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The Three Fires: Ojibwa, Odawa & Potawatomi


Three Fires Traditional Pow Wow
several pics by oldbrushes

The three Indian tribes most commonly associated with Michigan are the Ojibwa (Chippewa), the Odawa (Ottawa) and the Potawatomi. Closely related in language and culture, these three tribes interacted with each other like members of a family. The Odawa and Potawatomi called the Ojibwa “older brothers.” The Odawa were next born and the Potawatomi were the “younger brothers.” Together, these three tribes formed the Three Fires Confederacy, a loose knit alliance that promoted their mutual interests.

The French called the older brothers of the Three Fires the Ojibwa. Translated, this means “to roast ’til puckered up,” describing the unique style of moccasin these people wore. The Ojibwa, a tribe of approximately thirty thousand people, lived along the southern shore of Lake Superior. They maintained a large fishing village at the rapids of the St. Mary’s River (present-day Sault Ste. Marie) and were renowned hunters and fishermen.

The Odawa, a name that means, “to trade,” were skillful intertribal traders. The Odawa also excelled in making bark canoes, which enabled them to trade all over North America. In 1650 the Iroquois pushed the Odawa from Canada to the Straits of Mackinac. They gradually settled along the shores of Lake Michigan in the Lower Peninsula. When the French arrived in the Great Lakes the Odawa had approximately three thousand people.

The Potawatomi, whose four thousand members lived in southern Wisconsin when the Europeans arrived, moved around the southern tip of Lake Michigan and settled in northern Indiana and southwestern Michigan in the early seventeenth century. Called “the people of the place of the fire,” the Potawatomi are considered among Michigan’s earliest farmers. The temperate regions of southern Michigan allowed the Potawatomi to produce squash, corn, melons, beans and even tobacco. As a result, their villages were larger and more permanent than those of the Ojibwa and Odawa.

Related Links

People of the Three Fires Native Geneology (US Genweb) TONS of information including this great map of Michigan counties that have (or had) native villages.

The Three Fires of Michigan (includes much of this article plus information on native foods & dwellings)

CONFEDERACY OF THREE FIRES: A History of the Anishinabek Nation

Wikipedia: Council of the Three Fires (needs to be fleshed out!)
For more great stories on Michigan’s past, look to Michigan History magazine. For more information or a free trial issue, call (800) 366-3703 or visit www.michiganhistorymagazine.com.