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TEACH: Native Peoples of the Region

table of contents
Origins and trade routes
Livelihood of Native Peoples: Fishing, hunting, farming
Selected Great Lakes tribes
Settlements and warfare
Language, beliefs and art
Oral tradition
Oral tradition (part 2): About the lakes and land
Tribes and First Nations today
A photo essay: Powdering fish using traditional Native methods
References and more information


Indians, or Native Peoples, were the original inhabitants of North America and the Great Lakes region. In fact, Native Peoples inhabited the continent tens of thousands of years before the arrival of settlers from Europe and the Far East. By the 16th century, the Native Peoples of North America had evolved into widely different cultures. Notable tribes around the Great Lakes included people we now call the Chippewa, Fox, Huron, Iroquois, Ottawa, Potawatomi and Sioux.

Map of Great Lakes tribes. Click for larger image.

Click for larger map!

Approximately 120 bands of Native Peoples have occupied the Great Lakes basin over the course of history. In the United States, Native Peoples are also referred to as American Indians or Native Americans. In Canada, tribes are called First Nations. In the Ontario region alone, more than 75 bands of First Nations are reported. A band is based on kinship and family affiliation. A nuclear family is part of a clan (cousins), a clan is part of a band (aunts, uncles, extended cousins), and a collection of bands make up a tribe. Tribes are traditionally highly organized, politically autonomous groups.

Related map: Woodland/Algonquian Tribes Before 1500
The name "Indian"
Some researchers attribute Indian to the Spanish word "In Dios" (children of God). Others believe the name originated with Christopher Columbus when he landed on the island of San Salvador during his explorations in 1492. He mistakenly believed that he had arrived off the coast of Asia (West Indies) and dubbed the people he found there "Indians."
Trade routes
Chippewa camp. Click for larger image.The French explorers who first visited the Great Lakes, beginning with Lake Huron in 1615, found Native Peoples who had mastered their environment and were economically self-sustaining. These Europeans brought implements of iron--needles, fishhooks, hatchets, traps and guns--items that the Native Peoples immediately saw could make their lives easier and they began trading furs and skins for these implements. The pelts of fur-bearing animals, especially beavers, were most sought after by the European traders. Many Natives abandoned their traditional needs and became dependent on trade. Such was the basis of the Indian trade over which wars were waged and the history of the Great Lakes region was shaped. The Native Peoples of the upper lakes often traveled hundreds of miles by canoe down the Ottawa and St. Lawrence rivers to Three Rivers or Montreal, where they exchanged their furs for goods they desired. Beginning around 1660, the traders swarmed over the western Great Lakes wilderness.

Village sites and early fur trade centers at Green Bay (in present-day Wisconsin) and Chicago were places of importance to many Native Peoples in the Great Lakes region and were connected by well-established trails. Both cities also retained their Indian-given names. These trails would later become the major highways of today. One ran southeasterly to Manitowoc Rapids, from where it followed the general course of the lakeshore. The other ran up the southern bank of the Fox River and skirted the eastern shore of Lake Winnebago to Fond du Lac at its southern end, eventually turning southeastward to Milwaukee and further south to Chicago. The present-day cities of Sault Ste. Marie and Mackinaw, Michigan, were other important trade centers.

Wars and treaties
Relations between the Native Peoples and the European settlers were friendly; fur-trading was much more important to them than acquiring land. Only as white encroachment on Indian lands increased after the American Revolution did relations deteriorate. The Indians who survived war and disease were steadily and methodically pushed westward onto lands not yet settled by the Europeans. This pattern would persist for two centuries. After the War of 1812, American authority was complete around Lake Michigan. Other regions, however, such as the U.S./Canada border area around the St. Marys River, were not completely settled until the mid-1800s.

The remaining Native Peoples "reserved" land for their continued use. These "reserved lands," now commonly known as Indian Reservations, were just one of many rights that the Native Peoples retained through a series of treaties with the American and Canadian governments.

Graphics: Map of Great Lakes tribes, Britannica; Chippewa Indians in camp (c.1875), Minnesota Historical Society.

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