What is the Potawatomi Tribe?

Jodee Redmond

The Potawatomi tribe is a group of Native Americans who eventually settled in the northeastern Wisconsin. This group of American Indians had an interesting existence; they farmed in the summer months and then the tribe divided up into smaller groups in the fall and moved to their winter hunting grounds.

The Potawatomi used canoes to trade, fish, and conduct warfare along various river systems in what is now Wisconsin and Illinois before they settled in Kansas and Oklahoma.
The Potawatomi used canoes to trade, fish, and conduct warfare along various river systems in what is now Wisconsin and Illinois before they settled in Kansas and Oklahoma.

This group of Indians takes its name from the word meaning "people of the place of the fire," and was originally from Michigan. As European settlers came to America and settled in the eastern portion of the continent, the Potawatomi Tribe, along with other Indian tribes, were pushed west.

The Potawatomi tribe didn't rely completely on hunting or agriculture to sustain itself. The men hunted for game and cought fish for the tribe to eat. The female members of the tribe were responsible for planting crops and tending to them in the warmer months of the year. When they were ready to be harvested, the women would take on these chores as well.

This tribe of American Indians lived in bark-covered houses during the spring, summer and early fall. When they moved to their winter hunting grounds, they fashioned wigwams for shelter. This type of dwelling is built in a dome shape and can be built and relocated, if necessary.

Poles are used to make a frame for the wigwam. Once this part of the shelter is in place, it can be covered with a variety of materials to keep out the elements. Grass, bark, cloth or hides could be used to cover the frame and keep the occupants warm and dry. An opening would be left in the roof of the structure to allow smoke from the fire to escape.

The tribe was made up of several bands who were located in specific geographic locations across the region. The Potawatomi tribe included clans of people who were descended from a single male ancestor. Marriages between different clans were arranged to create bonds between the various groups.

By the mid-1800s, the Potawatomi tribe had been relocated to a reservation in Kansas. They were known as the Prairie band at that point. Over time, the members of the Potawatomi tribe were exposed to the customs of the Plains Indians and adopted a number of them. In the 1860s, a number of the Potawatomi Indians moved to Oklahoma, which was called the Indian Territory then. In their new home, the tribe was called, Citizen Potawatomi Nation.

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Discussion Comments


I remember learning about this tribe in school when I was way younger. Their relocation in 1833 isn't as famous as the trail of tears, but they were mistreated also. From what I remember, about 40 or 50 of them died on their way to Kansas.

Then after they relocated, about half of them took up the customs of the plains Indians. However, some of them wanted to keep to their old way of life too. Eventually they split off into two groups, but were later reunited after those of them that became farmers were cheated out of their farms.


I went to college in Wisconsin and one time I made a trip to the northern part of the state and visited a restored Pottawatomi camp. It was run by actual member of the tribe and included a wigwam and a number of the traditional crafts made by the tribe.

It was a pretty incredible experience. I know it was all a recreation, but it felt real and you really got a sense for how these people once lived. To be honest, there are times when I wish I could live that way.


I have never heard of any community that lived the way this one did. To live communally for half of the year and then to split into smaller groups during the lean months. It makes a lot of sense it just seems like it would be heard to organize.

It just goes to show that there is not one natural way to live. People tend to think that we have been progressing steadily through history towards a more perfect way of coexisting. But the truth is that it has been a constant experiment with lots of successes and failures. And there is no clear sign that we are now on the right path. So maybe the Pottawatomi tribe had something figured out.

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