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Who are the Potawatomi Indians?

By Amanda Piontek
Updated May 17, 2024
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The Potawatomi Indians are a tribe of Native Americans who once inhabited the Great Lakes region of the United States. The United States Government began a forceful relocation of the Potawatomi Indians in the 1830s, with the military driving Native American tribes over several states to areas west of the Mississippi River. Today the population of the Potawatomi tribe is established in many areas of both the United States and Canada. Different speculations regarding the origination of the Potawatomi name exist, but it is commonly believed to derive from the Ojibwe language, meaning "People of the Place of Fire," or similarly worded translations.

The nation of Potawatomi Indians began with one large group of peoples traveling together toward Lake Huron. The group split into three separate Native American tribes: the Potawatomi, the Ottawa, and the Chippewa, also known as the Ojibwe. These three tribes share the Algonquian family of languages, with dialects that are very closely related to each other. It is believed by tribe members that the name "Potawatomi" was bestowed on the Indian nation by the Ojibwe, because the Potawatomi were responsible for keeping the council fire for the three related tribes.

The Potawatomi Indians provided for their tribe by adapting to their surroundings. They originally existed as a hunter and gatherer tribe, supporting themselves with fish, maple syrup, wild rice, and waterfowl. When circumstances required that they move their people into Wisconsin, the Potawatomi learned farming from their new neighboring tribes, quickly adding gardens of corn, beans, squash, and medicinal herbs to their foundation.

In the 1820s, the United States Government began legislation that would eventually lead to the removal of Native American tribes from their homelands. This legislation progressed to the Indian Removal Act of 1830, when the government forcefully drove the Native Americans into lands west of the Mississippi River. At this time many of the Potawatomi Indians escaped to northern areas, including upper Michigan and Canada.

The nation of Potawatomi Indians is established across the United States and Canada. There are several recognized groups of the Native American tribe, with reservations in different states. The largest group of Potawatomi Indians is the Citizen Potawatomi of Oklahoma. The Citizen Potawatomi are headquartered in Shawnee, Oklahoma, where they are quite influential, owning many businesses local to the area and operating a museum on Potawatomi history. Other Potawatomi nations include the Prairie Band in Kansas, the Forest County Community in Wisconsin, the Hannahville of Illinois, and the Pokagon, the Nottawaseppi, and the Match-E-Be-Nash-She-Wish of Michigan.

America Explained is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
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