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Wisconsin has one of the most diverse Native American populations of any state, taking into account the number of cultures, settlement history, linguistic stock, and affiliations. The state is home to six sovereign Native American nations on 11 reservations, not all of which are demarcated by boundaries. In addition to the six nations, Wisconsin historically has been the home of the Illinois, Fox, Sauk, Miami, Kickapoo, Satee, Ottaway, and Mascouten Indians. The total Native American population is around 40,000, or 1 percent of the population.
The largest native group is the Ojibwa. (Formerly rendered as “Chippewa,” the Eurotransliteration of what trappers thought they heard, it has returned to the more appropriate approximations of Ojibway, Ojibwe, and Ojibwa. Ethnologists, historians, linguists, and even tribal members disagree on the spelling. Ojib means “to pucker up” and ub-way “to roast,” and the words together denote the tribe’s unique moccasin stitching. In any event, all are really Anish’nabe anyway.) Wisconsin has five Ojibwa tribes. The Ojibwa inhabited the northern woodlands of the upper Great Lakes, especially along Lakes Huron and Superior. They were allied with the Ottawa and Potawatomi but branched off in the 16th century and moved to Michigan’s Mackinac Island. The Ojibwa said that their migration westward was to fulfill the prophecy to find “food that grows on water”—wild rice. The Bad River group today lives on a 123,000-acre reservation along Lake Superior in Ashland County. It’s the largest reservation in the state and is famed for its wild rice beds on the Kakogan Sloughs. The Red Cliff band, the nucleus of the Ojibwa nation, has been organized along the Bayfield Peninsula’s shore since 1854. The St. Croix band—“homeless” tribes scattered over four counties with no boundaries—lives in northwest Wisconsin. The Lac du Flambeau band is the most visited and recognizable because of its proximity to Minocqua and state and federal forests and for exercising its tribal spearfishing rights. Lac Courte Oreilles is originally of the Betonukeengainubejib Ojibwa division. The Sokaogan (Mole Lake) band of Lake Superior Ojibwa is known as the “Lost Tribe” because its original legal treaty title was lost in an 1854 shipwreck. Originally from Canada, the band moved along to Madeline Island before defeating the Sioux near Mole Lake in 1806.
The Algonquian Menominee have been in Wisconsin longer than any other tribe. The Menominee once held sway south to Illinois, north into Michigan, and west to the Mississippi River, with a total of 10 million acres. Known as the “Wild Rice People”—the early French explorers called them “Lords of Trade”—Menominee were divided into sky and earth groups and then subdivided into clans. Though the hegemony of the Menominee lasted up to 10,000 years in Wisconsin, they were almost exterminated by eastern Canadian Indians fleeing Iroquois persecution and by pestilence imported by the Europeans. Today the population has rebounded to around 3,500, and the Menominee reservation constitutes an entire Wisconsin county.
The Forest County Potawatomi, also Algonquian, are the legacy of the tribe that made the most successful move into Wisconsin, beginning in the 1640s. Originally inhabitants of the shores of Lake Huron, the Potawatomi later moved to Michigan, Indiana, and places along the St. Joseph’s River. The name means “People of the Fire” or, better, “Keeper of the Fire,” after their confederacy with the Ojibwa and Ottawa. The Potawatomi tribe stretched from Chicago to Wisconsin’s Door County and was one of the tribes to greet Jean Nicolet when he arrived in 1634. Wisconsin’s band of Potawatomi was one of the few to withstand relocation to Oklahoma in 1838.
Wisconsin’s only Mohicans, the Stockbridge-Munsee, live on a reservation bordering the Menominee. The Stockbridge (also called Mahican—“Wolf”) originally occupied the Hudson River and Massachusetts all the way to Lake Champlain. The Munsee are a branch of the Delaware and lived near the headwaters of the Delaware River in New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania.
The Oneida belonged to the Iroquois Five Nations Confederacy consisting of the Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga, and Seneca. The Oneida, originally from New York, supported the colonists in the American Revolution but were forced out by Mohawks and land-grabbing settlers along the Erie Canal after the war. Beginning in the 1820s, the Iroquois-speaking Oneida merged with the Mahican, Mohegan, Pequot, Narragansett, Montauk, and other tribes in Wisconsin.
The erstwhile Winnebago Nation has reverted to its original name, Ho Chunk, or, more appropriately, Ho Cak (“Big Voice” or “Mother Voice”), in an attempt to restore the rightful cultural and linguistic heritage to the nation. Also known as Otchangara, the group is related to the Chiwere-Siouxan Iowa, Oto, and Missouri Indians, though their precise origin is unknown. Extremely powerful militarily, they were nonetheless relatively peaceful with the Menominee and Potawatomi, with whom they witnessed Jean Nicolet’s 1634 arrival. French scourges and encroaching tribes fleeing Iroquois hostilities in New York devastated Ho Chunk numbers; later, forced relocation nearly killed off the rest. The tribe pulled up stakes in Oklahoma and walked back to Wisconsin, following its chief, Yellow Thunder, who bought the tribe a tract of land, deftly circumventing relocation and leaving the federal government no way to force it out of Wisconsin.
An excellent resource is the website of the Great Lakes Intertribal Council (www.glitc.org).
© Thomas Huhti from Moon Wisconsin, 5th Edition