American Indian Heritage Month: Commemoration vs. Exploitation
Teaser Image


"Miami" is possibly from the Ojibwa word Omaumeg ("People of the Peninsula") or from their own word for pigeon. Their original name may have been Twaatwaa, in imitation of a crane. The traditional bands were the Atchatchakangouens, Kilatikas, Mengakonkias, Pepicokias, Weas, and Piankashaws. Miamis were culturally and linguistically related to the Illinois. From a position possibly south of Lake Michigan, roughly 4,500 Miamis moved into northern Illinois and southern Wisconsin in the midseventeenth century. Miami is an Algonquin language.

In addition to the supreme Miami deity, the sun, there were also lesser manitous, or spirits. Both sexes undertook a vision quest at puberty, for which they began training by fasting at a young age. Some men were directed by their guardian spirit to act and dress like women; this role was generally accepted, although if they engaged in warfare they did so as men. Priests who cured with magic powers made up the Midewiwin, or Grand Medicine Society. There were also shamans who cured with herbs and plant medicines. The most important ceremonies focused on the harvest and the return from the winter hunt.

The six traditional bands had consolidated by the eighteenth century into four: the Miamis proper, the Pepicokias, the Weas, and the Piankashaws. Of these, the second soon merged into the last two, which by the nineteenth century acted as separate tribes. Even in the nineteenth century, each of the three Miami tribes was divided into bands.

Each village had a council made up of clan chiefs; the council in turn confirmed a village chief, generally a patrilineally inherited position, who was responsible for civil functions and was in turn supported by the people. There was also a war chief who oversaw war rituals. This person generally inherited his position but might obtain it by merit (as was the case with Little Turtle). There were also parallel female peace and war chiefs: The former supervised feasts, and the latter provisioned war parties and could demand an end to various types of hostilities.

The village council also sent delegates to the band council, which in turn sent delegates to the tribal council. All leaders enjoyed respect and a great deal of authority. In fact, early tribal chiefs may have had a semidivine status, reflecting the influence of Mound Builder culture.

The Miamis recognized roughly five patrilineal clans and possibly a dual division. Names were clan specific, although adults might change names to alter their luck or to avert bad luck. Children were rarely punished; parental instruction and discipline consisted mostly of lectures and behavior modeling. Marriages were either arranged or initiated by couples. Killing an adulterous wife (or clipping off the end of her nose) or an abusive husband was condoned; however, other murders were avenged either by blood or by money or property.

Burial, either extended or seated, took place on scaffolds, in hollowed-out logs, and in small, sealed huts. Only food and water and perhaps some personal adornments went with the corpse. Postfuneral activities included a performance of the dead's favorite dance or activity and, if a parent, a ceremonial adoption of a new parent a year later.

The people built small summer villages along river valleys. Private houses were made of an oval pole framework covered with woven cattail or rush mats. There were also village council houses. Structures in winter hunting camps tended to be covered with elm bark or hides. Miamis developed and grew a particularly fine variety of corn, in addition to beans, squash, and, later, melons. Men hunted buffalo on the open prairies, using fire surrounds and bow and arrow before they acquired horses. Women also gathered wild roots and other plant food.

Miamis exported agricultural products, pipes, and buffalo products. They imported shell beads, among other items. Except for soft-soled moccasins, men often went naked in the summer; women wore a wraparound skirt, leggings, and a poncho. In the winter, men wore deerskin shirts and breechclouts. Men wore their hair in a roach and were extensively painted and tattooed. Some items of clothing were decorated by quillwork with bands in a twining or geometric pattern. Buffalo skin robes were also painted with representational and geometric designs.

With the help of the council, war chiefs decided whether to wage war. War rituals, such as the all-night war dance and the homecoming of a successful war party, were clan based, and leaders of war parties were not considered responsible for deaths or members of their own clan. Warriors carried large buffalo hide shields.

Miami culture evolved at least in part from the prehistoric Ohio Mound Builders. In the midseventeenth century, the people effected a temporary retreat west of the Mississippi in the face of Iroquois war parties; Dakota pressure, including a huge military defeat, sent them back east (with French assistance). Peace was established between the Miamis and the Iroquois in 1701.

Miamis traded with the French from the mid-seventeenth century on but tended to side with the British in the colonial wars. Some Miamis guided Jacques Marquette and Louis Joliet down the Mississippi in the 1670s. The tribe experienced early factionalism over the issue of Christianity. The Miamis participated in Pontiac's Rebellion (1763), after which they ceded most of their Ohio lands and concentrated in Indiana. They fought with the British against the Americans in the Revolutionary War.

The Miami War, also known as Little Turtle's War, was led by the great strategist Michikinikwa, or Little Turtle. The Indian coalition included Objibwas, Ottawas, Lenápes, Shawnees, Potawatomis, and Illinois as well as Miamis. The war was a defensive one, fought to contain non-Native settlement of the Ohio Valley. The coalition enjoyed significant victories in the early years, thanks mainly to Michikinikwa's strategy of guerrilla warfare. In the end, however, sheer numbers of non-Native soldiers wore the Indians down. Although Michikinikwa foresaw the inevitable defeat and advised a cessation of hostilities, the coalition replaced him with another leader and was decisively defeated at the Battle of Fallen Timbers in 1794. The ensuing Treaty of Greenville forced local Indians to cede all of Ohio and most of Indiana to the United States.

The Miamis underwent a dramatic population decline beginning in the late eighteenth century. Groups of Weas and Piankashaws began moving to Missouri as early as 1814. The United States forcibly removed a group of about six hundred Miamis to Kansas in 1846. In 1854, these groups came together to join the remnants of the Illinois tribe, forming the Confederated Peoria Tribe. They were later relocated to Oklahoma. There, in 1873, the Miamis joined that confederacy, which changed its name to the United Peoria and Miami. The group that remained in Indiana consisted of about 1,500 people whose chiefs had been granted private land.

By the early twentieth century, Miami land in both Oklahoma and Indiana had largely been lost through allotment and tax foreclosure. With the loss of their lands, both communities, but especially the one in Indiana, suffered significant population loss, as people moved away to try to survive. Forty years after the Indiana Miamis lost federal recognition in 1897, they organized a nonprofit corporation in an effort to maintain their identity.

The Indiana Miamis meet twice annually and hold an annual picnic in August. Their agenda for years has focused on reinstating federal recognition, reacquiring land, and economic development. Both Miami tribes, in Indiana and Oklahoma, helped found the Minnetrista Council for Great Lakes Native American Studies, in Muncie, Indiana, an organization dedicated to preserving and promoting Woodlands culture.


©2011 ABC-CLIO. All rights reserved.

  Chronological Essays
  People and Groups
  Southwest Nations
  California Nations
  Northwest Coast Nations
  Great Basin Nations
  Plateau Nations
  Great Plains Nations
  Northeast Woodlands Nations
  Subarctic Nations
  Arctic Nations
ABC-cLIO Footer