Who Are The Potawatomi?

The Potawatomi tribe is part of a larger group of people called the Nishinabe whose other members are the Ojibwe (Chippewa) and the Ottawa. In the Ojibwe dialect the name is Anishinabe. The meaning is translated or derived from the word ani, meaning from whence, nishina meaning lowered and Abe which is the male. Thus, Anishinabe means the first man lowered to earth by the great spirit—Original Man.

The Potawatomi Indians were of the Algonquin language group whose tribes stretched from the Atlantic to the Mississippi and beyond. When the Potawatomi left the parent family and became a separate tribe is not known. Stories indicated that the usual explanations of the meaning of their name is “people of the place of fire.” They were often regarded as the “fire builders” and one explanation for this name is that when this group of Native Americans decided to become a tribe, separate from the parent family they decided to build a council fire for themselves. The name was perhaps derived from the “pattawa,” blowing a fire and “mi” a nation; that is a people able to build their own national fire and exercise the right of self-government. The council fire was central to the life of a tribe for it was sacred and the center of national decisions. It has been said that the Potawatomi were jealous of their national council fire and never allowed it to go out. If this be true the name "Potawatomi" is significant.

The Anishinabe are known as the nation of the Three Fires each tribe having a responsibility to the others. The Potawatomi are the keepers of the Manido Ish-Ko-Day (Sacred Fire) with the responsibility of keeping the coals always burning. First they were called Ish-Ko-Wa-Tomi (Fire People). Later they were known as O-day wa-tomi and eventually the Potawatomi.

The Potawatomi Indians were comprised of two divisions. Those who moved south from the forests of Northern Wisconsin into the prairies of Northern Illinois and Western Indiana became known as Prairie Potwatomi or Mascoutens. Those who remained in the forest of Wisconsin and Michigan became known as the Forest Potawatomi. The Potawatomi settled in the Chicago region with references as early as 1674 when Marquette noted in his diary that he had received help from the Indians to paddle canoes from the vicinity of Green Bay to Chicago. A heavy fog was upon Lake Michigan which foretold a storm and Marquette landed near Waukegan making the rest of the journey by foot.

Indian villages were in existence at Half Day, Wyn Kopp’s Points, along Mill Creek at the Pistakke and the Des Plaines River near the state line at Little Fort and many other areas.

The Potawatomi had cornfields of considerable size near the interior lakes and on the island in Fox Lake. They also raised squash, pumpkins, potatoes and beans in gardens tended by women. Tobacco (Sema) was also grown to be used in ceremonies carrying prayers to the Great Spirit. Food was abundant in our area with the lakes teeming with fish, hunting, deer, elk, woodchuck, muskrat, and rabbits were possible in the forests. Maple trees provided the syrup for maple sugar and roots, mash, swamp plants, nuts, wild plums, berries, grapes, and cherries were readily available. The wild or choke cherries were crushed and made into cakes after being sun dried and even the seeds were eaten. Unhusked ears of corn were steamed in pits, pre-heated by hot stones. After the stones were removed, the com was put in the pit and covered with earth. When completely cooked the ears were removed, husked and the kernels were shelled to be roasted. The dried kernels were placed in skin bags preserved in ground pits until needed during the winter.

In the Zion (Illinois) area, Camp Logan was used as a summer campground. Reeds from the Lake front were used by the women to make baskets. Wild rice could be gathered from the marshes and used for cooking.

The Potawatomi lived in dome shaped wigwams using poles to support the structure which were placed in the ground, bent and tied to achieve shape. The walls were covered with woven mats made from reeds and grasses found in the swampy areas near the lake. The women would weave the materials together with a shaped bone needle. These sturdy mats were used to cover the earthen floors. The roof and exterior walls were often covered with slabs of bark, sometimes using an entire tree.

The interior of the wigwam had a central fire pit that was used in the winter for cooling and heating. In the summer, the fire pit would be moved out of doors. Large sticks would be driven in the ground with a cross member to support the family cooking kettle. On the walls were placed skins, furs, and domestic tools. Along the outer walls were benches with poles laid side by side. During the day they would be used for seating and at night for sleeping.

One mile south of the present Zion boundaries to State line and two miles north of the Zion limits were thirty-two Indian workshops. In 1897, a few of these workshops still had remnants of hearths. All had evidence of shop products in trap rock compressing “flaked cobblestones, flakes and specialized forms.” Most of the well defined shops were found near the beach in an area roughly one mile wide and limited on the west by a shore line of clay deposits. This old shore line runs along Edina Boulevard and marks the fairly steep slop along the western end of the manufacturing area. These sites were small having only one hearth. The relics found here appear to have been used as scrapers for planing, massing wood and leather, cutting as a whetstone and chopping and grinding. These workshops are a historical landmark in the Illinois State Dunes Park.

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