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Ottawa Indian Fact Sheet

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

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    Ottawa Tribe

How do you pronounce 'Ottawa'? What does it mean?
Ottawa is pronounced "AH-ta-wa," the same as the city in Canada (which was named after them.) It is spelled Odawa in their native language, and it means "traders." The Ottawa people call themselves Anishinabe in their own language, which means 'original person.'

What is the difference between the Ottawas and the Chippewas?
The Ottawa tribe is related to the Chippewa tribe (also known as the Ojibway tribe.) The Chippewas and Ottawas have similar customs and speak dialects of the same language--just like Americans and Canadians speak English with different accents. But like America and Canada, the Chippewa and Ottawa tribes were politically independent. After Europeans arrived, some Chippewa and Ottawa bands merged together, but in most cases, the two nations remain independent today.

Where do the Ottawas live?
Most Ottawa Indian people live in their original homeland in southern Ontario and Michigan state. Other Ottawas were deported to Oklahoma by the US government, and some Ottawas assimilated into Ojibway bands. There are about 15,000 Ottawa Indians today.

How is the Ottawa Indian nation organized?
Each Ottawa community lives on its own reservation (or reserve, in Canada.) Reservations are lands that belong to Indian tribes and are under their control. Communities of Ottawa Indians are called tribes in the United States and First Nations in Canada. Each Ottawa tribe is politically independent and has its own government, laws, police, and services, just like a small country. Some Ottawa bands have formed coalitions with Chippewa bands to address common problems.

The political leader of an Ottawa band is called a chief (gimaa or ogimaa in the Ottawa/Ojibway language.) In the past Ottawa chiefs were men chosen by tribal councilmembers, often from among the last chief's sons, nephews, or sons-in-law. Today Ottawa chiefs are elected in most Ottawa bands, like mayors and governors.

What is the Ottawa tribe's population?
There are about 15,000 citizens of Ottawa Indian bands in Michigan, Ontario, and Oklahoma today. There are also other people who are Ottawa descendants but are not tribal members.

What language do the Ottawas speak?
Most Ottawa people speak English, but some of them also speak their native Odawa language. Odawa is usually considered a dialect of the Ojibwa language. Odawa and Ojibwa speakers have different accents, just like American and Canadian English speakers. Here is a comparison of Odawa, Ojibway, and Algonquin vocabulary. If you'd like to learn a few easy Odawa words, aaniin (pronounced ah-neen) is a friendly greeting and miigwech (pronounced mee-gwetch) means "thank you." You can listen to an Ojibway man talk his language here and read a picture glossary here.

What was Ottawa culture like in the past? What is it like now?
Here is the homepage of Little Traverse Bay Odawa tribal administrator Fred Harrington. On his site you can find information about the Ottawa people in the past and today.

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How do Ottawa Indian children live, and what did they do in the past?
They do the same things any children do--play with each other, go to school and help around the house. Many Ottawa children like to go hunting and fishing with their fathers. In the past, Indian kids had more chores and less time to play, just like early colonial children. But they did have dolls and toys to play with, and older boys liked to play lacrosse. Like many Native Americans, Ottawa mothers traditionally carried their babies in cradleboards on their backs--a custom which many American parents have adopted now.

What were Ottawa men and women's roles?
Ottawa women were farmers and did most of the child care and cooking. Ottawa men were hunters and sometimes went to war to protect their families. Both genders practiced story-telling, artwork and music, and traditional medicine. In the past, Ottawa chiefs were always men, but today an Ottawa Indian woman could be chief too.

What were Ottawa homes like in the past?
Ottawa people didn't live in tepees. They lived in villages of birchbark houses called waginogan, or wigwams. There were also longhouses and sweat lodges in Ottawa villages. Here are some pictures of American Indian housing like the homes Ottawa Indians used. Today, Native Americans only build a wigwam for fun or to connect with their heritage. Most Ottawas live in modern houses and apartment buildings, just like you.

What was Ottawa clothing like? Did they wear feather headdresses and face paint?
Ottawa women wore long dresses with detachable sleeves, and in the winter, they wore robes made of rabbit skin. But Ottawa men usually went naked or wore only a cloak, even in cold weather and in battle, to show how tough they were. The Ottawas usually wore leather moccasins on their feet. In colonial times, the Ottawas adapted European clothing like cloth blouses and jackets, decorating them with fancy beadwork. Here are some more photographs and links about native costume in general.

Traditionally, the Ottawas wore leather headbands with feathers standing up in the back. In the 1800's, some Ottawa men began wearing long headdresses like their neighbors the Sioux. Other Ottawa men wore their hair in the Mohawk style, using grease to spike their hair very high in front, and sometimes added a porcupine roach. Here are some pictures of these different styles of Native American head dress. Ottawa women usually wore one long braid. The Ottawas often painted their faces and arms, using different patterns for war paint and festive decoration. Ottawa men also wore extensive tribal tattoos over their whole bodies.

Today, some Ottawa people still wear moccasins or a beaded shirt, but they also wear modern clothes like jeans... and they only wear feathers in their hair on special occasions like a dance.

What was Ottawa transportation like in the days before cars? Did they paddle canoes?
Yes--the Ottawa Indian tribe was well-known for their birchbark canoes. Here is a website with birchbark canoe pictures. Canoeing is still popular within the Ottawa nation today. Over land, the Ottawas used dogs as pack animals. (There were no horses in North America until colonists brought them over from Europe.) The Ottawas also had sleds and snowshoes to help them travel in the winter. Today, of course, Ottawa people also use cars... and non-native people also use canoes.

What was Ottawa food like in the days before supermarkets?
The Ottawas were farming people. Ottawa women grew crops of corn, beans, and squash. Ottawa men hunted deer and small game and went fishing in their canoes. Ottawa Indian foods included cornbread and soups. Here is a website with more information about Native American crops.

What were Ottawa weapons and tools like in the past?
Ottawa hunters and warriors used bows and arrows, clubs, and hide shields. Ottawa fishermen used bone fishhooks and sinew lines. Here is a website with pictures and information about traditional Native American weapons.

What are Ottawa arts and crafts like?
Ottawa artists are known for their beadwork and basketry. Like other eastern American Indians, Ottawa Indians also crafted wampum out of white and purple shell beads. Wampum beads were traded as a kind of currency, but they were more culturally important as an art material. The designs and pictures on wampum belts often told a story or represented a person's family.

What kinds of stories do the Ottawas tell?
There are lots of traditional Ottawa legends and fairy tales. Storytelling is very important to the Ottawa Indian culture. Here is an Ottawa story about why corn and beans are planted together. Here's a website where you can read more about Ottawa myths.

What about Ottawa 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 Ottawa religious traditions or this site about Native American beliefs in general.

Can you recommend a good book for me to read?
You may enjoy Shadow of the Wolf. That is a historical fiction novel for young readers about a nineteenth-century Michigan girl interacting with the Potawatomi and Ottawa Indians. If you want to know more about Ottawa culture and history, one good source for kids is The Ottawa. You may be interested in this biography of Ottawa Chief Pontiac, Forest Warrior. You can also browse through our recommendations of Native American books in general.

How do I cite your website 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 Ottawa Indian people and their language!

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Learn More About The Ottawas

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

Ojibwe Language Resources
Odawa/Ojibway language samples, articles, and indexed links.

Ottawa Culture and History Directory
Related links about the Ottawa tribe past and present.

Ottawa Words
Ottawa Indian vocabulary lists.

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