Native Americans lived in what is now called Washtenaw County long before the first white person entered Michigan. In fact, the name Washtenaw comes from the Chippewa words waushte and nong, which together mean "the land beyond." It is impossible to map the locations of Native American tribes because they overlapped each other so much. Several tribes lived in Michigan and surrounding areas: the tribes known as the "three fires," the Pottawatomie, Ottawa, and Chippewa (also known as the Ojibwe); smaller tribes like the Sauk, the Foxes, and the Mascoutens; and the Iroquois nations who had moved west into Michigan when whites occupied New York and Pennsylvania. We can not really know what native life was like before the arrival of Europeans. Native Americans left no written record and few images that told about their lives, and very few whites spoke native languages.
But we can know a few things about Native American life before contact with Europeans. For the most part, Native Americans in this area lived by hunting and gathering. They hunted and fished, and ate moose, caribou, dear, bear, and small game like rabbits, squirrels, and fish. Some tribes grew rice, squash, and corn. They wore clothing made from the skins of the animals they ate, and used tools made of bone, sinew, and other animal parts, and their homes were made of mud and bark. With the exception of the Chippewa, Native Americans in this area also farmed corn, squash, and rice.
Tribal organization was very different from American political organizations, and white settlers often did not understand native politics. White settlers were often confused by native politics, and Native Americans often did not understand white practices. Tribes were organized into smaller units called bands, and each band had a chief. In most tribes the chief was just like any other member except when it came to making military or political decisions.
One of the most important local chiefs in Michigan was Chief Okemos (right), chief of the Chippewa tribe from about 1789 to 1858 when he died. Like many other Native American chiefs, often under threat from American authorities Okemos signed several treaties with Michigan and the U. S. government that allowed whites to settle what had once been Chippewa land.
The arrival of whites in Michigan changed native life forever. But interaction with Native Americans also affected the history of settlers. Whites tended to settle around Native American villages like the one at Cross Village, because they were located along travel routes and waterways. Not all interactions between Native Americans and settlers were positive; sometimes they were harmful to Native Americans. But both cultures affected and changed each other. Native Americans converted to Christianity under white influence, for example, and early white settlers utilized native skills surviving in the harsh frontier. Even today, as this poem by George Torrey suggested in 1855, many geographic names reflect Michigan's Native American heritage. While most settlers thought that native ways were savage and barbaric, some were more sympathetic to Native Americans. Missionaries, for example, often intervened in treaty negotiations, trying to make sure that native people were treated fairly.
In many ways, however, the arrival of whites was disastrous for Native Americans. In the 1700s, about two thirds of the native population in Michigan died from diseases whites brought. Tribes lost massive amounts of land to the U. S. Government, for which they were often neither paid nor compensated. By 1820, they had lost claim to over half of Michigan's Lower Peninsula. Most Native Americans and some whites thought that the government's relations with Native Americans were marked by dishonesty, corruption, and deception. This poem by one local Indian official, Will E. Hampton, indicates such sentiment. By 1838, almost all native villages in Michigan had been abandoned.
Native Americans also grew increasingly distant from native culture under the influence of white schools, missions, and churches. Indian schools like this one, for example, were intended to teach Native American children the ways of whites, including speaking only English. Thousands of Native Americans converted to Christianity and abandoned native practices. Over time their languages, religions, and traditions faded as native peoples became increasingly impoverished.
Despite these losses, however, Native Americans still profoundly affected the history of Michigan and the men and women who settled there. Even today Native American history remains important to the landscape, culture, and politics of Michigan. For example, Native Americans developed a system of trails throughout Washtenaw County to facilitate trade between what is now Michigan and neighboring states. These trails remained major traffic lines throughout the centuries, and today the Great Sauk Trail is highway US-12 and I-94 runs the length of St. Joseph's Trail. Two maps compare Michigan highways to Native American trails. Native life also affected the geography of the population of Michigan. Several of today's towns, Harbor Springs and Traverse City to name a few, grew up around native villages and the many missions, and schools across Michigan.
Follow these links to learn more about Native American history in Michigan:
Next: Early Contact
Reading through this website, you'll notice that most of the time we use the term "Native American" to describe the first inhabitants of this continent. Sometimes, however, we use the term "Indian." While most scholars prefer to use Native American most of the time, sometimes the term "Indian" is more appropriate. Native Americans sometimes use the term "Indian" or "American Indian" to describe themselves. We often use terms like "Indian schools" or "Indian officials" for two reasons: one, because that is the language people at the time used, both Native Americans and whites, and two, these things are also often proper names or titles, as in the case of "Holy Childhood Indian School" or the "Bureau of Indian Affairs."