The Potowatomi

Potawatomi traditional history indicates that the Chippewa, Ottawa, and Potawatomi (The Three Fires) were once a single Algonquian-speaking group that migrated to the upper Midwest from the eastern coastal area (Clifton, 1978). According to legend, the group split at the Straits of Mackinac by no later than 1600, and the Potawatomi moved down the eastern shore of Lake Michigan into the Lower Peninsula of Michigan (Schoolcraft, 1851-1857). The Ottawa remained at the Straits and became known as the Keepers of the Trade. The Chippewa migrated north and west and into Wisconsin and became known as the “Keepers of the Faith.” Because they kept the council fire of the previously united tribes, the Potawatomi became known as “Keepers of the Fire” (Berthong, 1974).

In her interviews with a Potawatomi elder Tom Topash in 1935-36, Ruth Landes (1970), was told that the name Potawatomi meant that:

The people were blessed with the gift of building fire in a certain way....the Good Spirit told the people to make fire with hard flints....also to make fire with a one-stringed bow...Our people believe we were the first to have been blessed with the gift of making fire.

The Potawatomi may have separated from the Chippewa and Ottawa at an earlier date than suggested by their collective traditional history. This conclusion is based upon cultural and linguistic differences between the Potawatomi, Chippewa, and Ottawa. Whereas the language of the Potawatomi is similar to that of the Chippewa, it is not a dialect but a separate language and the differences, according to some linguists, suggest an earlier separation of the Potawatomi from the Chippewa (Clifton, 1978). Archaeological sites along the Pentwater River, in West-Central Michigan, are possibly the remains of early Potawatomi villages that were in existence before the arrival of the French. The people who inhabited one of these sites (Dumaw Creek site) are believed by some to be the forefathers of the Potawatomi (Edmunds, 1978). They lived on the prairie-forest margins, near streams and lakes, and took full advantage of the variety of natural resources available to them. In the summer months they raised maize, squash, and beans, as well as collected wild plants for food and medicines. They hunted deer in the forests and fished in the streams. They also hunted elk, probably along the forest margins. Winter camps were smaller. In the spring, groups recombined for communal bison hunting on the prairies of nearby Illinois and Indiana which could be reached by canoe via the St. Joseph and Kankakee Rivers.

The date of the Dumaw Creek site is given as approximately 1600 (Clifton, 1978), and the first mention of the Potawatomi was made in the winter of 1615 by the French explorer, Samuel de Champlain, while he was visiting the Huron Indians just north of Lake Huron (Edmunds, 1978). He records that the Hurons told him of an Algonquian-speaking tribe (same language group as the Chippewa and Ottawa) in the Lower Peninsula of Michigan. The Huron referred to this tribe as the “Potawatomink”, or “people of the place of fire" (Kinietz, 1965).

By the 1640’s the Potawatomi had been under attack by the Iroquois. They fled northward to the Straits of Mackinac and entered refuge areas near Green Bay and in Door County, Wisconsin where they managed to adapt their lifeways successfully to a new environment. They developed trade with the French, formed important alliances with other tribes in the area, and established themselves as an influential group in the region. By 1670, they had already begun to expand their territories, maintaining alliances with more powerful tribes and overtaking territories held by weaker ones (Clifton, 1978). By the early 1820’s, their territory extended from the Green Bay region, eastward to Lake Michigan, south to the Kankakee River, and west into the Illinois Valley. It wrapped around the southern end of Lake Michigan and extended northward into Michigan to the Grand River, with portions in the Detroit region. The Potawatomi occupied the northern half of Indiana, and most of northern Illinois, especially in the Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie area. They established villages along the Kankakee, the Des Plaines, and Illinois River (Clifton,1978; Tanner, 1987). The “Prairie Potawatomi” occupied the banks of the Kankakee in Illinois and areas to the east in Indiana (Bauxar, 1978). By the first few years of the 19th century, the Potawatomi had established 14 villages in northern and central Illinois, and over 100 in the whole territory that they occupied.

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