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Atlas Dispels Myths About Great Lakes Indian Tribes

May 30, 1987|From Associated Press

CHICAGO — Long before skyscrapers and smokestacks poked into the sky, this was open prairie. The white man traded and traveled here, but he was the outsider. The Potawatomi lived here.

This was Indian country. So was the entire Great Lakes territory. Dozens of tribes lived on the virgin lands and voyaged in canoes along the shimmering waters. This was their home.

It is still.

That's one point of the new Atlas of Great Lakes Indian History, a book that uses maps to trace more than 200 years of treaties and trade rivalries, disease and destruction, war and peace--and survival.

"The principal myth that needs to be dispelled is that Indian people left this part of the country or were entirely absorbed by the white population," said Helen Hornbeck Tanner, the atlas's chief editor. "Neither of these things is true."

About 300,000 Indians from 15 major tribes now live in the Great Lakes area that stretches from Montreal to Minnesota and down to the borders of the Mississippi and Ohio rivers.

Some tribes, Tanner said, have lived in the same places for more than a thousand years: the Menominee of Green Bay, Wis.; the Potawatomi of southern Michigan; the Miami of the Wabash River region of Indiana.

Despite their stability and numbers, "the Great Lakes Indians have been an ignored part of history," said Tanner, 70, a research associate at the private Newberry Library who devoted 10 years to the atlas.

"Anthropologists are mainly interested in Indian people not affected by white contact," she said. "These people have been (affected) ... since 1620.

"They're treated as part of the landscape," added Tanner, a Michigan resident and former member of the state Commission on Indian Affairs. Some people, she said, think "pioneers moving westward moved onto vacant land."

The atlas sets the record straight, following the movement of Indian communities from 1640, the era of the Iroquois wars, to 1871, when the U.S. government and Indian tribes stopped making treaties.

It pinpoints 1,500 Indian villages that existed over those years, inhabited by such tribes as the Dakota, Delaware, Sauk, Shawnee, Oneida, Ottawa, Mohawk, Wyandot, Winnebago and Ojibwa, sometimes known as the Chippewa.

Many of these tribes were forced from their homes and cheated out of their land. Some were decimated by epidemics carried by Europeans protected by immunities. Tanner said smallpox wiped out two-thirds of the Saginaw-Chippewa tribe in Michigan 150 years ago.

Tanner's intense interest comes from her Ph.D work in history on Indians in the southeastern United States. In 1963, she agreed to find out what Indians were living around her home base in Ann Arbor, Mich., at the time of the American Revolution. That was at the request of lawyers representing Indian tribes in litigation. That drew her, in turn, into the history of Indians of the Ohio region.

To piece together Indian migratory history, Tanner and three other editors called on more than 100 experts, including historians, linguists, geologists, cartographers and archeologists.

They also sorted through thousands of documents, including journals, ship logs, military dispatches, trading company records, missionary reports, diaries of people held captive by Indians and 19th-Century tribal council meetings.

Some Indians recorded their history on birchbark parchment.

Tanner said she discovered that Great Lakes Indians "were extremely sagacious. They knew very well what factors they were up against. They were powerless in the face of having as many as 100 times more people moved in on them."

She also learned about their life styles and tastes, shaped, in part, by French and English traders. Some tribes lived in tepees; others in multiple-family houses. Many were well traveled, heavily dependent on the waters bordering them. The Ojibwa were known for their birchbark canoes.

Tanner said that maps--the atlas has 33--best tell the Indian history. For example, before the American Revolution, the Delaware were forced westward from what is now New Jersey into the territories of five other states before they reached Oklahoma. "By counting the number of times they moved, you can see how harassed they are," she said.

But maps also pose problems. Towns inhabited by the Delaware frequently changed names when they changed leaders. A town near Lancaster, Ohio, was successively known as French Margaret's, Hockhocking, Beaver's New Town, Assinink or Standing Stone and Captain Johnny's Town.

The atlas also outlines clear patterns. Whites forced Indians out of Ohio, Indiana and Illinois because it was good farmland, Tanner said, but some tribes never left parts of upper Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota and Ontario.

Despite all the resources, Tanner said the editors' task was difficult because Indians "hid out for a long time in the 19th Century.

"Indian people kept a low profile and didn't let people know they were there," she said. "A lot of Indian people just took white names, bought land and tried to be extremely inconspicuous."

"It's not easy to . . . locate a thread of history when the Indians try to conceal their own identity for self-protection."

The sentiments are far different today. Indians are intensely interested in their heritage. "Now they're all hunting for it," Tanner said.

And she said that Indians she met in her research emphasized the importance of documenting the tragedies of the past.

"They wanted to show how much they'd lost and still make it clear Indians are still here," she said. "They're not part of the past, but part of the present."

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