American History / Native American'S In The Agricultural Core

Native American'S In The Agricultural Core

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Autor:  anton  04 March 2011
Tags:  Native,  Americans,  Agricultural
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The Native Americans living in the North American Agricultural Core within the boundaries of the state of Michigan have helped to define much of the human geography we observe daily. These natives have influenced everything from state and animal names to jewelry and clothes. However, the original people of this state have changed greatly in a short time span due to contact with European settlers. These new people not only changed the way the natives dressed, cooked, worshipped, and hunted, but drastically changed their lives and destinies forever. Most of these changes were forced upon them either directly or through other means indirectly. The natives went from having free reign on an entire country, to being corralled within a few thousand acres within 200 years. This paper will focus on the main tribe inhabiting this part of the Agricultural Core contained in Michigan’s borders, the Potawatomi.

Native Tribes

When Europeans first arrived in Michigan, the most powerful tribes and largest in number present were the Ottawa, Chippewa, and the Potawatomi respectively. According to Rubenstein and Ziewacz, they thought of themselves as a family, with the Chippewa the elder brother, the Ottawa the next older brother, and the Potawatomi the younger brother, and referred to their loose confederation as the “Three Fires” (3). These three groups are known as the three fires because they were closely related and were at one time one large tribe. They had a common language, dialect, and culture, and were all affected by contact with Europeans. The tribe that populated the area of Michigan contained within the agricultural core is the Potawatomi. This group was the smallest of the Three Fires in population.

Native numbers

Prior to outside contact, according to Rubenstein and Ziewacz, the natives numbered almost 100,000 in the Great Lakes region (2). There are approximately 59,630 people in Michigan that are Native Americans according to the United States census of 2000. There are no records that indicate exactly how many of these people were Potawatomi when Europeans arrived due to the Natives not keeping a written record of their history. One of the main reasons for the serious depopulation is due to the new diseases Europeans brought with them from across the ocean. According to Clifton, Cornell, and McClurken, Native Americans had no immunity to highly contagious European diseases such as smallpox, diphtheria, scarlet fever, measles, and tuberculosis, and fell prey to the new illnesses that swept the land (76). Although there are other reasons for the dramatic loss of native life, none are as drastic as the loss due to disease. According to Clifton, Cornell, and McClurken, historical evidence obtained from colonial sources has confirmed that 70-80 percent mortality rates were not uncommon for native peoples who initially encountered previously unknown diseases (76). Another reason for the Potawatomi depletion in numbers from this area is the treaty they signed in 1840 which forced the tribe out of Michigan and “relocated” nearly every member of the tribe, with the exception of one band named the Pokagon, to Kansas (CMU).

Native Life

The Potawatomi tribe had roles for every member of their society. Men were hunters, traders, and defenders. Women were farmers, cooks, sewers, and raised the children. Hinsdale claims, “There is a deep meaning in the woman’s work as an agriculturist. The female stood for increase. The seeds would possess greater fertility if planted by a woman, and the soil would have a greater yield if she tilled it, because her sex controlled reproduction. According to this conception, it was perfectly logical that planting and cultivation should be exclusively woman’s work” (51). At the heart of all Potawatomi social and economic activity was something called reciprocity. This is basically what we commonly refer to as bartering. According to Rubenstein and Ziewacz, there are three types of reciprocity (6). The first is general reciprocity. This was usually done between close relatives and assumed a balanced exchange. Part of this transaction was based on one person doing something for another and trusting the other person to do something equally valuable for them in the future. The second type and most common was balanced reciprocity. This was a straight trade of goods or services assumed to be of equal value. Trade such as this was often between distant relatives or non-relatives who were not well known to the other party. The final form is negative reciprocity. This was very rare and was when one party knowingly attempted to cheat the other. When others heard of such behavior, the guilty party was usually excluded from future trading (Rubenstein and Ziewacz 6). The Potawatomi had lived by these rules for many generations. The driving force behind this concept is the lack of personal property by the Potawatomi, something that Europeans coveted and based themselves. Potawatomi people believed the land was for everyone to use, not to own and keep as your own, whereas the Europeans based their social and financial significance upon how much land and other possessions they owned.

Native Agriculture

Potawatomi life in Michigan followed the seasons. These people were agriculturally based. During the spring and summer, they were free to plant their crops that they would gather around fall. Springtime was a time to collect maple sap for making syrup and sugar. When winter fell upon the Potawatomi, they relied on the crops gathered during the fall and the men to hunt animals for food. Before contact with Europeans, the Potawatomi provided themselves with everything they needed and wanted. If they were hungry, they would hunt or gather some crops. If they were cold, they would kill an Elk for its pelt or weave a blanket. Hunting was done for survival, not sport. Potawatomi agriculture revolved around the three sisters: corn, squash, and beans. It is not surprising that the natives in this region farmed because the land in this region is very fertile. If the land were no longer producing crops well enough, the tribe would simply move to another area and begin farming there. The Potawatomi received their name from the Chippewa term “Potawatamink,” which means “people of the place of the fire” (Rubenstein and Ziewacz 7). This is most likely due to the practice they used to clear the land. To clear land for agriculture, they simply burned the grass and brush to clear the fields for planting.

Native Religion

Among the Potawatomi, religion was of the utmost importance. Religion, magic, and medicine were closely related to them (Bald 17). They also believed that spirits occupied everything: people, animals, trees, lakes, and even the weather. Because they did not believe in one God, the spirits were very important to them. Some spirits were good and some were evil. According to Bald, “an Indian offered gifts to the gods, not in gratitude for favors already received, but as presents for benefits which he expected. If they were not forthcoming, he was very angry with the spirit who had taken a gift and given nothing in return” (17). This further illustrates the emphasis the Potawatomi placed on reciprocity, even their gods were expected to abide by it. In order to help themselves with appeasing the gods, they would sometimes enlist the help of a medicine man. This man, usually believed to have magical powers, could help to remove spells. The Potawatomi, like other natives during this time, believed that many problems and diseases were caused by spells. If someone were deathly ill, the medicine man would hold a ceremony with chants and dancing, and if the person died, it was believed that the spell was too powerful to be broken by the medicine man, but if the person lived, the medicine man received the credit (Bald 18). He could also treat diseases with potions made from various roots, berries, or bark. Some of these treatments were found by the Europeans to be helpful.

Native Influence

It is hard to go a day without being witness to some influence the Michigan native people have had on our daily life. Most of the roads we drive on today were once paths walked by the Potawatomi. Corn was unknown to Europeans and natives taught them to cultivate it. Natives also introduced us to the game Lacrosse. Many of the words we use everyday are native words. Shiawassee, Mackinac, canoe, maize, Michigan and even Saginaw are adapted to English from native languages. Michigan is from the Indian word Mich-sawg-ye-gan, which means the Lake country (Hollands 49). According to the native circle website, moccasins directly contributed to the development of the tennis shoe (nativecircle). “Indian snowshoes also were adopted by the white man. Without them in the wintertime he would have been unable to walk far from his cabin, and he might have starved for lack of game” (Bald 19). Natives also taught Europeans how to make maple syrup. If the Indians had not taught Europeans how to raise corn, daily life would be very different.

European Influence

When Europeans first arrived in Michigan and observed the Potawatomi, they believed them to be simple, savage people because of the way they conducted themselves. A respectable European would not parade around half-naked, jumping around, and singing around a fire. Because they did not understand the way natives practiced religion, they attempted to convert them to Christianity. Europeans also exploited the abundance of animals in Michigan for their fur. In order to get the natives help with the gathering of furs, Europeans would trade things the natives had not seen. Fancy clothes, jewelry, guns, and one of the most coveted items, whiskey, were all highly prized now by the natives. Once content with only taking animals that were necessary for survival, the furs became a currency for the natives to purchase these goods from the Europeans, thus creating a dependence upon the Europeans. The balance of nature was no longer important and even the agricultural based Potawatomi tribe turned to over-hunting to obtain furs for trade. “By the mid-1700’s, Michigan’s Indians were almost completely dependent upon European trade goods. Many Indians no longer made their own tools, utensils, or weapons, and, as a result, native skills in handicraft gradually diminished” (Rubenstein and Ziewacz 8). Alcohol also took a heavy toll on native culture. Many natives would often sell their families possessions in order to obtain alcohol. “Henry Rowe Schoolcraft believed that the introduction and use of alcohol, along with white-induced diseases, idleness, and a lack of food, accounted for the Indians’ gradual population decline. His observation was accurate, as these forces clearly reduced the number of Indians in Michigan to an estimated 8,000 by 1900” (Rubenstein and Ziewacz 9). Europeans also took advantage of the Potawatomi by purchasing land rightfully belonging to the natives. The Potawatomi people did not believe in having private property and were nomadic. When the land they occupied was no longer crop productive, they simply picked up and moved to a new tract of land. “When the whites began to press the Indians to sell them land, the natives did not understand what was meant. This accounts for many of the Indian troubles that arose” (Dunbar 31). According to Greenman, “between 1807 and 1842 the Indian tribes ceded all their lands in Michigan except those set aside as reservations. While the provisions of the treaties increased in number and complexity from the beginning to the end of the treaty-making period, certain provisions were common to the majority of those which dealt with Michigan, and they reveal the spirit of the negotiations whereby the Indians were legally divested of their lands” (5). The Michigan Commission on Indian Affairs claims “there are no reservations in Michigan in the sense that anyone is compelled to live there” (3). However, seeing the past treatment dealt to the natives by the Europeans, it is clear that most natives were compelled to live on reservations with their people if they were not completely kicked out of Michigan, as is the case with the Potawatomi.


Europeans exploited the naive Potawatomi. Buying native lands for pennies on the dollar, forcing them to live on small tracts of land and assimilate with the people that cheated them, and providing little help after creating a dependence upon themselves and their goods. Natives have provided us with many goods we use everyday and many of the words we use daily. We drive on paths once walked by the natives and live on the land once belonging to everyone that cared to use it. Native’s are now major players in Michigan’s economy due to casino gaming. Some efforts have been made to try and make up for the harsh treatment dealt to the natives by the Europeans such as allowing them to open casinos on their reservation lands, but it seems like a way for the government to make some money and exploit these people once again. The present U.S. government is guilty of negative reciprocity and should never be trusted by the Potawatomi or any other tribe. They lived prosperously for many generations before Europeans arrived and have only recently been able to make strives toward there once powerful status. We owe a lot of gratitude to the Potawatomi people that once inhabited the southern part of Michigan that is within the Agricultural Core of North America.

Works Cited

Bald, F. Clever. Michigan in Four Centuries. New York: Harper and Brothers, 1954.

Bleeker, Sonia. The Chippewa Indians. New York: William Morrow, 1955.

Clifton, James A., George L. Cornell, and James M. McClurken. People of the Three

Fires. Grand Rapids, MI.: The Grand Rapids Inter-Tribal Council, 1986.

Doherty, Robert. Disputed Waters. Lexington, KY.: Kentucky UP, 1990.

Dunbar, Willis Frederick. Michigan: A History of the Wolverine State. Grand Rapids,

MI.: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1970.

Greenman, Emerson. The Indians of Michigan. Lansing, MI.: Michigan Historical

Commission, 1961.

Hinsdale, W.B.. The First People of Michigan. Ann Arbor: George Wahr, 1930.

Hollands, Hulda T.. When Michigan was New. Chicago: A Flanagan, 1906.

Michigan Commission on Indian Affairs. The Indian in Michigan. Lansing, MI.:

Michigan Historical Commission.

Rubenstein, Bruce, and Lawrence Ziewacz. Michigan: A History of a Great Lakes State.

Wheeling, Illinois: Harlan Davidson, 2002.

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