ETHNONYM: Potewatmi

In early historic times, the Potawatomi, an Algonkian-speaking tribe closely related to the Ottawa and the Ojibwa, lived in the lower peninsula of Michigan, eastern Wisconsin, northeastern Illinois, and northwestern Indiana. Between 1836 and 1841 a large segment of the tribe moved west of the Mississippi to Iowa, Kansas, or ultimately Oklahoma. Others moved to Canada and Wisconsin, and still others chose to remain in lower Michigan. Their descendants now live on a number of reserves in Canada, intermingled with other Canadian Indian groups, and on a number of reservations and trust areas in the United States. These include the Potawatomi Indian Reservation in Kansas (the Prairie Potawatomi, a very conservative group), the Citizen Band Potawatomi Tribe of Oklahoma, the Potawatomi Indian Reservation in Wisconsin, and the Hannahville Community in Wilson, Michigan. In addition, many Potawatomi have merged with the general U.S. population or with other Indian groups—for example, with the Kickapoo in Mexico and the United States. Their estimated population in 1600 was about 4,000; in the first half of the nineteenth century there were probably 9,000-10,000 Potawatomi. The population in recent times is difficult to establish, with estimates ranging from about 2,700 to about 13,500. It is not possible to make meaningful comparisons of these latter figures with earlier estimates because of the lack of comparability of degree of blood or sociocultural characteristics between the groups.

The Potawatomi do not seem to have had an overarching tribal organization. The most important political unit was the village, which was moved periodically. Each village had its own chief who was assisted by a village council and a specialized warrior sodality, which acted as a police force. An important local chief might dominate a large number of villages. There was a strongly functioning patrilineal corporate clan system, with a secondary emphasis on matrilineal bonds. There may have been as many as thirty clans, later organized into six phratries or larger units. At one time the clans may have been localized, but with the historical population movements they became distributed among numerous villages. The clan system added cohesion to the tribe as a whole and acted as a means of social placement.

Villages were shifted annually from summer to winter quarters and varied greatly in size, from fifty inhabitants to more than a thousand. Nuclear and extended families existed, with some of the larger extended families running to four generations under the same roof. Polygyny was the preferred form of marriage.

Subsistence was based on a seasonal mixed economy with the summer devoted to horticulture (maize, beans, melons, and squash), the collection of a variety of plant foods, hunting of large game (deer, bear, and in some areas bison), and some fishing. In the winter they dispersed to smaller camps where they continued to hunt. The winter camps combined in the spring for communal hunting drives and fishing expeditions.

Each clan had an associated medicine bundle, origin myth, ritual practices, and obligations. Clans had sodalities (including the Midewiwin, a society of influential sorcerers) and various types of shamans and diviners. The individual vision quest was very important. In later years, they were heavily missionized by several religious denominations.


Clifton, James A. (1977). The Prairie People: Continuity and Change in Potawatomi Culture, 1665-1965. Lawrence: Regents Press of Kansas.

Clifton, James A. (1978). "Potawatomi." In Handbook of North American Indians. Vol. 15, Northeast, edited by Bruce G. Trigger, 725-742. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution.

Landes, Ruth (1970). The Prairie Potawatomi: Tradition and Ritual in the Twentieth Century. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.

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