First Nations

First Nations

Hard history sheds light on our difficult past

It teaches truth rather than whitewashing it.
Sometimes, it’s hard to comprehend the inhumanity that defines it.

“The universe is an imposing reality and an answer to all questions. We shall walk together on this path of life, for all things are part of the universe and are connected with each other to form one whole unity.”

Dr. Maria Montessori

Over the years, I had prepared stories about the Trail of Tears for my students. I felt it was important for them to have a much better understanding of the plight of our First Nations than what I had learned in elementary school. In my opinion, we weren’t taught much. At best, a heavily edited Disney version. What I remember most is making pilgrim hats, feather headdresses and turkeys out of handprints around Thanksgiving time.

Growing up in Wisconsin, we were told heroic accounts of French settlers who had travelled here from Europe along the Great Lakes. They were trappers and (mostly badger) fur traders. These settlers conducted their business, we were told, peacefully along the waterways with natives. 

From there, the stories would fast forward past whatever happened next. The inference was Europeans harmoniously settling with our First Nations (case in point, the tale of Thanksgiving) and together, everyone lived happily ever after. Let’s not forget Christopher Columbus who fearlessly sailed the ocean blue in 1492. Let’s not even go there.

The Trail of Tears Teaches Hard History

I didn’t share this watered down version with my students. I vowed never to whitewash hard history when I became a teacher. But, then I was always afraid I would go too far. That I would share too much with my students and parents would push back. Fortunately, that never happened.

One year during our annual class camping trip, the camp instructors had our students reenact the Trail of Tears. I was relieved to discover I was not the only educator trying to share this sad chapter of American history with our future generations. 

It was just before Thanksgiving and the ground was lightly covered with an early blanket of snow. The children were asked to walk about a half mile through the woods after dark, carrying candles for light. They carried supplies and gold coins to pay for safe passage along the way.

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Tack on about 1,000 more miles, their walk in the woods might have come closer to the true experience.

A few weeks ago during a work training, we reviewed the requirements for First Nations studies  in Wisconsin (often referred as Wisconsin Act 31). All public school districts must provide instruction on the history, culture and tribal sovereignty of Wisconsin’s eleven federally-recognized American Indian nations and tribal communities.

Afterwards, I did a bit of research on our local First Nations tribes. Some of the information I already knew. Some of it was brand new. Here’s what I found.

Three First Nations

Before the infiltration of white settlers, there were First Nations. Almost all the land now called Milwaukee once existed as rolling hills and miles of woodland before being converted gradually into farmland covered with stalks of grain. First peoples found a balance of life and land persisting over thousands of years before the arrival of the first Europeans.

The Menominee and Ho-Chunk were the first. Centuries later, they were joined by The Fox, Sauk, Ojibwa, Odawa, Huron, Mascouten, Kickapoo and Potawatomi Tribes. All were fleeing from their homelands due to eastern tribal warfare. By the 1600s, the blend of these Nations would become the key players in the territory’s tribal alliance.

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The three Milwaukee rivers and the “big lake” were viewed as sources of life. The Indigenous Peoples respected the waterways, gathering the bounty of resources surrounding them. They only used what was needed. They were hunters, gatherers and even gardeners, corn being their most plentiful crop.

The Great Lakes and Milwaukee’s rivers brought European explorers and missionaries into contact with Indigenous communities in the 1600s. Over time, fur traders from New France joined these tribes along the Great Lakes region. These visitors affected their way of life and triggered events leading to the eventual downfall of the First Nations.

Today, this local region exists mostly as an urban land-dwelling. In Milwaukee County, there is little evidence left of the existence of these three First Nations. Lake Park remains the only local site with an intact Indigenous burial mound.

The Menominee Nation

The Menominee and Ho-Chunk are the first recorded inhabitants of what is now called Milwaukee. As early as 5,000 years ago, the Menominee Tribe occupied land between Wisconsin and Michigan. An Algonkian-speaking people, they are the only present-day tribe whose origin story indicates they always lived in Wisconsin.

The Menominee lived, hunted and canoed along the three rivers and through marshy Jones’ Island long before French fur-traders arrived. The word Menominee means “wild rice people.” Once a wild rice marsh, the tribe gathered their staple food along the Menomonee River. This, of course, is how the Menomonee Valley got its name. The natives moved back and forth between summer riverside settlements and winter deer-hunting grounds.

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When French explorer Jean Nicolet arrived in Wisconsin around 1634, he was the first European to discover the Menominee Villages. Soon after, the French fur trade quickly dominated their economy, dramatically altering Menominee society. Their territory expanded; villages and clans divided into individual roving bands of trappers. The Tribe would later even join forces with the French against the British, who took control of the region in 1765.

In 1816, U.S. Military troops arrived in Wisconsin, building Fort Howard at Green Bay. From that point forward, the Menominee began selling their lands in a series of treaties. Over the next 30 years, the Menominee lost most of their territory to the United States. In 1854, they accepted a permanent 275,000-acre reservation on the Wolf River.

During the 1950s, the U.S. Government backpedaled, taking back the Menominee’s reservation. The termination of land converted it into a county of the State. In response, a group of Menominee formed an organization called Determination of Rights and Unity of Menominee Shareholders (DRUMS). In 1973, the group’s effort paid off and the termination was lifted.

The Menominee Reservation was re-established and a constitution was created. Today, the Menominee remain in Wisconsin. They are one of the few First Nations People still living on part of their ancestral lands. Sadly, most of their traditional culture has disappeared, although many do still speak the Menominee language.

The Ho-Chunk Nation

The Ho-Chunk possess an oral history placing their origin near present-day Green Bay in Wisconsin at Móogašuc, or the Red Banks. Ten million acres of ancestral land are recognized in treaties between the United States and the Ho-Chunk Nation. It lies between the Mississippi and Rock Rivers.

With the changing seasons, Ho-Chunk families would move from area to area to find food. They were hunters, fishers and gatherers of wild plants, cultivating wild rice and gathering sugar from sugar maple trees. Both genders had a role in making the best use of these resources. Ho-Chunk women were responsible for growing, gathering and preparing food for their families. They understood what the forest and river’s edge could provide.

Women learned to recognize and use a wide range of roots and leaves for medicinal and herbal purposes. The maple sap was used to make syrup and candy. Women also processed and cooked game, making dried meats combined with berries to sustain their families when traveling. Tanned hides were used to make clothing and storage bags. Most parts of the game were used for tools, binding, clothing, and coverings for dwellings. They were also responsible for the survival of the families, caring for the children as well as elders.

To become a man, boys would go through a rite of passage at puberty. They fasted for a period of time during which they were expected to acquire a guardian spirit. The primary roles of the Ho-Chunk men were as hunters and warriors. Leaders among the men interfaced with other tribes. As hunters, they would spear fish and hunt game such as muskrat, deer and beaver. Some of the men learned to create jewelry and other body decorations out of silver and copper.

They also tried to acquire protection and powers from specific spirits. This was done by making offerings while using tobacco. Men would not go on the warpath without first performing the “war-bundle feast,” honoring both the night-spirits and the Thunderbird spirit.

The Arrival of French Disruptors

Like the Menominee, European contact came in 1634 with the arrival of French explorer Jean Nicolet. In his journals, he wrote that the Winnebago/Ho-Chunk occupied the area around the Green Bay of Lake Michigan, reaching beyond Lake Winnebago to the Wisconsin River and then to the Rock River in Illinois.

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Missionary Jacques Marquette traveled here to save heathen souls.

Nicolet reported a total gathering of approximately 5,000 warriors. Historians estimate the actual population may have ranged anywhere from 8,000 to more than 20,000 in 1634. These numbers would reduce drastically with the occupation of French trappers and traders. The Ho-Chuck suffered many hardships. Several hundred warriors were lost in a lake storm.

After having contact with the Europeans, infectious disease epidemics took many more lives. Still more would be lost to attacks by the Illinois Confederacy and while competing for resources with other migrating Algonquian tribes. By the end of the 1600s, The Ho-Chunk were perhaps down to as few as 500 individuals.

The Ho-Chunk Nation Today

Today, the Ho-Chunk Nation government is located in Black River Falls, WI. There are roughly 10,000 Ho-Chunk citizens living throughout the world and approximately 200 fluent Ho-Chunk language speakers, mostly elders. The Ho-Chunk Nation was previously known as the Wisconsin Winnebago Tribe until 1993. The term Winnebago, however, is a misnomer derived from the Algonquian language family. It instead refers to the marshlands of the region.

Calling themselves the People of the Big Voice, the Hocąk language is the parent language of over 15 of the Siouan language family. Since the removal of the federal assimilation policy in 1975, the Ho-Chunk have been focused on language renewal and revitalization along with many other First Nations.
The Nation owns land in 14 Wisconsin counties, in the State of Illinois and a reservation in Nebraska. The Ho-Chunk Reservation in Nebraska is a result of failed attempts to ethnically cleanse the tribe from Wisconsin and Illinois.

Efforts were made to move them into what would become Minnesota, Iowa and Nebraska from 1832-1874. The Ho-Chunk continuously returned during this process, finally using the 1862 Homestead Act to purchase back some of their ancestral land. This strategy of resilience resulted in a new Federal law called the Indian Homestead Act of 1875.

The Keepers of the Fire

The Potawatomi tribe has called the Great Plains, upper Mississippi River and the western Great Lakes region home for at least four centuries. Like the Menominee, they are an Algonkian-speaking tribe. Local historians attribute the name Milwaukee to a word derived from their native language. They pronounced it Mahn-ah-wauk, meaning council grounds.

The tribe calls themselves Neshnabek, which means “the True People.” The term Potawatomi, however, is derived from the Ojibwe word Bodéwadmi meaning, “to tend the hearth-fire.” Oral traditions of the Potawatomi, Ojibwe, and Ottawa tell the story of all three tribes once living at the Straits of Mackinac as one people. Archaeological, historical and linguistic evidence support the assertion as their three languages are almost identical.

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Potawatomi, Ojibwe, and Ottawa coexisted like family over generations. From there, the three tribes split off into three distinct groups. “The Council of Three Fires” is an alliance of the three nations.

The combined group coexisted like family over generations. From there, the three tribes split off into three distinct groups. “The Council of Three Fires” is an alliance of the three nations. The Potawatomi are known as the “Keepers of the fire,” the Ottawa the “Keepers of trade” and the Ojibwa are branded the “Keepers of faith.” The Council had a saying, “In this Council, the Ojibwe were addressed as Older Brother, the Odawa as Middle Brother and the Potawatomi as Younger Brother.

Originally from the lower Michigan region, the Potawatomi were forced westward by the Iroquois onslaught, as were other tribes in the southern peninsula. By 1665, the tribe relocated on the Door County Peninsula in Wisconsin. As the Iroquois threat diminished, the Potawatomi moved south along the western shore of Lake Michigan.

The Potawatomi, or “people of the canoe,” became the most prominent among local tribes. They established at least seven villages within two miles of what is now the location of Milwaukee’s downtown. Each village was located at the border of water and woodland, housing a mixture of tribes migrating west.

The Potawatomi have shared over many generations the age-old story of the “Seven Grandfather Teachings.” The tale follows the Water Spider’s journey to retrieve fire for the other animals to survive the cold. As the story goes, one after another, animals stepped forward to announce their plan to retrieve the fire. Meanwhile, the Water Spider sat, listened and waited.

When they were finished, still wrestling with their fears, the Water Spider stepped forth and announced to the other animals she would be the one to bring the fire back. The animals laughed as she weaved a bowl out of her own web.

She then used the bowl to sail across the water to retrieve the fire. The spider brought back one hot coal out of which the animals made fire. She became honored for her great bravery. The story teaches children the importance of patience and listening.

Potawatomi ‘s age-old story of the “Seven Grandfather Teachings.” The tale follows the Water Spider’s journey

Similar to many other tribes along the Great Lakes, the Potawatomi became both trading partners and military allies of the French. When the Fox Indians rose up against the White settlers in Wisconsin between 1712 and 1735, the Potawatomi joined the French in numerous battles.

Potawatomi warriors helped the French over more than two decades in bringing an end to the unruly Chickasaw Tribe. They once again aided the French in a battle against the Illinois tribe between 1752 and 1756. As a consequence, the tribe was driven out of northern Illinois.

During both the American Revolution and again in the War of 1812, the Potawatomi allied themselves with the British. The British, however, returned the Wisconsin land to the American government at war’s end in 1814. Over the next 20 years the tribe experienced great hardship, often unable to grow and hunt enough food. The state was rapidly being settled by more and more European Immigrants. To survive, they had little choice left but to relinquish their ancestral land in exchange for money.

A New Beginning for our First Nations

With the emergence of gaming and state-tribal compacts in the late 1980s and 1990s, Native Milwaukee began to experience new growth. In 1991, the Forest County Potawatomi reclaimed land in the Menomonee Valley where they have since established highly lucrative local businesses. They secured rights to build a bingo hall and expanded it into the Potawatomi Hotel & Casino.

Over 7,000 Milwaukee County citizen identified as American Indian or Alaska Native on the 2010 census. This makes Milwaukee home to the largest concentration of First Peoples across the state. As it was once in the past, this again makes Milwaukee a Native gathering place by the water.

And that, my friends, is a genuine example of hard history.

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References and Read More:

Adams, Barry. “Famed French Explorer Jean Nicolet Gets Historical Revision.” AP News. July 15, 2019. Accessed January 15, 2023.

“Ancient Religions and Mythology.” Encyclopedia Britannica (2022). Tikkanen, Amy (Editor). The Britannica Group, Chicago IL Accessed November 1, 2022.

Citizen Potawatomi Nation. People of The Place of The Fire. 2023. Accessed January 14, 2023.

Ho-Chunk Nation (2023). Accessed February 14, 2023.

Making of Milwaukee (Parts 1, 2, 3). John Gurda. Milwaukee PBS, 2006.

Menominee Indian Tribe of Wisconsin. 2023.
Accessed January 14, 2023

University of Wisconsin Milwaukee. Encyclopedia of Milwaukee (2016). Accessed November 1, 2022.

Wisconsin First Nations. Ho-Chunk Nation 2023. Accessed January 14, 2023.

“Expedition of Marquette and Joliet, 1673.” Wisconsin Historical Society.
Accessed December 28, 2022.