Potawatomi Indian Tribe of Oklahoma

Published on October 25, 2010 by John

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Potawatomi Indians Flag
Citizen Potawatomi

The Potawatomi are also known as the Fire Nation because their name in Algonquian means “people of the place of fire”. Different spellings are preserved in place-names as well as historical records. One sees Potawatami, Pottawatami, or Pottawatomie. But modern tribal members have designated the official spelling as Potawatomi, so this is the version most commonly used today. The name is pronounced potuh-WOT-uh-mee.

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The ancestral homeland of the Potawatomi is usually given as the lower peninsula of present-day Michigan.It is reported that these NORTHEAST INDIANS lived between Lake Huron and Lake Michigan just before the arrival of French explorers. According to their tradition, they were originally one people with other ALGONQUIANS, the CHIPPEWA (OJIBWAY) and OTTAWA, at the time of their arrival in western Great Lakes country. By 1670, when the Frenchman Nicholas Perrot explored the region, the Potawatomi were living west of Lake Michigan near present-day Green Bay, Wisconsin, probably pushed westward by IROQUOIS (HAUDENOSAUNEE) invasions from the east. Then from there, over the years, they migrated south toward the present-day Chicago area.

The Potawatomi were military allies and trading partners of the French until the French were defeated by the English in 1763 to end the French and Indian War. The Potawatomi continued the fight against the English as allies of the Ottawa and other tribes in Pontiac’s Rebellion of 1763. In 1769, the Potawatomi and other Algonquians joined to fight the ILLINOIS and push them southward. At that time, the Potawatomi expanded their territory around the southern end of Lake Michigan back toward their original homeland, almost a full circle.

While holding these lands, the Potawatomi joined their former enemies, the British, in the fight against the rebels in the American Revolution of 1775–83. Then in the late 1700s and early 1800s, the Potawatomi participated in a series of wars in a vain attempt to stop the American settlers from overrunning their lands—Little Turtle’s War of 1790–94 (see MIAMI); Tecumseh’s Rebellion of 1809–11 (see SHAWNEE); and the Black Hawk War of 1832 (see SAC). With each passing conflict, the situation became more hopeless for the Potawatomi and for the other tribes of the Old Northwest. Most of the Potawatomi relocated west of the Mississippi. Some Potawatomi moved from Illinois, Indiana, and Michigan to Missouri, then to Iowa, and from there to Kansas. Others went straight to Kansas from the Great Lakes region. Some of these Kansas Potawatomi then moved to the Indian Territory (present-day Oklahoma). Some Potawatomi stayed in both Wisconsin and Michigan. Others managed to return there from the west. During the 1800s, other Potawatomi accompanied the KICKAPOO to Mexico. Still others went to Canada.

The history of Potawatomi migration is very complex. Their many moves resulted from poverty and hardship. The Potawatomi struggled to find suitable lands and ways to earn a living after having been dislodged from their homeland and their way of life. The migration from Indiana that began in 1838 is called the Trail of Death because of the many lives lost to disease and hunger. It is not as famous as the Trail of Tears of the CHEROKEE but just as tragic.

Today, the Prairie Band of Potawatomi has a reservation in Kansas. The Citizen Band of Potawatomi holds trust lands in Oklahoma. In Michigan are the Hannahville Indian Community of Wisconsin Potawatomi Indians of Michigan, the Huron Potawatomi, and Pokagon Band of Potawatomi Indians. In Wisconsin is the Forest County Potawatomi Community. And in Ontario the Caldwell Band has a reserve. Like most Native Americans, the Potawatomi are for the most part not a wealthy people, but they have raised their standard of living recently through sound business investments, including gaming, with a number of tribes operating casinos, and they are reviving traditional arts and crafts.

When speaking of traditional Potawatomi culture, one usually compares them to their kinspeople, the Chippewa and the Ottawa. Like those tribes and other Algonquians of the Great Lakes, the Potawatomi hunted in the forests, fished and gathered wild rice on the lakes, and grew corn and other crops in the fields.One of their bands, the Mascouten, also hunted buffalo on the prairies along the Mississippi valley.

As for their religious customs, the Potawatomi were like other Great Lakes Algonquians in that they smoked tobacco in calumets (sacred pipes) and participated in the Midewiwin Society, also known as the Grand Medicine Society, an exclusive club with elaborate rituals and important in religious and tribal matters. In the 1880s, long after their displacement by non-Indians, the Potawatomi also helped develop the Big Drum Religion (also called the Drum Dance and Dream Dance), which some Native Americans still practice today. This is not a war dance, but one of good will, even toward outsiders. In this ritual, Indians dance for hours to the beat of a sacred drum, working themselves into a reverie. To seal the spirit of fellowship, gifts are exchanged.


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