Potawatomi Tribe


Potawatomi Locations

The Potawatomi, ‚päte’wätemē, are distinguishable from kindred and neighboring tribes by their named identity, their distinctive language, their own traditional history of separation from the ancestors of the modern Chippewa and Ottawa, their claims to territory which expanded in size up to the time of American settlement in the Great Lakes region, and particularly by a tribal political organization based upon a diverse clan structure. They also had differences in dress, folklore, ritual, and other aspects of their culture that made them distinctive. However, their cultural patterns were essentially similar to those of their central Algonkian neighbors. Boundaries between the Potawatomi are quite permeable, their settlements often containing many representatives from other societies (Clifton 725, 1978).

The Forest County Potawatomi Reservation consists of nearly 15,000 acres under tribal trust made up of discontinuous section of land stretched over some twenty miles. Like the Sakoagon Chippewa, they also had lived as squatters, but as refugees from farther south. The Potawatomis’ tribal estate, relinquished piecemeal in nearly fifty treaties between 1795 and 1833, had once extended roughly from the west end of Lake Erie, around the shores of Lake Michigan, and across northern Illinois to the Mississippi. In 1833, at the Treaty of Chicago, which included part of southeastern Wisconsin, the Potawatomis ceded their last land east of the Mississippi River. Most of them moved west as agreed upon by treaty. Those who did not leave their homelands are referred to in old government records as the “strolling Potawatomis.” Some stayed in Michigan and Indiana or took refuge in Canada, where they live today (Lurie 8-9, 2002).

The Potawatomis who remained in Milwaukee and Waukesha Counties attracted little attention until the Sioux uprising of 1862 in Minnesota sparked a totally groundless rumor of an Indian attack that sent panicked whites fleeing for protection into Milwaukee from outlying farms and villages. It was so apparent, to the chagrin of some people and amusement of others, that there was no danger, but the incident raised questions about why the local Indians had not joined their fellow tribespeople out west. Seeing the threat of forced removal, these Potawatomis migrated northward, some going only as far as the Menominee Reservation, where they were integrated into the tribe, while the rest ended up in Forest County. The government still considered them part of the western Prairie Potawatomi band, though not formerly enrolled, and paid no attention to them until 1913 when they were recognized as a separate tribe upon obtaining their reservation in Forest County through help from concerned whites (Lurie 9, 2002).

Like the Chippewa bands, Potawatomi bands are spread over a wide area, but unlike the Chippewas, the Potawatomi had a cohesive sense of tribal identity, and their dispersion into separate entities resulted from their treatment by the government. In 1847 the groups west of the Mississippi were brought together on one reservation in Kansas. Because of internal disagreements, a break-off group went to Oklahoma and was separately recognized as the Citizens Band in 1867. In Wood County southwest of Forest County, there are a few Potawatomi families, descendents of people who began moving back from Kansas around 1900. They have no federal trust land in Wisconsin and, despite long residence here, continue to be enrolled as Prairie Potawatomis (Lurie 9, 2002).

Huron Smith conducted ethnobotanical research among the Potawatomi. He spent from June 13th to September 13th in 1925 collecting plant specimens in Forest County, Wisconsin. Smith theorizes on the origin of medicinal plants by the Potawatomi; “Forest County as the name implies, is a region of dense stands of trees and one would expect to find a great number of species of plants.” But according to Smith, that was not the case; “The total number of species of plants is by no means as large as it would be in the southern part of the state” Thus, according to Smith; “The Forest Potawatomi have traveled to various parts of the country to get plants that they needed. In some cases they have brought back seeds and established small plots of these medicinal plants in Forest County” (Smith 12-13, 1933).

Clifton, James A. 1978. Potawatomi. In: Bruce G. Trigger, ed. Handbook of North American Indians. Vol. 15, pp. 725-742. Smithsonian, Washington D.C.

Lurie, Nancy Oestreich. 2002 Wisconsin Indians. The State Historical Society of Wisconsin. Madison, WI.

Smith, Huron. 1933. Ethnobotany of The Forest Potawatomi Indians. In: Bulletin of The Public Museum of The City of Milwaukee. Vol. 7, No. 1, pp. 1-230. Milwaukee, WI.

Potawatomi Items