Native American History

Native American History

Indigenous to this area, Native Americans have lived in present-day Michigan for thousands of years. Drawn to the Rouge River and the mastodons that lived close by, from about 10,000 BC to 400 AD Native Americans thrived on this land as hunters and gatherers. They called the well-known Michigan river “mishqua sibe” or “Minosagoink,” which translated to “Singeing Skin River, a place where game was dressed.”

Native Americans respect the land they live on and appreciate its natural resources. They see themselves as guests or visitors to the land, not owners. Native tribes also believe that all parts of nature and creation hold spiritual value. Natural resources are collected and utilized to their fullest potential. The arrival of European colonizers shook their way of life to its core.

The Three Fires

From circa 500 AD to the early 1600s, communal differences and struggles for power began to emerge. These changes influenced the eventual migration of whole cultures and communities from one part of the Great Lakes region to another. Tribes that inhabited the Michigan area included the Huron (Wyandot), Miami, Ojibwa, Ottawa, and Potawatomi. Unity was achieved through the formation of the Three Fires federation.

The Three Fires consist of three Native American tribes: the Ojibwa (also known as Chippewa), Ottawa, and Potawatomi. Initially settling in northern Michigan (Mackinac), all three tribes are Anishinaabe, or Algonquian language-speaking, groups. They fled the east coast of the United States about 700 years ago to escape tribal fighting and find land that could support their growing community. 

Some say that the Three Fires received their collective name because they traveled with easily-carried fire sources. Another oral tradition says that they chose the name “Three Fires Tribes” to establish their unity and protection from other Native Americans who sought to occupy their land. 

1931 map of Native American settlements in Michigan, including names
Native American settlements in Michigan (Wilbert B. Hinsdale, Archaeological Atlas of Michigan, 1931)

Each tribe of the Three Fires is said to have served a unique role: the Ojibwa were “Keepers of Tradition”; the Ottawa were “Keepers of the Trade”; while the Potawatomi were “Keepers of the Fire.” Though they were united in similar or shared culture and language, the Three Fires Peoples still had distinctive characteristics and livelihoods.

The Ojibwa peoples lived in the eastern half of the lower peninsula and most of the upper peninsula. They relied on the Great Lakes, rivers, and streams for natural resources and would relocate to where fish and game were more plentiful if needed. The Ojibwa peoples were known for treating illnesses with plants that had medicinal properties. 

The Ottawa (or Odawa) tribe lived on the western side of the lower peninsula of Michigan. They kept to the lands bordering the Great Lakes, gathering rice and hunting fish, and small and large game including moose and deer. The Ottawa were renowned for building birch bark canoes. Additionally, the Ottawa and the Ojibwa tribes participated in the fur trade with European settlers during the 1600s.

The Potawatomi tribe were initially in northern Michigan but eventually moved south to what is today the Kalamazoo and St. Joseph area. They sought a milder, more comfortable climate. Unlike the Ojibwa and Ottawa, the Potawatomi lived a more sedentary lifestyle. However, like the Ottawa, they also had a green thumb for medicinal herbs. They hunted birds, rabbits, deer, and other game. It is believed that they were most likely the key players in establishing the Three Fires tribal relationship.

In the 16th century, the tribes began moving further south in Michigan. Representatives from each of the Three Fires tribes would meet during the fall season in a Potawatomi village, a popular meeting site for the tribes, located along the Rouge River. They gathered to trade, hold tribal meetings, and take part in sacred ceremonies near what is now Nankin Mill, where Tonquish Creek and the Rouge River come together, a convergence of the waterways and Indian trails.

European Colonization

Over time, European settlers dominated Michigan territory. Native Americans wanted to protect their territory from Europeans who declared this land their new home. Led by Chief Tonquish, in 1819, indigenous peoples and newcomers fought, resulting in the death of a white immigrant. The fighting continued along the Rouge River, ending at what is now known as Tonquish Creek, where Chief Tonquish died trying to save his son’s life. These deaths marked the end of significant Indian and European skirmishes in southeast Michigan.

Mass displacement did not take place until the Treaty of 1836, which forced the Anishinaabe to cede most of their land to the United States. They felt pressured into signing treaties due to federal government requests or to settle debts with traders. They also felt guided by the Great Spirit (or “Gitche Manitou”) to give up their land and resources. Today, their descendants believe that Europeans took advantage of their spirituality by telling the Anishinaabe that the Great Spirit had spoken to them too and told them that Native Americans should give up their land and resources. 

Despite forced displacement and integration, Native Americans are still an active presence throughout Michigan. Michigan has 12 federally recognized tribes, and as many as 85,000 Native Americans currently live in Wayne County. There are several local organizations that support local Native American communities including the North American Indian Association of Detroit, South Eastern Michigan Indians, and the Inter-Tribal Council of Michigan.

Native American Trails

Travelling by water was a primary mode of transportation for Native Americans throughout Michigan. Many built light, birch bark canoes and sailed across lakes and along rivers. In addition to being rich in natural resources, this was another significant reason why tribes lived by lakes and rivers. Before the area became densely populated, the rivers maintained a consistent, regular flow due to the standing forest. 

By the 18th century, there was a well-established Indian trail system that helped Native Americans navigate through forests and across swaths of land throughout Michigan. Initially following along waterways, popular trails include the Grand River Trail, St. Joseph Trail, Shiawassee Trail, and Saginaw Trail. Due to their heavy usage, many historical sites and artifacts have been uncovered over the years. 

Map of indigenous trails and settlements in Southeast Michigan.
Indigenous trails and settlements in Southeast Michigan. Source: Wilbert B. Hinsdale, Archaeological Atlas of Michigan, 1931.

Along these trails, archeologists were able to identify mounds, embankments, village sites, and burial grounds. One of the largest mounds identified was located along the Rouge River in what is now the Delray neighborhood of Detroit. It was approximately 40 feet high and several hundred feet long. Historical artifacts uncovered include arrowheads, pipes, knives, pottery, and more. 

Though transformed into modern streets and highways, many of these Indian trails still exist today. This includes the Saginaw Trail which stretches from Toledo through Saginaw to Mackinac (also now part of Dixie Highway). The Grand River Trail can also still be traced from Grand Rapids to Detroit (these days it is connected to US 16). Meanwhile, the St. Joseph Trail transformed into US 12 and I-94.