The Ottawa recognized manitou, the great spirit, along with many lesser spirits, both good and evil. Around puberty, boys and girls sought visions through dreams or in isolated areas. There were three religious cults, as well as the midewiwin, or medicine lodge society; the latter, open to both men and women initiates, was designed to channel spiritual power toward the well-being of members. Shamans cured through their intercession with the spirits.
At least four, or possibly up to seven bands, had their own relatively weak chief or chiefs. These bands were composed of local villages, each with their own leadership. Small hunting groups left the villages during the winter, returning to plant crops in spring. Men might have more than one wife. The dead were cremated, buried, or placed on scaffolds. A feast honoring the dead was held every year or so.
Permanent villages were sometimes palisaded. The Ottawa built longhouses of fir or cedar bark on pole frames with barrel roofs. They also used temporary mat-covered conical lodges while on trips. People navigated lakes and rivers in birchbark canoes. They wore two kinds of snowshoes—round for women and children and tailed for men—when traveling in snow. Men carved various wooden objects. The Ottawa were also known for their woven mats. The people decorated many birchbark items with the use of templates. Decorative styles included zigzag bands and floral motifs. Most designs were symmetrical. Southern bands decorated items with porcupine quillwork.
Men hunted and trapped large and small game and birds. Game was often taken in fire drives. Fishing was of key importance, especially around the lake shores. Women gathered various berries and other plant food. They also grew corn, beans, and squash and collected maple sap. They baked cornmeal bread in ashes and hot sand.
In the summer, men went naked or wore a light robe; they added fitted, decorated breechclouts for special occasions. They added leggings and heavier robes made of skin or pelts in the winter. They wore their hair short and brushed up in front. Women wore wraparound skirts, with added ponchos and robes in the winter. They generally wore their hair in one braid wrapped with fur or snakeskin. Moccasins were of deer or moose skin, with attached retractable cuffs.
According to legend, the Ottawa migrated from the Northwest as one people with the Anishinabe and the Potawatomi. They probably arrived on the east side of Lake Huron in about 1400. They first encountered non-natives in 1615, in the person of Samuel de Champlain. The people traded furs to Huron intermediaries, in exchange for European goods, until the 1649 Iroquois defeat of the Huron. At that point, the Ottawa took over direct trade with the French, taking their canoes up the Saint Lawrence River to Montreal.
In 1660, the Ottawa suffered their own military defeat at the hands of the Dutch-armed Iroquois, at which time they moved west to the Green Bay area. Some groups continued even farther west, to around Lake Superior and the Mississippi River (these were soon driven back by Dakota warriors). With a guarantee of French protection, many returned to their old homes in 1670. By 1680, most had joined the Hurons at Mackinaw. There were many Ottawa settlements around Lakes Michigan and Huron in the 18th century.
Like most Algonquins, the Ottawa took the French side in the colonial wars. The Ottawa chief Pontiac led a coalition of regional Indians in an anti-British rebellion in 1763, after the latter's decisive victory over French forces. The coalition at first enjoyed much success, although the end result was failure. The people tried to remain neutral during the American Revolution, although some actively sided with the Americans; they were similarly divided in the War of 1812. Most Ottawa had converted to Catholicism by the early 19th century. By the terms of an 1833 treaty, Ottawa south and west of Lake Michigan, about 500 people, were relocated to Iowa and Kansas with some Chippewa and Potawatomi, with whom they had united in an alliance called the Three Fires.
Other groups, forced to move by the scarcity of game and pressure from non-natives, relocated to the Lake Huron islands or to Michigan reservations or allotments. In 1867, most Kansas Ottawa bought land on the Quapaw Reservation in Indian Territory (Oklahoma). This land was allotted in severalty in the 1890s. The tribe was officially terminated in 1956 but was reinstated in 1978. In 1965, the people received just over $400,000 in land claims settlements pertaining to their time in Kansas.
During the mid- and later 19th century, when many Ottawa groups merged or otherwise became associated with the Ojibwa and Potawatomi Indians, the United States created an ersatz tribal entity called the Ottawa and Chippewa Bands. This bogus "tribe" was the basis on which the Michigan Ottawa were wrongly but effectively assumed to have been officially terminated. These people have been seeking redress for the loss of various benefits and payments for over 100 years. The government has consistently refused to recognize them, even under the Indian Reorganization Act.
Northern Ottawa farmed or worked in lumbering throughout most of the 20th century. After World War II, however, many moved from local communities to regional cities in search of employment. In 1948, the people created the Northern Michigan Ottawa Association (NMOA) to represent them in all litigation.
Michigan Ottawa have regularly suffered arrest and other actions for asserting their treaty rights to hunt and fish. The language survives in Michigan mainly among elders, although the people have instituted various language and cultural preservation programs (many Ontario Ottawa speak their Native Algonquin language). Most Michigan Ottawa are Christian, although some celebrate quasi traditional feasts, naming ceremonies, and other festivals. The Oklahoma Ottawa are highly acculturated. Few people speak the Native language.
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.