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The Potawatomi [archive]

This article has been archived with permission from the now-defunct Indiana Dunes site ( for educational purposes. Contents are the sole property of the author. Please visit our Article Archive Index for further information. If you are the author of another article you would like us to add to our archives, please contact us.

War and migration

Tribes and bands of Woodland Indians populated the Dunes long before the first European set foot on the continent. The cultures and lives of the bands and tribes were similar but not identical. The bioregion the Great Lakes system and climate determined what food and raw materials were available to them and how they lived.

The Potawatomi lived in the Northwest Indiana during the early days of European exploration and settlement. Before this, the Potawatomi lived in lower Michigan. More powerful tribes drove the Potawatomi north and west to the Upper Peninsula during the 1600s. As warfare continued among the tribes, the Potawatomi migrated south into Wisconsin and Illinois between the late 1600s and the mid-1700s while others returned to lower Michigan.

In 1795 the Potawatomi began to drive out other tribes and occupy the land around the southern rim of Lake Michigan. By the early 1800s they occupied a large area extending from Milwaukee down to Chicago, around into Northwest Indiana, and up into western Michigan. The Potawatomi had moved about because of shifting alliances and warfare between Native Americans, the French, British and Americans. Potawatomi warriors fought in the French and Indian Wars, the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812 and other lesser know wars between Native American confederacies.

Village life

Yet the Potawatomi lived in semi-permanent villages where they grew crops, gathered food and hunted. They lived in wickiups domed dwellings framed with slender green saplings and covered with pliable birch or elm bark. During the winter the villages separated into small hunting bands. The Potawatomi gathered nuts, fruits, berries and wild rice, hunted bison and other game and cultivated maize and squashes. They speared fish in Lake Michigan and its tributaries. In March they tapped sugar maples and boiled down the sap for use as a condiment.

Before contact with European traders the Potawatomi made clothing from fur and animal hides. They wore leggings, breechcloths and shirts. In cooler weather they used fur robes. Fur turbans and feathers adorned their heads. When trade goods became available, they used cloth and decorated their clothing with beads and other novelties. The men often tattooed and scarified themselves and they painted their faces and bodies. The women decorated themselves with elaborate quill work -- later bead work -- and appliques.

Trail of Death

After the conflicts between the French, British, American and their native allies were resolved, the Potawatomi were forced to cede their lands in a series of treaties during the early 1800s. Although they resisted, superior forces drove the Potawatomi off their lands. Some were foced to emigrate to Kansas and Omaha during the Potowatomi Trail of Death and others fled in Michigan. All organized bands and villages had been driven out of Indiana by 1836. Lakeshore visitors can see a wickiup and Potawatomi in native dress during the festivals at Bailly-Chellberg.

--written by Bud Polk

Additional Reading

 Native American Cultures
 Potawatomi History
 Potawatomi Tribe
 Potawatomi Myths
 Indiana Indian History
 Michigan Native Americans

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