The Potawatomi Nation is a Native American group who lived occupied the Great Lakes and Upper Mississippi River Basin. The Potawatomi traditionally spoke the Potawatomi language, which belongs to the Algonquian language family. Today, however, many people of Potawatomi descent speak English or other Native American languages like Ojibwa rather than the Potawatomi language.
The Potawatomi language and culture was closely related to that of the Ojibwe (also known as Chippewa) and the Ottawa (or Odawa). Historically, the Potawatomi were allied with these other two groups in an alliance known as the Council of Three Fires. The Potawatomi are sometimes considered to be part of the larger Ojibwe Nation. The Ojibwe were widely dispersed in the Great Lakes region and were divided into a number of subgroups. The Potawatomi may be regarded as a southern subgroup of the Ojibwe.
Like some of their Ojibwe neighbours, the Potawatomi traditionally subsisted by fishing, hunting, gathering wild rice and by growing corn and other crops. They also smoked tobacco in calumets, or sacred pipes. The Midewiwin, or Grand Medicine Society performed rituals of religious and social importance.
In the early seventeenth century, when Europeans arrived, the Potawatomi occupied the Michigan Peninsula on the American side of Lake Huron. They do not seem to have occupied southern Ontario.
The Potawatomi were trade partners and military allies of the French. For much of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the French and English were involved in a struggle for control over North American trade and colonies. Finally, in 1763, the British defeated the French, capturing the main French colony of New France (now Quebec).
After the defeat of their French allies, the Potawatomi continued to fight against the British. The Potawatomi and other Native Americans rose up against Britain in Pontiac’s Rebellion in 1763. In the late eighteenth century, however, the Potawatomi sided with Britain against rebel colonists during the American War of Independence (American Revolution). In the late 1700s and early 1800s the Potawatomi and other Native American nations fought in vain to prevent American settlers from taking their land. The Potawatomi were involved in at least three wars against American colonists- Little Turtle’s War (1790-94), Tecumseh’s Rebellion (1809-11) and Black Hawk War (1832).
Tecumseh, a war chief from the Shawnee Nation, emerged as a leading ally of the British and opponent of American settlement in the late eighteenth century. Some Potawatomi supported Tecumseh and participated in his battles against the Americans. During the War of 1812 between Britain and the United States, Tecumseh tried to rally Native American tribes to support Britain and prevent American expansion into the Midwest. Many Potawatomi fought with Tecumseh and the British against the Americans. After suffering military defeats in the Great Lakes, however, the British retreated. Tecumseh was killed in a conflict with dissenting members of his own nation and the Americans began to secure their control over regions formerly dominated by the Potawatomi and other Native Americans.
After this defeat, some of the Potawatomi who had fought for the British fled to the British colony of Upper Canada (now the province of Ontario). In the 1830s the U.S. government began to forcibly remove the Potawatomi Nation from their former homelands in Illinois, Indiana and Michigan to reservations west of the Mississippi. This sent a larger wave of Potawatomi refugees into Canada. There were no Potawatomi communities in Canada at this time, but there were communities of the closely related Ojibwe and Ottawa, the Potawatomi’s traditional allies. The policy of the British was to settle the new Potawatomi arrivals in pre-existing Ojibwe and Ottawa communities, mainly in southeastern Ontario.
Although the Ojibwe and Potawatomi had been allies, there were some tensions between the Ojibwe and the newer Potawatomi immigrants. Some of these were due to differences in religious beliefs and lifestyle. For example, some Potawatomi immigrants were skilled horticulturalists while many Canadian Ojibwe clung to their traditional hunting and gathering lifestyle.
Initially the Potawatomi immigrants generally maintained separate communities next to their Ojibwe neighbors. Some of these separate Potawatomi communities lasted into the twentieth century. Eventually, however, the distinctions between the Potawatomi and their Ojibwe or Ottawa neighbors began to break down.
Today people of Potawatomi descent live in First Nations Reserves and communities scattered across southeastern Ontario, especially around Lake St. Clair, Lake Huron and Georgian Bay. Walpole Island First Nation, for example, occupies Walpole Island, which is near to Detroit and Windsor, Ontario. Walpole Island is called Bkejwanong by the First Nations people (Native Americans are known as First Nations in Canada). The reserve is occupied by Ojibwe, Ottawa and Potawatomi.
When Europeans began to penetrate the inner Great Lakes region in the seventeenth century, the Potawatomi Nation occupied the Michigan Peninsula and adjoining areas of what is now the United States. The Potawatomi do not seem to have occupied the opposite side of the Great Lakes in what is now southern Ontario, Canada. These regions, however, were occupied by the closely related Ottawa and Ojibwe.
Significant numbers of Potawatomi left the United States for Canada in the nineteenth century as a result of conflicts with American authorities. These Potawatomi immigrants settled mainly in existing Ojibwe and Ottawa communities southeastern Ontario. Today many of their descendants still live in First Nations reservations like the one of Walpole Island. At one time the Potawatomi maintained an identity distinct from that of their Ojibwe and Ottawa neighbors on these reserves. Over time, however, the descendants of the nineteenth century Potawatomi immigrants to Canada have increasingly merged with the Ojibwe and Ottawa in the First Nation communities of southeastern Ontario.
Karl Scott Hele. Lines Drawn Upon Open Water. Waterloo, Ontario: Wilfred Laurier University Press, 2008.
Carl Waldman. Encyclopedia of Native American Tribes. New York: Checkmark Books, 2006.