Mecawetok, who may have been identified with the sun, was the Great Spirit and supreme creative force. There were many levels of deities and spirits, some friendly and some evil; the latter were assumed to reside below the earth. Most people sought to obtain spiritual power with the help of a guardian spirit, which one acquired in a vision through fasting and dreaming. Dreams were in some ways the entire basis of living: They determined an individual's sacred songs, dances, and ceremonies. One's power was said to increase with age.
Medicine bundles contained various personal sacred charms. There may have been several old religious cults made up of medicine men or people with outstanding power. People with particularly strong powers included witches and "jugglers." The latter were curers and diviners.
The midewiwin, or Medicine Lodge Society, was a secret society of shamans. Membership was by invitation or inheritance; initiation was highly ritualized. Each member possessed a medicine bag as well as strong and benevolent medicines. The dream dance or drum dance contained some precontact elements.
Clan chiefs were probably hereditary. Chiefs of the bear clan served as tribal chiefs, and the various lineage chiefs made up the village council. Non-hereditary chiefs achieved status through their dreams or war exploits. These people might be war leaders, lead public celebrations, or enjoy other duties and responsibilities.
A band system replaced clans and villages during the late 17th century and early 18th century. Bands tended to follow clan lines but were mostly based on friendships. The hereditary system of leadership became less important, replaced by skills such as excellence in trapping and an ability to negotiate with non-natives. There was also a tribal council from this time on.
The Menominee were divided into two divisions: Bear and Thunderbird. Each was in turn divided into patrilineal clans. Smoking tobacco accompanied nearly every important activity. Certain relatives were allowed or encouraged to joke with each other as a means of maintaining social mores and order.
The male sphere included ceremonies, tool and weapon manufacture, and war. Women supervised the home and children; grew, collected, and prepared all food; were responsible for firewood, water, and carrying goods; and made clothing and items associated with food and the home. Women could also participate in many male activities, such as fishing, hunting, dancing, and some power ceremonies.
Boys and girls undertook 10-day dream fasts at puberty; these were the culmination of short childhood fasts. There was also a feast following a boy's first game kill. Children were toughened by icy plunges into water and other ordeals. Women were isolated during their menstrual periods and after childbirth because they were thought to threaten the balance of spiritual power.
Marriages were generally arranged by elders, who took their lead from a couple to a greater or lesser degree. Men might have more than one wife. Corpses were placed on scaffolds, but in the later historical period they were painted red and placed in birchbark coffins, along with personal items. Mourners blackened their faces with charcoal, but funerals were accompanied by feasting and sport.
Winter houses were domed wigwams, with cattail and reed mats placed over bent saplings. These structures were especially used after contact with non-natives in winter hunting camps. Rectangular summer houses were made of bark over a pole framework. Other hut-type buildings were used for sweat lodges, for women's seclusion, and for ceremonial purposes. Permanent villages usually contained a lacrosse field.
Wild rice—which is not rice but a grass seed—gave this tribe its name and was a staple, along with fish. It was collected in the summer by people, usually women, in canoes. The method entailed bending the plants over and knocking them with paddles; the seeds fell into the bottom of the canoes. They were then dried, pounded, and winnowed, with the grain boiled and served in a stew or with maple syrup.
Men hunted large game, such as deer and buffalo. They also hunted small game from canoes. Men also fished for sturgeon and other fish in Green Bay and in nearby streams. They fished through the ice in the winter. Women grew small gardens of corn, beans, squash, and tobacco. They also gathered berries and maple sap.
Fish were caught using traps, hooks, spears, and woven bark fiber gill nets. Women wove pouches of plant fibers and buffalo hair. They also wove and dyed cattail, rush, or cedar-bark mats and winnowing trays, and they made pottery. Menominee women made especially fine pottery, pouches, and clothing decorated with porcupine quills and animal hair. Men made bark and dugout canoes as well as snowshoes. Wild rice was a major export, as were items made of stone and wood. The people imported buffalo hides and other Prairie items, catlinite (pipestone), and copper.
Men wore deerskin breechclouts, shirts, leggings, and moccasins. Women wore woven nettle shirts as well as deerskin robes, leggings, and moccasins. Both decorated their clothing with paint and porcupine quills. Both also wore copper jewelry and rubbed oil and grease on their hair and bodies.
Shortly after the first non-Natives made contact with the Menominee people in the mid-17th century, Iroquois warriors drove the Menominee into the Green Bay area, possibly from Michilimackinac. Jesuit missionaries arrived among them in 1671. The people maintained generally friendly relations with non-natives, especially the French, with whom they occasionally intermarried.
Participation in the fur trade from the late 17th century through the early 19th century broke the tribe into small, mobile bands of hunters-trappers. They avoided many of the colonial and other wars of the 18th and 19th centuries, although some sided with the British in the American Revolution and the War of 1812. With the fur-bearing animals depleted, and under pressure from non-natives, the Menominee in 1854 ceded all of their remaining lands except for a reservation on the Wolf River in north central Wisconsin.
On the reservation, a split soon developed between traditionalists and progressives. Some people tried farming in the later 19th century, but because this was generally unsuccessful, many soon turned to lumbering. In the early 20th century, with the help of the U.S. Forest Service, the Menominee began harvesting their prime timber resources for sustained yield. Their sawmill became the center of economic activity and the tribe's most important employer. Despite the government's mismanagement of the tribe's timber resources (for which the tribe won a legal judgment and collected an award of over $7.5 million in 1951), the Menominee were among the country's most economically stable and prosperous tribes by the early 1950s.
However, in 1961, the tribe was officially terminated (removed from its special relationship with the federal government). The reservation became a county and the tribe a corporation. The Menominee are perhaps the classic termination disaster. Termination-related expenses soon depleted their cash reserves. When the hospital was forced to close, the people experienced a sharp rise in tuberculosis and other health problems. The low tax base could not finance needed government services, and the tribe sank into poverty. Faced with total financial collapse, it was forced in the late 1960s to sell off prime water-front real estate to non-natives—perhaps the point of the termination in the first place.
In reaction to these developments and to the related possibility that non-natives would make up a majority of the county's voters, a new organization, the Determination of Rights and Unity for Menominee Shareholders (DRUMS), called for a new federal trust relationship for the tribe as well as tribal self-determination. Although termination was reversed in 1973, and most of the former reservation was restored, the tribe has yet to recover from the devastating effects of the termination.
Today, most tribal members are Christians, although the Big Drum religion is also popular, as are the Ojibwa-based warrior's dance, the Native American Church, and Medicine Lodge ceremonies. A renewed clan structure exists among the people. The language is in use and taught in school. The College of the Menominee Nation is located in Keshena. The people host an annual powwow. Substance abuse remains a daunting challenge. The tribe is committed to maintaining its sovereignty and its Native American identity.
Barry M. Pritzker
Hicks, John D. The Federal Union: A History of the United States to 1865. Boston: Houghton-Mifflin, 1937; Moquin, Wayne. Great Documents in American Indian History. New York: Praeger, 1973; Pritzker, Barry M. Native America Today: A Guide to Community Politics and Culture. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 1999.