Illinois (Native Americans of the Northeast Woodlands)

Illinois were a group of bands, probably all Algonquians, that included but were not limited to the Cahokia, Kaskaskia, Michigamea, Moingwena, Peoria, and Tamaroa. The word "Illinois" is a French adaptation of their self-designation, Inoca. The Illinois were a borderline Eastern Woodlands group, with much of their territory consisting of prairie. They were culturally similar to the Miami.

Location The Illinois lived south of Lake Michigan in the early seventeenth century. Later in that century they were located in present-day Illinois, western Missouri, northern Arkansas, and eastern Iowa, especially along the Illinois River. Today, most surviving Peorias live in northeastern Oklahoma.

Population There were about 10,000 Illinois in 1650 and approximately 2,000 Peorias in the mid-1990s.

Language Illinois was an Algonquian language.

Historical Information

History The Illinois may have come to their historic territory from the northeast. They may have mixed with the Cahokian (Mississippian) people when they moved into Illinois in the mid-seventeenth century. The people fought two major wars with the Winnebago from about 1630 to 1645: They lost the first and won the second. In the mid-seventeenth century, the Illinois also attacked the Miamis and pushed them northward out of northern Illinois.

Iroquois attacks drove the people west of the Mississippi in about 1660. They did not return until pushed east by the Dakota after 1870. After this time they began slaving raids on Siouan and Pawnee tribes west of the Mississippi. The Illinois tribes first met French explorers in the 1670s and became French allies shortly thereafter. The Iroquois, aided by the Miami, kept up their attacks against the Illinois until at least the late seventeenth century.

Abandonment of the Illinois River region and a southward movement began around 1700, marking a general defeat at the hands of tribes such as the Kickapoo, Fox, and Sauk, who also sought French favor. With the exception of the Peoria, who held out in the north until the later eighteenth century, most Illinois tribes became associated with specific French agricultural settlements. By 1800, the Michigamea, Cahokia, and Tamaroa merged with the Kaskaskia and Peoria.

The Wisconsin tribes maintained more or less continuous pressure on the Illinois tribes during the eighteenth century. The final battle may have come after an Illinois Indian, said to be in the pay of Britain, killed Chief Pontiac in 1769. In any case, those Illinois still free of French protection were all but wiped out, suffering upward of 90 percent casualties. Meanwhile, the southern Illinois, through their contact with the French, had become missionized, poor, and alcoholic.

Survivors of the wars with the Great Lakes Algonquians, mainly members of the Kaskaskia and Peoria Bands, signed treaties in the early nineteenth century ceding their lands to the United States. Their culture practically gone, these people moved to eastern Kansas in 1833, where they lived with the Wea and Piankashaw (Miami) Bands until 1867, when they all bought land in northeastern Oklahoma. In 1873 they took the name United Peoria and Miami. Their lands were allotted in 1893, and any remaining tribal land was lost when Oklahoma became a state in 1907. The group reincorporated as the Peoria Tribe of Oklahoma in 1940. They were terminated in 1950 but restored in 1978.

Religion Manitou, a supreme being or creator, dwelled to the east and may have been identified with the sun. Men probably undertook a vision quest at adolescence, during which they hoped to attract a personal guardian spirit. At the onset of puberty, girls fasted in a special lodge until they received a personal guardian spirit. Shamans, or medicine people (they could be men or women and were usually older), conducted religious ceremonies. They acquired their powers from powerful animal spirits. Most ceremonies included dancing and smoking tobacco from a sacred pipe, or calumet. There were regular summer ceremonies involving the ritual death and revival of a patient.

Government Each tribe was an independent entity and lived either in a separate village or in a separate section of a multitribe village. There may have been peace and war chiefs as well as criers to make announcements. Camp police during the summer buffalo hunt enforced strict discipline.

Customs Illinois tribes recognized patrilineal clans. Hospitality was a primary value. A ritual feast followed a boy’s first game kill. Boys who showed such an inclination might become berdaches, or men who dressed like women and assumed all of their roles. Berdaches were regarded as having a particularly sacred element: They attended all ceremonies, and their advice was sought at council meetings.

Murderers were either killed or were allowed to pay retribution. Lacrosse was a popular game.

Men usually refrained from marriage until they had proven themselves as warriors and hunters. Marriage negotiations were held in clearly defined ways between the two families and revolved around gift exchange. Men often had more than one wife. Women could destroy the property of men who attempted to marry without the proper lineage controls. Female adultery was punished by death, mutilation, or mass rape. A man who killed his wife’s lover was subject to blood retribution.

Each sex was responsible for burying its own dead. After their face and hair were painted, corpses were dressed in fine clothing, wrapped in skins, and buried in the ground or on scaffolds. Tools, pipes, and other goods were set by the grave, which was marked by two forked sticks with a cross-stick or, in the case of a chief, by a painted log. Various ceremonies were then performed that honored the dead by reenacting a favorite activity. Souls or spirits were said to travel to an afterlife. Property exchange also accompanied death. The official mourning period lasted about a year.

Dwellings The Illinois built semi permanent summer villages strung out for miles along river banks. The villages consisted of up to 300 or more lodges, each with one to four fireplaces and housing up to 12 families. There were also small menstrual/birth huts and possibly an additional structure used for political or ceremonial purposes.

Large, rectangular summer houses were built of woven mats over a pole frame. Mats were also placed on the ground as floors. The people also built temporary summer and winter hunting camps. Summer huts were bark-covered buildings, whereas winter lodges were covered with rush mats.

Diet Meat formed the most important part of the Illinois diet. Men hunted elk, bear, deer, mountain lion, turkey, beaver, and other animals. They also hunted buffalo on the nearby prairies. Communal hunts took place in summer. Before they acquired horses, Illinois men generally surrounded buffalo with a ring of fire and then shot them with a bow and arrow. Women and children went along on the hunt to dry the meat and pack it home. Women grew corn, beans, and squash. They also gathered a variety of wild fruits, nuts, berries, and roots.

Key Technology Wood was the basic material, but tools and other items were also made from bone, stone, and shell. Women made a variety of mats and bags with yarn spun of buffalo and bear hair.

Trade The people exported animal and wood products, crops, and some woven items.

Notable Arts Illinois found artistic expression in painting buffalo robes, weaving, woodcarving, and doing quillwork.

Transportation Men fashioned dugout canoes of up to 50 feet in length from butternut trees.

Dress Men wore breechclouts; women wore long dresses. Both sexes wore buffalo robes and blankets. They also tattooed and painted their bodies and wore various personal adornments of animal teeth, colored stones, feathers, and other items.

War and Weapons The Illinois were considered relatively poor fighters and were mainly unenthusiastic about war. Raiding parties were generally small, although there were large ones accompanied by women. Birds were the supernatural spirit related to war, and each warrior kept bird skins in a special reed mat. Raids were led by a person who sponsored a dog feast; the group then engaged in an all-night ceremony designed to propitiate the bird spirits. Personal bird cries accompanied the actual attack. Success was defined by the relative loss of warriors, and leaders had to compensate relatives for lost men.

Illinois enemies included the Iroquois, Dakota, Quapaw, Pawnee, and Osage in the seventeenth century and the Great Lakes Algonquians and the Chickasaw in the eighteenth century. Otoes were occasional allies. Weapons included bows and flint-tipped arrows, spears, clubs, flint knives, and long buffalo-hide shields. Berdaches fought with clubs rather than bows.

Capturing prisoners rated higher war honors than killing them. Male prisoners were usually burned and eaten, whereas women and children were distributed among the population. Some were ultimately adopted, but some maintained a slavelike identity.

Contemporary Information

Government/Reservations Peoria tribal headquarters is located in Miami (Ottawa County), Oklahoma. A 1981 constitution provides for an elected business council plus officers. The tribe includes descendants of the Miami bands as well as bands of the Illinois Confederacy. It owns almost 40 acres of land.

Economy Tribal members own local businesses. Some people work in Tulsa. The unemployment rate among tribal members regularly approaches 90 percent.

Legal Status The Peoria Tribe of Oklahoma is a federally recognized tribal entity.

Daily Life Peorias work with neighboring tribes (Seneca, Miami, Quapaw, and Ottawa) in areas of common interest. Most are assimilated into mainstream life. Tribal members participate in local and regional Indian celebrations, such as Indian Heritage Days, held in June. Although most traditional culture has disappeared, including the language, some members know some old songs and dances, and there is an effort to revive the Calumet Dance as well as traditional arts and crafts.

Next post:

Previous post: