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Illini Indian Fact Sheet

Native American Facts For Kids was written for young people learning about the Illinis for school or home-schooling reports. We encourage students and teachers to look through our main Illini website for more in-depth information about the tribe, but here are our answers to the questions we are most often asked by children, with Illini pictures and links we believe are suitable for all ages.

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    Illini Tribe

How do you pronounce "Illini?" What does it mean?
Illini is pronounced "ih-LIE-nee," and Illinois is pronounced "ih-lih-NOY" (like the state, which is named after the tribe.) They are both European adaptations of the Illinois Indians' original word for themselves, Illiniwek (pronounced "ih-lih-new-eck,") which means "the best people."

Where do the Illinois Indians live?
The Illini were original inhabitants of modern-day Illinois, Indiana, Missouri, and Iowa. The Illini tribe was nearly wiped out by war in the 1700's, and the survivors had to move to Kansas and Oklahoma. The Peoria Tribe of Oklahoma is made up of original Illinois Indians.

How is the Illini Indian nation organized?
The Peoria tribe of Oklahoma has its own government, laws, police, and services, just like a small country. However, the Peorias are also US citizens and must obey American law. In the past, each Illini village had its own chief and was independent of the others. Illini chiefs made joint decisions in long councils. Today, the Peoria tribe is governed by a council of elected officials.

What language do the Illinois Indians speak?
Illinois Indian people speak English today. In the past, the Illini spoke their native Miami-Illinois language. It has this long name because two tribes, the Miami and Illini tribes, spoke the same language with different accents--just like Americans and Canadians both speak English. The Illinois Indian language is not spoken anymore. However, the Miami and Peoria tribes are working together to teach their children the language again.

If you'd like to know a few easy Illinois words, aya (pronounced ah-yah) means "hello" and niihka (pronounced nee-ka) means "friend." You can also see a Miami-Illinois picture glossary here.

What was Illini culture like in the past? What is it like now?
Here is the homepage of the Peoria tribe, where you can learn about the Illini people past and present.

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How do Illini Indian children live, and what did they do in the past?
They do the same things all children do--play with each other, go to school and help around the house. In the past, Indian kids had more chores and less time to play, just like colonial children. But Illini children did have toys and games, like child-sized bows and arrows and corn husk dolls. Illini teenagers also liked to play lacrosse and other sports. As for babies, Illini mothers, like many Native Americans, traditionally carried their infants in cradleboards on their backs. Here is a website with Indian cradleboard pictures.

What were Illini homes like in the past?
The Illinis didn't live in tepees. They lived in villages of large rectangular houses with walls made of woven reeds. Today, Native Americans only build a reed house for fun or to connect with their heritage, not for shelter. Illinois Indians live in modern houses and apartment buildings, just like you.

What was Illini clothing like? Did they wear feather headdresses and face paint?
Illini women wore skirts with leggings, and men wore breechclouts. The Illinis wore shirts in cool weather, but even in wintertime, Illini men didn't wear long pants. Illinois Indians also wore moccasins on their feet. Here are some photographs and links about Indian clothing in general.

The Illini didn't wear war bonnets like the Sioux. Sometimes they wore a beaded headband with a few colored feathers in it. Illini women usually wore their hair in long braids. Illini men often shaved their heads in the Mohawk style and wore a porcupine roach. (These roaches are made of porcupine hair, not their sharp quills!) Here is a website with pictures of Native American hair. The Illini painted their faces for different occasions, and also tattooed themselves with more permanent designs.

Today, some Illinois Indian people still have a traditional headband or moccasins, but they wear modern clothes like jeans instead of breechcloths... and they only wear feathers in their hair on special occasions like a dance.

What was Illini transportation like in the days before cars? Did they paddle canoes?
Yes, the Illini made dugout canoes by hollowing out large trees. Here is a website with information and pictures about American Indian boats. Over land, the Illini used dogs as pack animals. (There were no horses in North America until colonists brought them over from Europe.) The dogs carried backpacks or pulled wooden drag sleds called travois. Today, of course, Illinois Indian people also use cars... and non-native people also use canoes.

What was Illini food like in the days before supermarkets?
The Illini were farming people. The women did most of the farming, harvesting corn, beans, and squash. Illini men hunted deer, wild turkeys, and small game. Sometimes they would also have large communal buffalo hunts. Several Illini villages would get together and use a ring of fire to herd buffalo towards a group of hunters. Illini Indian food included soup, cornbread, and stews. Here is a website with more information about traditional Indian food.

What were Illini Indian weapons, tools and artifacts like?
Illini hunters and warriors used bows and arrows, spears, and clubs. Illini men would also use shields of buffalo hide to deflect enemy arrows. Here is a website with pictures and information about American Indian weapons.

What are Illini art and crafts like?
The Illini tribe was known for their Native American quillwork, beadwork, and embroidery. Peoria Indians in Oklahoma still make beautiful beadwork today.

What other Native Americans did the Illini tribe interact with?
The Illinis traded with all the other tribes of the Great Lakes region, and sometimes with tribes who lived further away. Unlike their relatives the Miami Indians, the Illinis didn't have good relations with most of their neighbors. They fought with many tribes, including the Iroquois, Sioux, and Winnebago. In 1769, an Illinois Indian man who was working for the British assassinated the Ottawa leader Chief Pontiac. The angry Ottawas and all their allies attacked the Illinis and completely defeated them. After that, many Illinois Indian people banded together with the Miami tribes. The Peoria tribe today is still closely allied with the Miamis.

What kinds of stories do the Illini tell?
There are lots of traditional Illini legends and fairy tales. Storytelling is very important to the Illinois Indian culture. Here are four traditional legends and stories told by the Illini tribe. Here's a website where you can read more about Illinois mythology.

What about Illini religion?
Religions are too complicated and culturally sensitive to describe appropriately in only a few simple sentences, and we strongly want to avoid misleading anybody. You can visit this site to learn more about Illini customs and religion or this site about Indian spirituality in general.

Why are some American Indian people upset by the "Chief Illiniwek" mascot of the "Fighting Illini" sports teams?
There are three main reasons. First, the Illini mascot wears Sioux clothes and accessories, which are different from actual Illini traditions. So the mascot is misrepresenting Native American culture. Second, many Native Americans think Chief Illiniwek is disrespectful of their religion because he mimics certain Indian religious gestures. Just like anyone else, Native Americans are sensitive about their religious beliefs. And third, many people think it is inappropriate to use a racial costume at all. Some Native Americans feel hurt and embarrassed when a white person dresses up as an Indian chief, just as some African-Americans feel hurt and embarrassed when a white person dresses up in blackface.

Can you recommend a good book for me to read?
If you want to know more about Illini culture and history, two good sources for kids are Illinois Native Peoples and The Illinois Confederacy. Older readers may find useful information in the text Indian Villages of the Illinois Country. You can also browse through our Indian book recommendations in general.

How do I cite your web site in my bibliography?
You will need to ask your teacher for the format he or she wants you to use. The authors' names are Laura Redish and Orrin Lewis and the title of our site is Native Languages of the Americas. We are a nonprofit educational organization working to preserve and protect Native American languages and culture. You can learn more about our organization here. Our website was first created in 1998 and last updated in 2015.

Thanks for your interest in the Illini Indian people and their language!

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Learn More About The Illini

Illini Indian Tribe
An overview of the Illini people, their language and history.

Illini Language Resources
Illini language samples, articles, and indexed links.

Illini Culture and History Directory
Related links about the Illini people past and present.

Illinois Words
Illinois Indian vocabulary lists.

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