Potawatomi at a rain dance in 1920
Total population
Regions with significant populations
 United States (Indiana, Kansas, Michigan, Oklahoma, Wisconsin, Illinois)
 Canada (Ontario)
English, Potawatomi
Catholicism, Methodism, Midewiwin

The Potawatomi /pɒtəˈwɒtəmi/,[1][2] also spelled Pottawatomi and Pottawatomie (among many variations), are a Native American people of the Great Plains, upper Mississippi River, and western Great Lakes region. They traditionally speak the Potawatomi language, a member of the Algonquian family. The Potawatomi call themselves Neshnabé, a cognate of the word Anishinaabe. The Potawatomi are part of a long-term alliance, called the Council of Three Fires, with the Ojibway and Odawa (Ottawa). In the Council of Three Fires, the Potawatomi are considered the "youngest brother". Their people are referred to in this context as Bodéwadmi, a name that means "keepers of the fire" and refers to the council fire of three peoples.[3]

In the 19th century, some bands of Potawatomi were pushed to the west by European/American encroachment. In the 1830s the federal government removed most from their lands east of the Mississippi River to Indian Territory - first in Kansas, Nebraska, and last to Oklahoma. Some bands survived in the Great Lakes region and today are federally recognized as tribes, in addition to the Potawatomi in Oklahoma.


Main article: List of Potawatomi ethnonyms

The English "Potawatomi" is derived from the Ojibwe Boodewaadamii(g) (syncoped in the Ottawa as Boodewaadmii(g)). The Potawatomi name for themselves (autonym) is Bodéwadmi (without syncope: Bodéwademi; plural: Bodéwadmik), a cognate of the Ojibwe form. Their name means "those who tend the hearth-fire," which refers to the hearth of the Council of Three Fires. The word comes from "to tend the hearth-fire," which is bodewadm (without syncope: bodewadem) in the Potawatomi language; the Ojibwe and Ottawa forms are boodawaadam and boodwaadam, respectively.

Alternatively, the Potawatomi call themselves Neshnabé (without syncope: Eneshenabé; plural: Neshnabék), a cognate of Ojibwe Anishinaabe(g), meaning "original people."


The Potawatomi teach their children about the "Seven Grandfather Teachings" of wisdom, respect, love, honesty, humility, bravery, and truth toward each other and all creation.[4] Each principle teaches the equality and importance of their fellow tribesmen and respect for all of nature's creations.

The story that underlies these teaches the importance of patience and listening. It follows the Water Spider's journey to retrieve fire so that the other animals can survive the cold. As the other animals step forth one after another to proclaim that they shall be the ones to retrieve the fire, the Water Spider sits and waits while listening to her fellows. As they finish and wrestle with their fears, she steps forward and announces that she will be the one to bring fire back. As they laugh and doubt her, she weaves a bowl out of her web, using it to sail across the water to retrieve the fire. She brings back a hot coal out of which the animals make fire, and they celebrate her honor and bravery.


Regalia at the Field Museum in Chicago

The Potawatomi are first mentioned in French records, which suggest that in the early 17th century, they lived in what is now southwestern Michigan. During the Beaver Wars they fled to the area around Green Bay to escape attacks by both the Iroquois and the Neutral Nation, who were seeking expanded hunting grounds. It is estimated in 1658 that the Potawatomi numbered around 3,000.

As an important part of Tecumseh's Confederacy, Potawatomi warriors took part in Tecumseh's War, the War of 1812 and the Peoria War. Their alliances switched repeatedly between United Kingdom and the United States as power relations shifted between the nations, and they calculated effects on their trade and land interests.

At the time of the War of 1812, a band of Potawatomi inhabited the area near Fort Dearborn, where Chicago developed. Led by the chiefs Blackbird and Nuscotomeg (Mad Sturgeon), a force of about 500 warriors attacked the United States evacuation column leaving Fort Dearborn. They killed most of the civilians and 54 of Captain Nathan Heald's force, and wounded many others. George Ronan, the first graduate of West Point to be killed in combat, died in this ambush. The incident is referred to as the Battle of Fort Dearborn. A Potawatomi chief named Mucktypoke (Makdébki, Black Partridge), counseled his fellow warriors against the attack. Later he saved some of the civilian captives who were being ransomed by the Potawatomi.[5]

French period (1615–1763)

The French period of contact began with early explorers who reached the Potawatomi in western Michigan. They also found the tribe located along the Door Peninsula of Wisconsin. By the end of the French period, the Potawatomi had begun a move to the Detroit area, leaving the large communities in Wisconsin.[5]

British period (1763–1783)

The British period of contact began when France ceded its lands after its defeat by Britain in the French and Indian War (the North American front of the Seven Years' War). Pontiac's Rebellion was an attempt by Native Americans to push the British and other European settlers out of their territory. The Potawatomi captured every British frontier garrison but the one at Detroit.[5]

The Potawatomi nation continued to grow and expanded westward from Detroit, most notably in the development of the St. Joseph villages adjacent to the Miami in southwestern Michigan. The Wisconsin communities continued and moved south along the Lake Michigan shoreline.[5]

United States treaty period (1783–1830)

The United States treaty period of Potawatomi history began with the Treaty of Paris (1783), which ended the American Revolutionary War and established the United States' interest in the lower Great Lakes. It lasted until the treaties for Indian Removal were signed. The US recognized the Potawatomi as a single tribe. They often had a few tribal leaders whom all villages accepted. The Potawatomi had a decentralized society, with several main divisions based on geographic locations: Milwaukee or Wisconsin area, Detroit or Huron River, the St. Joseph River, the Kankakee River, Tippecanoe and Wabash Rivers, the Illinois River and Lake Peoria, and the Des Plaines and Fox Rivers.

The chiefs listed below are grouped by geographic area.

See also: Treaty with the Potawatomi

Milwaukee Potawatomi

Chicago Potawatomi

Des Plaines and Fox River Potawatomi

Illinois River Potawatomi


Kankakee River (Iroquois and Yellow Rivers) Potawatomi

St. Joseph and Elkhart Potawatomi

Tippecanoe and Wabash River Potawatomi

Fort Wayne Potawatomi

Metea lithograph (1842)

American removal period (1830–1840)

The removal period of Potawatomi history began with the treaties of the late 1820s, when the United States created reservations. Billy Caldwell and Alexander Robinson negotiated for the United Nations of Chippewa, Ottawa and Potowatomi in the Second Treaty of Prairie du Chien (1829), by which they ceded most of their lands in Wisconsin and Michigan. Some Potawatomi became religious followers of the "Kickapoo Prophet", Kennekuk. Over the years, the US reduced the size of the reservations under pressure for land by incoming European Americans. [citation needed]

The final step followed the Treaty of Chicago, negotiated in 1833 for the tribes by Caldwell and Robinson. In return for land cessions, the US promised new lands, annuities and supplies to enable the peoples to develop new homes. The Illinois Potawatomi were removed to Nebraska and the Indiana Potawatomi to Kansas, both west of the Mississippi River. Often annuities and supplies were reduced, or late in arrival, and the Potawatomi suffered after their relocations. Those in Kansas later were removed to Indian Territory, now Oklahoma. The removal of the Indiana Potawatomi was documented by a Catholic priest, Benjamin Petit, who accompanied the Indians on the Potawatomi Trail of Death. Petit died while returning to Indiana. His diary was published in 1941 by the Indiana Historical Society.[8]

Many Potawatomi found ways to remain, primarily those in Michigan. Others fled to their Odawa neighbors or to Canada to avoid removal to the west.

Leopold Pokagon


Ed Pigeon, Match-E-Be-Nash-She-Wish cultural coordinator and language instructor, with son, 2006
Rain dance, Kansas, c. 1920

There are several active bands of Potawatomi.

United States

Federally recognized Potawatomi tribes in the United States:

Canada – First Nations with Potawatomi people


Year Total United
1667[10] 4,000
1765[11] 1,500
1766[11] 1,750
1778[11] 2,250
1783[11] 2,000
1795[11] 1,200
1812[11] 2,500
1820[11] 3,400
1843[11] 1,800
1854[10] 4,440 4,040 400
1889[12] 1,582 1,416 166
1908[11] 2,742 2,522 220
1910[10] 2,620 2,440 180
1997[13] 25,000
1998[10] 28,000
c. 2006[14][failed verification] 21,000 17,000 4,000
2010 23,400 21,000[14] 2,400
2014[14][failed verification] 4,500
2018 6,700[14]


Main article: Anishinaabe clan system

La Chauvignerie (1736) and Morgan (1877) mention among the Potawatomi doodems (clans) being:


They regard Epigaea repens as their tribal flower and consider it to have come directly from their divinity.[15] Allium tricoccum is consumed in traditional Potawatomi cuisine.[16] They mix an infusion of the root of Uvularia grandiflora with lard and use it as salve to massage sore muscles and tendons.[17] They use Symphyotrichum novae-angliae as a fumigating reviver.[18] Vaccinium myrtilloides is part of their traditional cuisine, and is eaten fresh, dried, and canned.[19] They also use the root bark of the plant for an unspecified ailment.[20]


Trail of Death marker in Warren County, Indiana.

The Potawatomi first lived in Lower Michigan, then moved to northern Wisconsin and eventually settled into northern Indiana and central Illinois. In the early 19th century, major portions of Potawatomi lands were seized by the U.S. government. Following the Treaty of Chicago in 1833, by which the tribe ceded its lands in Illinois, most of the Potawatomi people were removed to Indian Territory west of the Mississippi River. Many perished en route to new lands in the west on their journey through Iowa, Kansas and Indian Territory (now Oklahoma), following what became known as the "Trail of Death".

Year or Century Location[21]
1615 East of Michilimackinac, MI
Islands of Door Peninsula, WI (1st Fr)
1640 (until) with Hochunk (Winnebago) west of Green Bay, WI
1641 Sault Ste. Marie, MI
1670 Mouth of Green Bay, WI/MI
17th century Milwaukee River, WI
1780s on St. Joseph River, MI/IN


Main article: Potawatomi language

Potawatomi (also spelled Pottawatomie; in Potawatomi Bodéwadmimwen or Bodéwadmi Zheshmowen or Neshnabémwen) is a Central Algonquian language and is spoken around the Great Lakes in Michigan and Wisconsin. It is also spoken by Potawatomi in Kansas, Oklahoma, and in southern Ontario.[22] As of 2001, there were fewer than 1300 people who speak Potawatomi as a first language, most of them elderly.[23] The people are working to revitalize the language.[citation needed]

The Potawatomi language is most similar to the Odawa language; it also has borrowed a considerable amount of vocabulary from Sauk. Like the Odawa language, or the Ottawa dialect of the Anishinaabe language, the Potawatomi language exhibits a great amount of vowel syncope.

Many places in the Midwest have names derived from the Potawatomi language, including Waukegan, Muskegon, Oconomowoc, Pottawattamie County, Kalamazoo, and Skokie.

Potawatomi people

See also


  1. ^ "Potawatomi". Oxford English Dictionary (Online ed.). Oxford University Press. (Subscription or participating institution membership required.)
  2. ^ Clifton, James A. (1978). "Potawatomi." In Northeast, ed. Bruce G. Trigger. Vol. 15 of Handbook of North American Indians, ed. William C. Sturtevant. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution, pg. 725
  3. ^ "Three Fires Council – CPN Cultural Heritage Center". Archived from the original on 2023-09-29. Retrieved 2023-10-23.
  4. ^ Humphries, Maria; Verbos, Amy Klemm (2014-08-01). "A Native American Relational Ethic: An Indigenous Perspective on Teaching Human Responsibility". Journal of Business Ethics. 123 (1): 1–9. doi:10.1007/s10551-013-1790-3. S2CID 143379265.
  5. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s t u v w x Edmunds, R. David (1988). The Potawatomis: Keepers of the Fire. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press (Civilization of the American Indian Series); ISBN 0-8061-2069-X
  6. ^ "Aptakisic". Lake County, Illinois History. 25 March 2011.
  7. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k McPherson, Alan (1993). Indian Names in Indiana.
  8. ^ Petit, Benjamin (1941). The trail of death; letters of Benjamin Marie Petit (in English and French). Indianapolis, IN: Indiana Historical Society. Retrieved 22 June 2018.
  9. ^ Dunn, Jacob Piatt (28 March 2018). "True Indian stories: with glossary of Indiana Indian names". Sentinel. Archived from the original on 23 October 2023. Retrieved 19 November 2020 – via Google Books.
  10. ^ a b c d Sultzman, Lee (18 December 1998). "Potawatomi History". Archived from the original on 11 June 2008. Retrieved 5 July 2019.
  11. ^ a b c d e f g h i Hodge, Frederick Webb, ed. (1910). Handbook of American Indians North of Mexico: N-Z. Washington: U.S. Government Printing Office. p. 291.
  12. ^ Powell, John Wesley (1891). Indian linguistic families of America north of Mexico. Washington. p. 50. Archived from the original on 2018-12-13. Retrieved 2019-07-05.((cite book)): CS1 maint: location missing publisher (link)
  13. ^ "Potawatomi". Ethnologue. Archived from the original on 18 May 2024. Retrieved 5 July 2019.
  14. ^ a b c d "Nishnabek Potawatomi Portal Websites". First Nation Seekers. n.d. Archived from the original on 9 January 2006. Retrieved 14 June 2024.
  15. ^ Smith, p. 118
  16. ^ Smith, p. 104
  17. ^ Smith, pp. 56, 57 64
  18. ^ Smith, p. 50.
  19. ^ Smith, p. 99
  20. ^ Smith, p. 57
  21. ^ Kubiak, William J. (1970). Great Lakes Indians: A Pictorial Guide. Baker Book House Company.
  22. ^ Moseley, Christopher (2007). Encyclopedia of the World's Endangered Languages, p. 74. Routledge. ISBN 0-7007-1197-X.
  23. ^ Hinton, Leanne and Hale, Kenneth (2001). The Green Book of Language Revitalization in Practice, p. 342. Emerald Group Publishing. ISBN 0-12-349353-6.

Cited sources