The Winnebagos shared cultural characteristics with Plains Siouans such as the Otoes, Iowas, and Missourias as well as with Woodland/Plains Algonquins such as the Sauks, Foxes, and Menominees. Little is known of Winnebago culture prior to their brush with annihilation in the early seventeenth century. In the early seventeenth century, perhaps 3,000 Winnebagos were located in Wisconsin on the Door Peninsula, Green Bay, just south of the Menominees. The Winnebagos may also once have lived in west central Wisconsin. Winnebago belongs or is related to the Chiwere division of the Siouan language family.
The primary deity was the sun, or earth maker. The people also recognized other deities, some sex identified, and many lesser spirits. Winnebago cosmology was intricate and complex, and, although most people were unfamiliar with the details, most also observed the various rituals associated with aspects of traditional religious belief having to do with personal visions, clan membership, and life cycle events.
Young people undertook vision quests to acquire guardian spirits. These were said to provide luck and success in hunting, war, or curing. The Midewiwin (Medicine Dance) ceremony differed from the Algonquin version in that it dealt mainly with life and death as well as life after death. Clan feasts focused on making offerings to the clan animal. There was also a winter feast.
War bundle ceremonies, held under clan auspices, resulted from particular visions. They included ritual offerings and were meant to enhance the spiritual power of the military enterprise. There were several kinds of shamans: Those associated with war and curing were considered good, but those associated with hunting might be good or bad (witches). Certain older people used both medicinal plants and spiritual power to cure disease.
There was a hereditary head chief in former times. As the population dispersed during the eighteenth century, population centers became more autonomous. Dual chieftainships (peace and war chiefs) existed in villages and among head chiefs. Both civil and war chiefs were selected from hereditary candidates according to merit. One clan, the Bear, served as a tribal police force.
Generosity may have been the people's highest value. The tribe was organized into two divisions, earth and air. There were also twelve patrilineal clans, four among the air division and eight among the earth division. Clans were related to animals and were represented by mounds in the shape of animals. They governed marriage, leadership, and games such as lacrosse. Each clan also owned certain names, ceremonies, responsibilities, and restrictions. Descent may have been matrilineal in the distant past.
Berdaches (transvestites), thought to be divinely inspired, were accorded respect. The mother's brother(s) played an important role in raising a boy. Although menstruating women were isolated, some degree of courtship may have taken place at those times. Marriages were often arranged by close male relatives of a woman. In-laws were generally avoided out of respect.
People enjoyed various sports, such as lacrosse, as well as gambling games such as the moccasin game. The Winnebagos were cannibals. At four-night wakes held for the dead, people told stories and gambled for the souls of enemies, which would later assist the dead on their way to the afterlife. Corpses were buried on scaffolds.
The few large late seventeenth-century villages became forty or so scattered settlements by the early nineteenth century. People lived in rectangular bark-or mat-covered lodges. There was also a rectangular council house for meetings and ceremonies and similarly built sweat houses. From the eighteenth century on, as populations became less concentrated, people began to build domed wigwams.
Women grew gardens of corn, beans, and squash as well as tobacco. Men hunted buffalo communally on the nearby prairie and trapped small game. Other large game included deer and bear. Hunting parties probably included women. Runners traveled between winter hunting parties and the villages, exchanging fresh meat for dried vegetables. Fish was often caught at night by the light of pine pitch torches. Women gathered fruit, berries, and tubers as well as wild rice from canoes.
Most clothing was made from tanned buckskin. Men wore deer hair headdresses dyed red. They also wore breechclouts, leggings, and soft-soled moccasins, possibly fringed and/or decorated with quill-work. Women wore sleeveless dresses (consisting of two skins sewed together at the shoulder and belted) over a nettle fiber undershirt, leggings, and moccasins with a distinctive flap over the toe.
Winnebagos were known as enthusiastic fighters. Captured enemies were regularly eaten. Clans owned sacred war bundles, which contained items dictated in a vision by a particular war-related spirit. One clan, the Hawk, had the power of life and death over prisoners of war. War honors included counting coup.
According to tradition, the Winnebagos were united with the Chiwere Siouans in the distant past. Their ancestors were in Wisconsin as early as around 700. As the groups moved north and west, and then south and west, the Winnebagos may have remained in the forest while the other Chiwere speakers moved onto the prairie and Plains in the early to midseventeenth century. They probably participated in the fifteenth-century Mound Builder culture. They were also probably allied with the sixteenth-century Temple Mound people, based at Cahokia, near present-day St. Louis, and borrowed some of their cultural elements (perhaps including cannibalism).
The Winnebagos may have defeated the Illinois in the early seventeenth century. Shortly after the French arrival, around 1634, Michigan-area Algonquins fleeing from Iroquois attacks swarmed into Winnebago territory. Winnebago warfare against these people led to the defeat of most of the refugee groups. Despite their strength and military capability, by the midseventeenth century the Winnebagos had been reduced to near extinction by disease and war with the Illinois, Ottawa, and other Algonquin tribes. At that point, the Winnebagos were forced to sue for peace with their enemies, adopting and marrying many of them to make up for their losses and in the process incorporating many aspects of Algonquin culture.
They became involved in the fur trade from the mid- to late seventeenth century. That development tended to disperse the tribe west and south of Lake Winnebago. Material changes and technological dependence soon followed. They were French allies during the colonial wars, but pro-British in the American Revolution. They participated in Tecumseh's Rebellion (1809–1811) and tentatively in Black Hawk's War (1832).
Unstable relations between the European and Euro-American powers had aided the Indian cause. The end of fighting between the United States and Britain in 1815 ushered in the era of land cessions and removals for the Winnebagos. They were powerless to prevent the United States from pressuring the Menominees to cede land traditionally belonging to the Winnebagos so that Indians from New York might have a home in the west.
Crowding by non-Natives and pressure from the U.S. government led the Winnebagos to cede their Wisconsin lands between 1825 and 1837 (at least the final treaty was blatantly fraudulent). By then two factions had developed within the tribe: those agreeing to removal and those determined not to leave. The former group, determined to acculturate, soon moved onto several successive reservations in Iowa, Minnesota, South Dakota, and finally Nebraska. Up to one-third of the people died during the removals, particularly on the move to South Dakota. There was an especially severe smallpox epidemic in 1836.
In Nebraska, people continued to grow gardens and hunt. Most of the land was allotted by 1900. Allotments were generally leased to non-Natives, who profited by the towns that grew up in the area, most notably the town of Winnebago. In the early twentieth century, most Winnebago land was sold to non-Natives. At the same time, forced attendance at boarding schools had a particularly destructive effect on the Winnebago. Demoralization set in, and factionalism, based on religious differences (such as Christian sects and the Native American Church), rent the tribe. As was the case so often, educational and employment opportunities were closed to Indians.
The tribe reorganized in 1936 under the Indian Reorganization Act but was unable to stem the tide of despair, poverty, and growing social problems. Many aspects of traditional culture had vanished by that time. The government soon began a program of purchasing homes in scattered counties for tribal members. In the 1960s, the tribe benefited from both federal antipoverty programs and its own community development work.
Meanwhile, by the 1870s over half of the tribe had returned to Wisconsin, which some members had never left. In the 1880s, many members received scattered forty-acre parcels of land under the Homestead Act, most of which were later sold. The people lived in a semitraditional manner until well into the twentieth century, despite the growing presence of missionaries and missionary schools. In 1906, the people lost much of their land to tax foreclosure.
In 1908, many Wisconsin Winnebagos became involved with the Native American Church. As in Nebraska, the tribe soon developed bitter factions based at least in part on religious differences. The people continued to gather berries and harvest fruit and vegetables where they could. Tourism—mainly craft sales (especially ash splint baskets)—became increasingly important after World War I.
The Wisconsin Winnebagos have retained their clan structure in the context of the two divisions, earth and air (or sky). Many people still observe traditional religious ceremonies such as the vision quest and various festivals. They celebrate a powwow around Labor Day. Gaming remains controversial, but even traditionalists defend it on grounds of sovereignty. Wisconsin Winnebagos are known in part for their dedicated service in the U.S. armed forces. The Native American Church remains popular in both locations.