.

Trade. The Winnebagos' territory was rich in beaver, muskrat, and other fur-bearing animals. The tribe became dependent on the fur trade for traps, guns, textiles, and a variety of metal utensils, but their continued emphasis on gardening saved them from periodic starvation suffered by tribes that sometimes trapped for the fur trade at the expense of subsistence.

Division of Labor. The basic division was between women's gardening and men's hunting and fishing, but both sexes assisted each other as needed on occasion and engaged in gathering wild foods. Women were specialists in tracking the heavens for astronomical information to guide their gardening and other seasonal activities.

Land Tenure. As far as can be determined, land was held tribally, and as tribal hegemony was extended, local villages were spaced to ensure adequate natural resources and land for gardens.


Kin Groups and Descent. The twelve Winnebago clans were grouped into the exogamous Sky Clans and Earth Clans moieties. When the tribe resided in Minnesota there was a four-part division of clans, which suggests a Southeastern origin, as four-part organization was common among Southeastern groups. In historical times the Winnebago were patrilineal. If the father was not Winnebago, children could be adopted into the mother's clan with descent in the following generations reckoned patrilineally. Ideally, in adulthood a warm bond exists whereby an uncle gives nieces and nephews whatever they ask for and, in turn, can exact work from them. They also may tease each other. A parallel gift and work reciprocity and teasing occurs between father's sisters and their nieces and nephews. There was avoidance of parents-in-law of the opposite sex, respectful deference between brothers and sisters, and sexual joking between people who stood in a terminological relationship as brother-in-law to sister-in-law. Prescribed kinship reciprocity and joking relationships are still observed in both Nebraska and Wisconsin.

Kinship Terminology. Winnebago kin terms follow the Omaha system. A marked avuncular emphasis reinforces the speculation of an older matrilineal system, as a man is considered more closely related to his sister's children than to his own.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. Moiety, and thus patrician, exogamy was a defined ideal, but exceptions are not a recent phenomenon. Marriage also was discouraged among people considered close matrilineal relatives. Duolateral cross-cousin marriage was permitted, but parallel-cousin marriage was proscribed. Uxorilocal residence was normal during the beginning of a marriage, when the groom worked for the bride's family, but as children were born residence usually became patrilocal. There was occasional polygyny, usually with the first wife's younger sisters. On the death of either spouse, the ideal replacement was the spouse's same-sex sibling. There appear to have been no strong interdictions regarding divorce for incompatibility.

Domestic Unit. Permanent villages were made up of extended families representing several to all of the clans, each occupying a long multifamily dwelling with the nuclear units having their individual dwelling areas and fireplaces. The Wisconsinites' fugitive years discouraged large settlements. Later, homesteads also contributed to smaller but usually not strictly nuclear family wigwams, with a continuing preference for units of extended families to live near each other.

Inheritance. A deceased person's belongings were and often still are distributed to mourners beyond immediate descendants.

Socialization. Parents and grandparents instructed children with stories told at night, sacred stories in the winter and secular history at any time of the year. Children learned adult tasks through imitative play and close association with adults of the appropriate sex. At puberty, signified by voice change, boys sought visions through fasting in isolation. Young men whose vision came from the moon, which like the earth is a female deity, became berdaches. Menstrual seclusion was the rule for girls and women, with the onset of menstruation marked by special instructions and isolation when a girl might also receive spirit guidance and prophetic dreams. Compulsory schooling contributed to the end of fasting and other puberty rites in both Nebraska and Wisconsin.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. A disparity in the number of clans in the upper and lower moieties probably reflects an effort to maintain an approximate population balance between the moieties as new clans evolved in the course of the Winnebagos' incorporation of members of alien tribes. The Thunder and Bear Clans were and are regarded as the leading clans of their respective moieties and also provided the dual tribal chieftainship. In the 1830s, the tribal Thunder Clan chief still was nominally recognized. Each clan had its own origin myth, ceremonies, and a large number of customs relating to birth, naming feasts, death and wakes, lists of personal names, obligations, prerogatives, taboos, reciprocal relationships with other clans, and duties to the tribe as a whole.

Political Organization. Tribal chieftainship was an old organizational principle rather than a function of White influences. The scattered, increasingly autonomous villages generally maintained a localized dual Thunder and Bear leadership. It is not known how people attained the role of chief except that eligibility by clan also required personal exemplariness. By the treaty period, a few non-Thunder clan men were recognized as civil leaders because of their ability. Like Thunder and Bear Clan chiefs, they were "real," unlike the "bread chiefs" that Whites appointed to deal out rations.

Social Control. The Thunder Clan chief presided over civil functions, and his was a peace lodge where disputes were adjudicated and prisoners or culprits could seek sanctuary. If agreement could not be reachedfor example, on indemnities to survivors in the case of murderthe Thunder Chief turned the offender over to the Bear Chief to be killed. Bear Clan men were called manape (soldier) probably in analogy to organized, standing army units at forts, but the Bear Clan really carried out internal police and penal functions. Generally, men were expected to be warriors, but the Hawk or Warrior Clan had the special prerogative of initiating and leading war parties. Old informal techniques of social control are still operative to encourage proper behavior of sharing, generosity, modest demeanor, and respect for other people. These include ridicule, gossip, withdrawal from troublemakers, and witchcraft. Evidently, fear of evoking a witch's envy or being suspected of witchcraft became increasingly important to enforce desired norms as formal, clan-based controls eroded.

Conflict. Early records portray the Winnebago as exceedingly warlike. Men welcomed opportunities to go to war, and the Winnebago fought with the French against the English, with the English against the Americans, in the Union army in the Civil War, as scouts and fighters in federal conflicts with the Dakota Sioux, and in both world wars, Korea, and Vietnam. Veterans who experienced combat are accorded special respect as speakers at wakes and are recipients of kettles of food at feasts.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefe. Traditional beliefs include a concept of a layered universe, multiple souls, reincarnation, a remote creator called Earth Maker, and a host of more approachable supernaturals representing spiritual expressions of animals, birds, trees, and other natural objects and phenomena. The Morning Star, like the Sun, was a male war deity. A special deity, Disease Giver, meted out life from one side of his body and death from the other. Other spiritual personages were sent to free the world of man-eating giants and other evil spirits and figure in long myth cycles. The benevolent Hare is in charge of the earth in the layered universe, which led early Peyote people to equate him with Jesus Christ. The Winnebago Medicine Lodge Society derived from Algonkian sources, but it differs in many particulars from the Ojibwa Midé ceremonies and emphasizes reincarnation rather than curing. The pervasive focus on warfare is evident throughout Winnebago religion. War bundles were the tribe's most sacred objects and remain so among traditionalists. The ceremonies differ in particulars among the bundles, but all take special cognizance of certain groups of spirits in songs and orations. Missions established late in the nineteenth century in Wisconsin were slow in making converts. The Nebraska Winnebago were accessible to missionaries and many embraced Christianity, but after a period of prosperity from land leases and sales, they felt a sense of powerlessness and lack of direction. Vision-producing peyote, introduced around 1900, attracted increasing numbers of converts who incorporated the Bible and belief in Christ with pan-Indian symbols as a bridge between Indian and White ways. In 1908, Nebraska people introduced peyote to Wisconsin. In the Wittenberg area, virtually the entire community is now affiliated with the Native American Church, and there are members in other communities as well.

Religious Practitioners. Radin recognized what he termed a religious elite, almost priestly leaders in hereditary and other religious societies, versed in the deeper meanings and philosophical significance of myth and ritual. In contrast, shamanism, which Radin attributed to Algonkian influences, was based on sleight of hand and the mechanistic formulae of imitative and contagious magic that could be used for good or evil purposes. Witches, literally "poisoners," could be men or women and usually were old. Healers were primarily learned herbalists, a role reserved to the aged to ensure their support since doctoring worked only if recompensed.

Death and Afterlife. The ideal deaths were either those incurred in warfare or the only kind the Winnebago recognized as natural, which fits the clinical description of extreme osteoporosis when the bones crumble. This was believed to occur at the age of one hundred. Other deaths were believed to be due to witchcraft or breaking taboos, even inadvertently. Old stories indicate scaffolding of the dead, but interment has long been practiced. The decedent is believed to remain in spirit during the course of a four-night wake, when he or she is instructed in the arduous journey to the next world. In traditional cosmology, the next world is an idealized version of life on earth. People whose religious observances, such as Medicine Lodge membership qualify them for reincarnation can live four times on earth, choosing to be reborn much as they were or as an animal, the opposite sex, or even a White person.


Lurie, Nancy Oestreich (1961). Mountain Wolf Woman: The Autobiography of a Winnebago Indian. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

Lurie, Nancy Oestreich (1978). "Winnebago." In Handbook of North American Indians. Vol. 15, Northeast, edited by Bruce G. Trigger, 690-707. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution.

Radin, Paul (1926). Crashing Thunder: The Autobiography of an American Indian. New York and London: D. Appleton.

Radin, Paul (1949). The Culture of the Winnebago: As Described by Themselves. Indiana University Publications in Anthropology and Linguistics, Memoir no. 1. Bloomington.

Radin, Paul (1970). The Winnebago Tribe. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press. Originally published, 1923.



views updated May 09 2018

Winnebago Native American tribe that in the 1820s and 1830s ceded its tribal lands in sw Wisconsin and nw Illinois to the US government. Linguistically part of the Siouan language group, the tribe's 3,000 members live mostly in reservations in Nebraska and Wisconsin.