Potawatomi Books, Gary E.  Mitchell]


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In the year of 1634, Jean Nicolet, the French explorer, in his exploration of the New World, met an Indian people who came to be called the Potawatomi.

This was the tribe's first known contact with white civilization. Before this, the tribe had roamed the Great Lakes area for hundreds of years predating written history.

Before this initial contact, the tribe would always voluntarily leave when they heard the whites were coming, fearing the diseases and the new technology.

This fear had substance since diseases and guns killed many Potawatomi after these initial contacts.

The Potawatomi were satisfied with their own way of life, living in small villages with their own political hierarchy and autonomous ways.

Potawatomi tradition states that the Odawas, Ojibwas, and Potawatomis originally were one tribe. Members of the "three fires" shared a similar way of life. They were also called the Three Brothers, with the Potawatomi being considered the younger brother.

Loyalties between the three tribes ran deep, and they often came to each other's defense in times of war. They utilized this concept to ward off old enemies like the Iroquois Confederacy and the Sioux Tribes of that time.

Coalitions were to become an essential element in the tribe's social fabric throughout the early years and were to serve the tribe well in the coming years.

In time, this alliance with the Odawas and Ojibwas ended when the Potawatomi went out on their own and built a new "fire," which means to set up as an independent tribe. The Potawatomi ("People of the Place of the Fire") may thus owe their name to these circumstances.

Yet remnants of the tribes had interwoven over the years, which is why the tribes still retain much of the same characteristics and language today, despite being located in vastly different geographic locations.

In 1641, the Potawatomi were displaced from the Lower Peninsula by their long-time enemy, the Iroquois Confederacy. At that time, the Potawatomi had no rifles and had no choice but to flee from their homes, and from the brand new graves of their family members. The Potawatomi fled into the area now known as Wisconsin, near the site of Green Bay.

In time, the Potawatomi made the best of the move. Adjusting to life in the new location, making contacts with the French traders and becoming their allies in the new fur industry. The fur trade dominated Indian/white relations in a more cooperative or reciprocal way than many other institutions that flowed from the confluence of European and Native American populations.

Trade followed, with the Potawatomi exchanging furs for small items that interested them, such as mirrors and pots and pans. This was expanded to include furs. The result was the start of a concerted effort for more trade when the French discovered that furs from North America were in high demand in Europe.

Few persons recognized how the American fur trade, from start to decline, depended on Indian hunters and trappers, such as the Potawatomi. They knew the land, understood the habits of the game and had the technology to capture them.

White frontiersmen served mostly as traders who collected the furs and skins in exchange for ammunition, metal goods, whiskey, tobacco, and imported foods such as sugar.

The new trade brought guns which became status symbols for the Potawatomi and put them on the same level as their enemies, who had guns long before the Potawatomi had them. Guns changed what people ate, changed seasonal patterns and ceremonies. The Potawatomi built villages and roads according to the locations of trading posts and army bases.

One advantage for the Potawatomi, aside from their vast numbers, was that they were also highly skilled in handling birchbark canoes, which gave them a technological advantage in long distance travel and open water travel.

The Potawatomi understood perfectly well that an alliance meant mutual support and service. As with most enterprises involving Indian/white relations, there were some standard drawbacks--- with the Indian usually coming out on the short end.

One factor was that the whites made great profits from the fur trade. Furs were sold by the whites at eight times the value of the goods for which they had bartered. They became the basis for colonial fortunes at the expense of tribes such as the Potawatomi.

Another factor, and not surprisingly, was that this dichotomy of French influence became most apparent in the changes. Potawatomi had been a self-sufficient people, growing their own crops, such as beans, squash, tobacco, melons, and corn and gathering whatever else they needed from the surrounding forests and streams.

Enticed by the fur trade, the Potawatomi readily trapped beaver and other fur-bearers, trading their pelts to the French for such luxuries as clothing, metal utensils, guns, and gunpowder. Undoubtedly, the French products made most Potawatomi lives easier and more comfortable, but as the years progressed and the former luxuries became necessities, the tribe began to lose their self-sufficiency.

Predictably, all of this worked major changes in the Potawatomi way of life. The tribe became economically and politically bound to the French. But, as we shall see, loyalties shifted with the political winds of time.

More significantly, this type of behavior ran contrary to the Potawatomi belief system of killing wild game only when needed. This was the start of many vices introduced by the Europeans to the Potawatomi culture and way of life, and these vices ultimately weakened the tribe, making it easier for the Europeans to remove them from their lands in the long term.

First published in the Northern Life section of the Topeka Capital Journal, Thursday, February 23, 1995 and later reprinted in the Potawatomi Traveling Times in Crandon, Wisconsin.
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