Ottawa (Native Americans of the Northeast Woodlands)

Ottawa or Odawa, from adawe, "to trade." Before about 1600, the name was loosely applied to several groups of upper Algonquians. Their self-designation was Anishinabe ("People").

Location Ottawas lived in the northern Lake Huron region, specifically Manitoulin Island, Georgian Bay, and the Bruce Peninsula, in the early seventeenth century. By the end of the century most were living in Michigan’s lower peninsula. Today, most live in northern lower Michigan and southern Ontario. There are also scattered populations in Oklahoma and Wisconsin.

Population There were approximately 8,000 Ottawas in about 1600 and about 10,000 in the mid-1990s, of whom about 4,000 lived in Canada and perhaps 6,000 in Michigan.

Language Ottawas spoke a dialect of Anishinabe, an Algonquian language.

Historical Information

History According to legend, the Ottawa migrated from the Northwest as one people with the Anishinabe and the Potawatomi. They probably arrived on the east side of Lake Huron in about 1400. They first encountered non-natives in 1615, in the person of Samuel de Champlain. The people traded furs to Huron intermediaries, in exchange for European goods, until the 1649 Iroquois defeat of the Huron. At that point, the Ottawa took over direct trade with the French, taking their canoes up the St. Lawrence river to Montreal.

In 1660, the Ottawa suffered their own military defeat at the hands of the Dutch-armed Iroquois, at which time they moved west to the Green Bay area. Some groups continued even farther west, to around Lake Superior and the Mississippi River (these were soon driven back by Dakota warriors). With a guarantee of French protection, many returned to their old homes in 1670. By 1680, most had joined the Huron at Mackinaw. There were many Ottawa settlements around Lakes Michigan and Huron in the eighteenth century.

Like most Algonquins, the Ottawa took the French side in the colonial wars. The Ottawa chief Pontiac led a coalition of regional Indians in an anti-British rebellion in 1763, after the latter’s decisive victory over French forces. Pontiac and Delaware Prophet convinced many Indians of the need for unity. The coalition at first enjoyed much success, forcing the British to abandon many of their posts and killing thousands of non-natives. However, it failed to take the two most important British forts, Pitt and Detroit, in part because the defenders of Fort Pitt spread smallpox among the Indians by using infected blankets. Other reasons for the ultimate Indian defeat were the lack of French support, factionalism, and the need of the warriors to provide for their families for the coming winter. Pontiac surrendered and obtained a British pardon in 1766, only to be killed three years later by an Illinois Indian, probably under British orders.

The people tried to remain neutral during the American Revolution, although some actively sided with the Americans; they were similarly divided in the War of 1812. Most Ottawas had converted to Catholicism by the early nineteenth century. By the terms of an 1833 treaty, Ottawas south and west of Lake Michigan, about 500 people, were relocated to Iowa and Kansas with some Chippewas and Potawatomis, with whom they had united in an alliance called the Three Fires.

Other groups, forced to move by the scarcity of game and pressure from non-natives, relocated to the Lake Huron islands or to Michigan reservations or allotments. In 1867, most Kansas Ottawa bought land on the Quapaw Reservation in Indian Territory (Oklahoma). This land was allotted in severalty in the 1890s. The tribe was officially terminated in 1956 but was reinstated in 1978. In 1965, the people received just over $400,000 in land claims settlements pertaining to their time in Kansas.

During the mid- and later nineteenth century, when many Ottawa groups merged or otherwise became associated with Ojibwa and Potawatomi Indians, the United States created an ersatz tribal entity called the Ottawa and Chippewa Bands. This bogus "tribe" was the basis on which the Michigan Ottawa were wrongly but effectively assumed to have been officially terminated. These people have been seeking redress for losses of various benefits and payments for over 100 years. The government has consistently refused to recognize them, even under the Indian Reorganization Act.

Northern Ottawas farmed or worked in lumbering throughout most of the twentieth century. After World War II, however, many moved from local communities to regional cities in search of employment. In 1948 the people created the Northern Michigan Ottawa Association (NMOA) to represent them in all litigation.

Religion The Ottawa recognized Manitou, the great spirit, along with many lesser spirits, both good and evil. Around puberty, boys and girls sought visions through dreams or in isolated areas. There were three religious cults, as well as the Midewiwin medicine society; the latter, open to both men and women initiates, was designed to channel spiritual power toward the well-being of members. Shamans cured through intercession with the spirits.

Government At least four, or possibly up to seven bands, had their own relatively weak chief or chiefs. These bands were composed of local villages, each with their own leadership.

Customs Small hunting groups left the villages during winter, returning to plant crops in spring. Men might have more than one wife. The dead were cremated, buried, or placed on scaffolds. A feast honoring the dead was held every year or so. Mourners blackened and scratched their faces.

Dwellings Permanent villages were sometimes palisaded. The Ottawa built longhouses of fir or cedar bark on pole frames with barrel roofs. They also used temporary mat-covered conical lodges while on trips.

Diet Men hunted and trapped large and small game and birds. Game was often taken in fire drives. Meat and fish were smoked, fried, roasted, and boiled. Fishing was of key importance, especially around the lake shores. Women gathered various berries and other plant food. They also grew corn, beans, and squash and collected maple sap. They baked cornmeal bread in ashes and hot sand.

Key Technology The people fished with nets and used wooden digging sticks in their fields. Women ground grain using log mortars and wooden pestles. They also wove and decorated rush mats. Other material items included birch-bark and hide containers and pouches.

Trade The Ottawa were heavily engaged in trade from precontact days on, mainly between the Huron and tribes hundreds of miles to the west. Among other items, they traded rush mats for shells, paints, and pottery. They also dealt in furs, cornmeal, herbs, copper, tobacco, and sunflower oil.

Notable Arts Men carved various wooden objects. The Ottawa were also known for their woven mats. The people decorated many birch-bark items with the use of templates. Decorative styles included zigzag bands and floral motifs. Most designs were symmetrical. Southern bands decorated items with porcupine quillwork. Robes were often painted.

Transportation People navigated lakes and rivers in birch-bark canoes. They wore two kinds of snowshoes—round for women and children and tailed for men—when traveling in snow.

Dress In summer, men went naked or wore a light robe; they added fitted, decorated breechclouts for special occasions. They added leggings and heavier robes made of skin or pelts in winter. They wore their hair short and brushed up in front. Women wore wraparound skirts, with added ponchos and robes in winter. They generally wore their hair in one braid wrapped with fur or snakeskin. Moccasins were of deer or moose skin, with attached retractable cuffs. Both sexes tattooed their bodies and faces and wore ornaments of copper, stone, and shell in pierced noses and ears.

War and Weapons Ottawa warriors fought with bows and arrows, war clubs, and large hide shields. Allies included the neighboring Algonquian tribes as well as the Wyandotte. Despite a close trade relationship, relations with the Huron were often strained. Other enemies included the Iroquois and the Dakota.

Contemporary Information

Government/Reservations The following bands live in Michigan: Burt Lake (Charlevoix, Cheboygan, and Emmet Counties), Grand River (Kent, Ottawa, and Muskegon Counties), Grand Traverse (Benzie, Grand Traverse, Kalkaska, Leelanau, and Manistee Counties), Little River (Manistee and Mason Counties), and Little Traverse Bay (Charlevoix, Delta, Emmet, Mackinac, and Schoolcraft Counties).

The Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians owns 12.5 acres of land in Peshawbestown, Michigan; reservation status was achieved in 1982.

Most Canadian Ottawas (about 4,000 in the mid-1990s) live with the Ontario First Nations on Cockburn, Manitoulin, and Walpole Islands.

Most of the roughly 400 Oklahoma Ottawas live near Miami, Oklahoma. Their constitution provides for a chief and a tribal council.

Economy Many people are engaged making crafts for the tourist trade. In general, the people work in sawmills and as farmers and fishing guides. Poor economic opportunities and low wages characterize life in Michigan. Most Oklahoma Ottawa are engaged in business and agriculture.

Legal Status The Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians has been a federally recognized tribal entity since 1980. The Ottawa Tribe of Oklahoma, the Little River Band of Ottawa Indians, and the Little Traverse Bay Band of Odawa Indians are federally recognized tribal entities.

The Burt Lake Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians is recognized by the state of Michigan and has petitioned for federal recognition. Other unrecognized Ottawa groups in the United States (there are over 20 in total) include the Grand River Band of the Ottawa National Council and the 9,000-member Northern Michigan Ottawa Association.

Daily Life Michigan Ottawas have regularly suffered arrest and other actions for asserting their treaty rights to hunt and fish. The language survives in Michigan mainly among elders, although the people have instituted various language and cultural preservation programs (many Ontario Ottawas speak their native Algonguian language). Most Michigan Ottawas are Christian, although some celebrate quasi-traditional feasts, naming ceremonies, and other festivals. Michigan Ottawas are active in producing quasi-traditional and contemporary crafts such as birch-bark containers, sweetgrass baskets, buckskin clothing, and maple sugar candy. Contemporary issues focus on the continuing fight for federal recognition and economic development.

The Oklahoma Ottawa are highly acculturated. Few people speak the native language. The annual powwow is held over Labor Day weekend.

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