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Odawa Indians

An ever evolving world demanded changes from the Odawa Indians, yet they have held onto their heritage and culture. Take a look back in time at the Little Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa Indians.  

**This history has been supplied by Eric Hemenway, Director of Repatriation, Archives and Records.

The Early Years

The Odawa have called the Great Lakes home for numerous centuries before the arrival of the the French into the Great Lakes in the 17th century. Like other indigenous peoples to the Great Lakes, the Odawa have their own language, customs, traditions and unique history, making them a distinct population and nation. The Odawa, also known as the Ottawa, are closely related to the Ojibway/Chippewa and Potawatomi. Together, all three tribes form the Anishnaabek (the good people). The Odawa, Ojibway and Potawatomi have fought wars together, inter-married, shared villages and customs and existed as a people for thousands of years. The Odawa have traditionally lived in the Lower Peninsula of Michigan, Ontario, Wisconsin and northern Ohio. The main Odawa villages have been centered on the straits of Mackinac, the islands of northern Lake Huron and Michigan, as well as the eastern coastline of Lake Michigan.

Historically for the Odawa, Emmet county is actually a series of villages, with the main village stretching from Harbor Springs to Cross Village. This area was, and is to this day, known as Waganakising (land of the crooked tree). Other villages were Mukwa Ziibing (bear river), Wequetonsing (Harbor Springs),  Ahnumawatikomeg (Cross Village) and many others. But the Odawa were not the first tribe to call Emmet County home.

The Muscodesh, according to Odawa historian Andrew J. Blackbird, lived in Emmet County before first contact between Europeans and Natives people in the 1400s. The Odawa lived at Manitoulian Island in Lake Huron (originally known as Ottawa Lake). A Great War chief by the name of Sagima resided on the island. Upon a return from a disastrous warpath out west, Sagima and his war party were greatly disrespected by the Muscodesh, who then lived at seven mile point, north of Harbor Springs. Furious, Sagima gathered more warriors from Manitoulian Island and proceeded to drive the Muscodesh out from Michigan, entirely. Another piece of this history is that an Odawa woman was murdered, by the Muscodesh, while planting corn in St. Ignace. These two offenses resulted in the Odawa taking northern Michigan.

The Odawa would live at Waganakising for the next six hundred years, until the present day. It is a remarkable feat to live in an area for this length of time, given the Odawa had to constantly fight to keep their homelands. Only one war, the Iroquois War, displaced the Odawa, for approximately fifteen years, from 1655-70. The Iroquois, waging a terrible war for lands, resources and people, swept through the entire Great Lakes. The Huron were nearly eradicated by this war and took up refuge with the Odawa at the straits of Mackinac. The Anishnaabek would eventually band together and take back their homelands. Odawa villages at St. Ignace would be established by 1670.

Many Odawa would relocate to southern Michigan with the establishment of Detroit, shortly after the fort was built in 1701. Even with the majority of Odawa moving near Detroit, many stayed in northern Michigan. The Odawa, whom were known for their expert ability in trade and transporting goods, wanted to be close to the new fort in southern Michigan, in order to keep their prominent position in the main economic staple of the day; the fur trade. The word “Odawa” actually translated into “trade”. The Odawa would travel thousands of miles in their birchbark canoes, trading native furs for European goods, such as knives, kettles, guns and cloth. Mackinac was the major trade hub in the Great Lakes during between the 17th and 19th century. Detroit was also an important location as well.

The Odawa ability to trade goods was only part of their identity. The Odawa were known for many characteristics such as: their diplomatic skills in negotiating in trade and peace with other nations, both tribal and Anglo. The Odawa were great fishermen, hunters and relied on their corn crops, as well as the harvesting of maple sugar and wild berries. The Odawa produced highly sought after hand made items, such as woven mats, black ash baskets and birch bark good. And lastly, the Odawa were warriors, whom fought with other tribal nations, the French, British and lastly, the Americans. In contrast to fighting, the capability to work with various nations was a major factor in the Odawa being able to remain in Michigan.

The 1700’s

War with the Sauk and Fox tribes at Detroit in 1711-12 resulted in the majority of Odawa at Detroit moving back to northern Michigan. The Odawa, Huron and Potawatomi devastated the Sauk and Fox in 1712 in a horrible, inter-tribal war. The Fox wars would continue on until the 1740s, with Odawa, Ojibway and French war parties raiding Fox villages in Wisconsin. Inter-tribal hostilities were a common occurrence in the Great Lakes but what is even more fascinating is the ability of tribes to reconcile past grievances and ally with one another against a common enemy. Great Lakes tribes would fight one another yet be allies against the British and Americans.

 In 1742, the decision was made to make Waganakising the principal Odawa village, relocating from Mackinac. The soils around Mackinac had become infertile for the critical corn crops that the Odawa relied on. Fish, corn, maple sugar and other game were the staples of the Odawa diet and could be had in abundance at Waganakising. This area became known as an area to hold councils, with tribes from the entire Great Lakes coming to discuss events and situations. Near present day Goodhart, a great, bent pine tree use to jet out over Lake Michigan. Travelers, in their own canoes, would see the great tree and knew they had arrived to the right location. Menominee, Ojiway, Potawatomi, Ho-Chunk/Winnebago and many other tribes would come, as well as the French and British.

The villages of Waganakising would grow to nearly 2,000 in the summer months. Without fishing, a population this large could not be sustained. The Odawa lived with the seasons and environment during the 1700s, going where resources were abundant enough. Families would leave for southern trapping ground near Muskegon, Grand River, Kalamazoo River and even Chicago for the winter. Smaller family units could survive easier in the harsh winter months that large villages could, as food became scarce. Dried corn, maple sugar and other prepared food usually meant the difference between life and death during the waning months of winter.

Upon spring’s arrival, Odawa families would make their way back to northern Michigan. They would stop by burial grounds and hold ceremonial feasts for their dead. This was an ancient ceremony and practiced well into the 1800s at burial grounds. This ceremony has gone through changes but still is a strong ceremonial activity for the Odawa to this very day. Today, the ceremony is called “ghost suppers” and they are held in the fall, at individual Odawa homes.

A major threat to Odawa lands and their existence in the Great Lakes would occur in 1754 with the outbreak of the Seven Years war between Britain and France. In North America, this would be known as the “French and Indian War “ due to the vast majority of natives siding with the French. This war, 1754-61, was fought on four continents. The first act of the North American theatre of this war was at the hand of an Odawa/French war chief from Mackinac by the name of Charles Langlade. Charles led an Odawa and Ojibway war party against a Miami village in 1752 at Pickawillany, Ohio. This village was trading openly with the British. The Miami village was destroyed, along with the British troops there and the Miami chief. Langlade would go on to be of the most influential warriors during the war and well after, with his actions being instrumental in Pontiac’s war and the American Revolution. He would lead hundreds of Anishnaabek warriors during the French and Indian war. So terrible were his war parties, they were called “the bloody claws of new France”.

The Odawa fought to protect their homelands, resources and position in the fur trade during the 1750s. Eastern tribes were being decimated by British colonization, war and land acquisitions. The Odawa , seeing the French as a more favorable partner, sided with them. Many French men had married into Odawa villages, creating family bonds. The British would not marry native women and treated them with more contempt and outright discrimination.

The war against Britain did not end for the Great Lakes tribes when France conceded to Britain to conclude the Seven Years war in 1761. An Odawa war chief from the Maumee river, by the name of Pontiac, would lead the Great Lakes nations again, against the British in 1763. Pontiac’s War of 1763 was a totally independent fight the tribes took against the British. For a short time, the tribes were victorious, taking 8 of 13 British forts in the Great Lakes, including Michilimackinac. Here, the Ojibway and some Sauk took the fort by a ruse through a game of lacrosse. The Odawa of Waganakising, late the attack, felt cheated and demanded British prisoners. Charles Langlade, whom was living at the fort at the time, help negotiate the transfer of British prisoners to the Odawa, thus saving all seventeen of their lives.

The end of Pontiac’s war signified the British rule in the Great Lakes. The Odawa of northern Michigan began a trading partnership with the new European power, providing them with furs, corn, maple sugar and other foods. The Odawa still practiced their tradition but Catholic missionaries began to be more prevalent in Odawa communities by 1780. The decision to follow one faith or another was at the discretion of the individual in Odawa communities. Many would meld the two together, taking what fit best into their own lives. The British reign in the Great Lakes would be short lived, as a new and growing force was shaping. By 1776, this new nation declared its independence and called themselves the United States of America.

Charles Langlade would again come into history for the Odawa of the upper Great Lakes, as he led war parties against the Americans. The Odawa, and many other tribes, saw the Americans as a far worse threat to their lands than the British, and thus sided with their old enemies to fight a new one. Agushawa, a prominent Odawa chief from the Maumee river in Ohio, would also fight the Americans. But the Americans would win out and on the losing side of this war was not only the British but their Native allies as well. But like Pontiac’s war, the native nations would continue to fight for their lands and rights, even after their European allies had been defeated.

The 1780s and early 1790s was the scene to horrific frontier violence. By 1790 and 1791, thousands of warriors were meeting the Americans in battle in Indiana and Ohio. This often called the Northwest war or Little Turtle’s war (named after the Miami chief). Odawa from northern Michigan fought in these battles, to not only aid their fellow tribes but to keep American expansion in check. These wars resulted in a new, defining era for all tribes; the treaty era.

The treaty of Greenville of 1795 ended the frontier violence. Great Lakes tribes knew they had to negotiate with the Americans, as going to war would result in more death (diseases were still rampant in North America at the time and accounted for the majority of indigenous deaths).  Boundaries for “Indian lands” were established. Tribes felt they had protected their interests and resources. But war was not far behind again.

The 1800’s

Augustin Hamlin, or Kanapima was a very important leader in the 1800’s

The Odawa of Waganakising would send its warrior one last time to fight the Americans in the War of 1812. When the United States declared war against Britain again in 1812, the tribes had already been fighting their own war for nearly two decades. Tired of having their lands taken and agreements not honored, chief and warriors rallied behind the legendary Shawenee Tecumseh. The Odawa and dozens of other tribes fought bravely, won their battles but ultimately lost the war, especially with Tecumseh’s death in 1813. Odawa warriors from areas known today as Cross Village, Harbor Springs and Goodhart fought against the Americans. These warriors were Assiginack, Mookmanish, Makadepensai  and others. Assiginack, the leader of the war party, would take his warriors to fight at Niagara and Prairie du Chien. All the warriors survived the war and returned home.

After the war life changed drastically for the Odawa of northern Michigan. In 1830, President Andrew Jackson made law the ‘Indian Removal Policy”. This law stated that all Indians east of the Mississippi river had to be removed west of the Mississippi river. Thousands of natives were forced off their lands and marched to Oklahoma and Kansas. To avoid such a fate, the Odawa at Waganakising requested that a treaty be made with the government. In 1835, a delegation of leaders left Harbor Springs to travel to Washington D.C. to meet with the President of the United States, in the hope of making an agreement to stay home.

The delegation, which included a bright, young Odawa by the name of Augustin Hamlin Jr, was met with little regard by Washington officials. The Odawa, along with the Ojibway of Sault Ste. Marie, were in a very difficult position at the time. The United States wanted all Indians removed. Ohio and Indiana, areas with once thriving villages, were becoming vacant of native populations. By 1850, no tribal communities would be intact in those states, as they would all be removed to Kansas and Oklahoma. Potawatomi from southern Michigan and northern Indiana were pushed out. Removal was no threat; it was a real action the United States was taking against tribes. The Odawa had to navigate an incredibly difficult road.

Henry Schoolcraft, Michigan Superintendent and Lewis Cass, U.S. Secretary of War, were the two principal negotiators for the United States in dealing with the 1836 treaty of Washington between the Odawa, Ojibway and United States. For weeks, the delegations met in D.C. during the month of March in 1836. Schoolcraft and Cass’s goal was for removal of the Odawa and Ojibway and acquisition of their lands. The Odawa wanted permanent reservation lands for future generations. They did not want to move. An agreement was finally struck, resulting in the Odawa and Ojibway ceding away over 13 million acres of land, in exchange for 14 small reservations. The main Odawa reservation was to be at their homelands at Waganakising and amounted to 50,000 acres. An additional provision was added to the treaty after the Odawa left, stating that after 5 years, the “said Indians can be removed” by order of the President. The Odawa and Ojibway did not agree to this provision and were shocked and outraged. During this time, Assiginack, Mookmanish and Chingmasso, all chiefs, left northern Michigan and established communities on Manitoulian Island, Ontario.

The Odawa took immediate measures to stay home. They acquired title to lands, even within their reservation. They invited missionaries and churches, to demonstrate their change to western tradition and customs. Odawa children were taught in schools. People changed their habit of dress. Everything was altered to avoid being labeled as “uncivilized” and thus removed. The legal, social and political changes the Odawa made in a short amount of time were astonishing.

The Odawa survived the initial 5 year period and made a new treaty in 1855, the treaty of Detroit. This treaty removed the threat of removal but the Odawa still fought to retain their lands and rights under treaty, such as hunting and fishing on ceded lands. Lumber was becoming a widely lucrative resource and Michigan was a prime lumber area. The Odawa fought to keep lumber barons off their lands and other squatters.

The Odawa were fighting for another treaty when the Civil War broke out in 1861. The largest, all-Indian regiment in the Union army east of the Mississippi river was from Michigan. Company K of the 1st Michigan sharpshooters, consisted of 139 Odawa, Ojibway and Potawatomi men. Dozens hailed from Emmet County. These men originally mustered in 1861 but were denied. Finally in 1863, they joined the Union army. They fought in the Battle of Frederickburg, Petersburg and some were sent to the confederate prison camp at Andersonville. The brave men of Company k are still remembered for their contributions to not only the United States but their tribal communities as well.

The Odawa became the minority in their homelands of northern Michigan by 1875, with the tourist boom, lumber industry and a legitimate land rush occurring in April 1875 in Emmet County. Through a series of complex swindles, legal loop holes and out right theft of Odawa lands, the Odawa were alienated from the title of their lands. The worst of the atrocities happened in 1900, when land speculator John McGinn, with the backing of the local Cheboygan county sheriff Fred Ming, went to the Odawa village at Burt Lake. On cold November day, McGinn and Ming evicted all the elders, women and children (the men were out working) and threw all their belongings in the street. McGinn contested the Odawa had not paid taxes on the land and he now bought it. The Odawa contested it was a reservation and they did not needed to pay taxes. None the less, McGinn proceeded to douse each cabin with kerosene and burn the village to the ground. The evicted Odawa had to walk the thirty plus miles to relatives in Cross Village. 

The 1900’s to present

President Clinton signing the Reaffirmation Bill

The Odawa of Waganaksing would fight throughout the entire 20th century for their rights, both treaty and civil. Delegations of leaders would go to Washington D.C. demanding that the government hold up their end of the deals they made in the 1836 and 1855. The Odawa sued the federal government in 1905 and won a small amount of money owed. Just as important, a census was developed to distribute the cash payments. This census, known as the Durant roll, is critical for current membership enrollment. And just as important, the Odawa were recognized as a governing body of themselves in 1905.

In 1948, the Northern Michigan Ottawa Association formed under Robert and Waunetta Dominic. This organization fought for Odawa compensation from past treaties, as well as education needs for the tribe and hunting and fishing rights under treaties. For over two decades, the Odawa organized and took their cases to Washington D.C. In 1971, the Odawa were instrumental in a large claim for money owed to them for the lands they ceded during the treaties. At the time of the treaties, land was often acquired for pennies on the acre by the government.

During the entire 20th century, the Odawa always had a presence and lived in Emmet County. Despite becoming the minority, they remained. Odawa men worked in lumber camps, as carpenters, fishermen and performed other odd jobs. Odawa women worked in hotels, as nannies and made art to sell. When possible, men still hunted and fished to feed their families and women still raised gardens. One major change was education for the Odawa was education through the boarding school system. Harbor Springs had a boarding school open until 1983. Hundreds of Odawa children went through this school from 1885 until 1983. The school operated as a missionary school from 1829 until 1885. It was in the 1800s that the federal boarding system became mandatory. While at the school, under federal jurisdiction, Odawa children were forbidden to speak their native language and practice traditional customs. Children stayed for years at a time, often from other villages. Many students learned to read and write and would later use their education to help their communities in political and legal situations. The boarding school history is still very much a controversial and emotional topic in native communities.

By 1980, the Odawa at Little Traverse had reorganized and separated from the Northern Michigan Ottawa Association. Asserting they had never lost their status as a federally recognized Indian tribe and their right under treaty, including fishing and lands, the Odawa filed for federal reaffirmation. Large councils were held at Cross Village. New leaders such as Sam Keway, Solomon Francis, Jay Oliver, Frank Shomin, Ron Wemigwase, Peggy Hemenway, Arlene Naganashe and others pushed for their status being reaffirmed. On Sept. 24, 1994, Senate Bill 1357 was signed by President Bill Clinton, reaffirming the federal status of the Little Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa Indians as a federally recognized Indian tribe. For over 150 years, the Odawa fought to stay in their homelands and have their rights recognized.


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