ETHNONYMS: Courtes Oreilles, Odawa
The Ottawa, who speak a southeastern dialect of Ojibwa, an Algonkian language, at the time of first European contact about 1615 were located on Manitoulin Island in Lake Huron and on adjacent areas of the Ontario mainland. In about 1650 some of the group moved westward, away from the Iroquois, and many eventually settled in the coastal areas of the lower peninsula of Michigan and neighboring areas of Ontario, Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana, and Ohio, with Michigan being the central area for the next three hundred years. In the early 1830s, several groups of Ottawa living in Ohio moved to a reservation in northeastern Kansas. In 1857, this group moved again to a reservation near Miami, Oklahoma, where they are now known as the Ottawa Tribe of Oklahoma. A large number of Ottawa (particularly the Roman Catholic Ottawa) have moved back again to Manitoulin Island in Ontario, their original homeland. The great mobility of the Ottawa during early contact times makes it difficult to locate village sites from that period. After 1650, however, their settlements are fairly well documented. There are probably close to ten thousand descendants of the aboriginal Ottawa now living in the United States and Canada, with most located in northern Michigan, about two thousand enrolled in Oklahoma, and three thousand in Canada.
Like most Indian groups in the Great Lakes area, the Ottawa had a mixed, seasonal economy based on hunting, fishing (which was of primary importance), horticulture, and the gathering of wild vegetable foods. In the warmer seasons, women grew the basic maize, beans, and squash and collected wild foods. The men fished in streams and lakes, generally with nets. They also hunted and trapped deer, bear, beaver, and other game. In the winter smaller groups settled in smaller camps for the hunting of large game, usually deer. A family hunting territory system was developed in the late seventeenth century.
They had large, permanent, sometimes palisaded villages located near river banks and lake shores. They used rectangular houses with half-barrel shaped roofs covered with sheets of fir or cedar bark. On extended hunting trips, matcovered conical tents were used. The villages often had people of other, non-Ottawa groups, such as the Huron, Ojibwa, and Potawatomi, living with them.
In the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, the Ottawa had four main subgroups (Kiskakon, Sinago, Sable, and Nassauakueton) with other minor groups also existing. In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, sources indicate that the tribe had a number of local units that were autonomous and acted independently of each other. In the modern period, these distinctions have largely disappeared, although adopted tribal organizations still function in Oklahoma and Canada.
The Ottawa believed in a supreme being (the "Master of Life"), as well as many good and evil spirits. Among them were the Underwater Panther, a being of the waters, and the Great Hare, believed to have created the world. Individuals tried to acquire guardian spirits through dreams or the vision quest. Shamans existed generally for curing purposes. Early efforts at Christianization by the Jesuits and Recollects were not successful. But in the early nineteenth century, Roman Catholic, Church of England, Presbyterian, and Baptist missionaries enjoyed great success. A large proportion of Canadian Ottawa today are Roman Catholic.
In modern times, most Ottawa have depended upon farming and wage labor, with the men in Canada also working in the lumber industry. There has also been a significant movement of the population away from rural to urban areas. The Ottawa language has largely been forgotten in Oklahoma, but large numbers still speak the language in Michigan and Ontario.
Feest, Johanna E., and Christian F. Feest (1978). "Ottawa." In Handbook of North American Indians. Vol. 15, Northeast, edited by Bruce G. Trigger, 772-786. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution.
Kurath, Gertrude P. (1966). Michigan Indian Festivals. Ann Arbor, Mich.: Ann Arbor Publishers.