Miami (also called Maumee) is the name of an important Native American nation. Today, the Miami people live primarily in Ottawa County, Oklahoma, and in St. Joseph and Elkhart counties, Indiana. There are also Miami living in Peru, Wabash, Marion, Huntington, South Bend, Fort Wayne, and Indianapolis, Indiana. Tribal rolls in the Peru archives list approximately 6,000 persons of Miami descent. In the Oklahoma tribal rolls, the Miami number approximately 2,000.
French traders and explorers were the first Europeans to arrive in the Great Lakes region and in the Ohio Valley (1550-1600). Sent by the king of France, their primary goal was to chart the river systems as highways facilitating access into the interior of North America. Covered in dense impenetrable forest, the area was interconnected by canoe only. Even during the winter, when many river tributaries froze over, the smooth and unobstructed surfaces were more convenient for travel by dogsled. These French explorers, habitants (settlers), fur traders, and Jesuit missionaries discovered that the Miami were a traditional trading nation that controlled most of the Great Lakes region’s waterways, possibly having forts at all of the major lake portages.
Linguistic anthropologists offer additional insights into the extent of Miami trading preeminence with the discovery that place names of geographical locations are not arbitrary meaningless designations applied for purely utilitarian purposes. Rather, place names carry symbolic import that also encodes historical data. Significantly, all of the Algonquin-speaking Native American nations of the Great Lakes region (e.g., Ojibwa, Ottawa, Menominee, Potawatomi) referred to a great number of rivers as “the Maumee” and were unanimous in designating the Ohio Valley (crisscrossed by rivers bearing the Maumee appellation) “Valley of the Maumee.”
Little Turtle (1751-1812), the most famous Miami warrior chief, made an historic speech in 1795, when he delineated the relation of Miami to rivers during Treaty of Greenville negotiations. It is also remarkable that not one Native American nation attending the Treaty of Greenville negotiations registered a protest to Little Turtle’s sweeping claims.
As late as the 1800s, Tacumwah, the sister of Pacanne (chief of the Fort Kekionga Miami) and possibly a woman chief in her own right, exemplified the regulation of river trade by Miami in that she and her son, Jean Baptiste Richardville, “controlled the portage to the Wabash and enjoyed its revenues,” according to Stewart Rafert’s 1996 book, The Miami Indians: A Persistent People 1654—1994. Tacumwah “transported goods over the portage employing a number of Indians and their horses for that purpose and making a large profit” in the process.
The French documented Miami occupation of the current states of Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Ohio, and Wisconsin. However, one must be cautious in using the English legal term occupation, with its attendant implication of property ownership, when speaking of Native American land use given that Native Americans did not recognize property ownership. This European (and especially British) concept developed most fully during the Industrial Revolution, when landowners succeeded in expropriating the peasantry’s “right of the commons” (ownerless land to be used by all) for the gathering of wood, herbs, and berries as well as for the grazing and watering of cattle and the like.
In contrast to land ownership, Native Americans insisted that all humans must share in nature’s largesse. Land was not understood as a commodity to be bought and sold. This Native American worldview became especially evident during early treaty negotiations with the United States as Miami, Ottawa, Menominee, Ojibwa, Potawatomi, Shawnees, Delaware, and other Native American nations described to U.S. government officials the Native American practice of mutual land use throughout the Great Lakes region and even beyond, not excluding people passing through. Major John Hamtramck’s negotiations with the Miami clans and other Native American nations offer a case in point.
Arthur St. Claire, governor of the Northwest Territory, sent Hamtramck to demand Native American acceptance of U.S. claims to the Great Lakes regions in 1790, during which time Hamtramck was continually frustrated by Native American refusals to meet with him separately and without the knowledge of other affected Indian nations. Hamtramck’s missives to the governor stated that Native Americans “could not give presently a proper answer before they consult the Miami nation, their eldest brethren.” The Kickapoo also refused to speak with Hamtramck until they had consulted the Wea Miami, and the Wea Miami would not negotiate with Hamtramck until they had received advice from the Atchachagouen Miami, “their eldest brethren.” The Atchachagouen warrior chief, Le Gris, told Hamtramck, “We cannot give a positive answer; we must send your speeches to all our neighbors and to the Lake nations.” The “Lake nations” also included the Shawnees and the Delaware. Apparently, this show of solidarity angered Hamtramck, who then, in partnership with General Josiah Harmar of the U.S. Army, attacked Miami villages and the autumn harvest, burning them to the ground.
What Hamtramck interpreted as an act of war may simply have been an egalitarian attitude shared by many Native Americans who advocate cooperation with others and nature rather than domination of them. Another of Hamtramck’s limitations may have been a lack of understanding of nomadic culture that has survival strategies and subsistence patterns very different from those of sedentary peoples such as Hamtramck. At times, even anthropologists and archaeologists have failed to grasp the difference between nomadic and sedentary cultures evidenced in the following comments: “Village fission and fusion is poorly understood; a village was abandoned, the entire village moved to a new locality, all of which conditions are then attributed to conflict or depletion of resources.” Although at times these conditions were true, it is not acknowledged that they are characteristic of specifically nomadic and seminomadic subsistence patterns.
Nevertheless, anthropologists Ermine Wheeler-Voegelin, Emily J. Blasingham, and Dorothy R. Libby made a major contribution to the study of Native American life ways during the 1970s when they charted Miami seminomadic patterns at the behest of the U.S. Indian Claims Commission comparing Indian claims to use of land with historical documents. For example, in 1688, the Miami of the Illinois River Valley abandoned this location, with some traveling to the St. Joseph River of southern Michigan, others to the Root River in eastern Wisconsin, and another group moving to the upper reaches of the Mississippi River. In 1695, Father François Pinet reported that the Wea Miami who lived near his mission (present-day Chicago) had formerly come from the Mississippi. During the autumn of 1698, Pinet remarked that none of the Miami villages was occupied due to the Miami subsistence pattern of following the winter game in the ubiquitous pattern of nomads and semi-nomads throughout the world.
The French missionaries and French traders described the Miami as living in large villages of dome-shaped wigwams near major waterways. During the spring, women planted corn, beans, squash, and tobacco, using hoes and digging sticks and staying close to their fields throughout the summer months. Both men and women fished, hunted small game, prepared animal skins, and gathered wild plants. After the autumn harvest, the Miami went into the wilderness to hunt deer, elk, black bear, and beaver while living in small temporary camps. During the spring, the dispersed population reorganized into bison-hunting parties that would travel the southern and western prairies, while others moved to maple forests for the collection of sap and also fished, taking advantage of the spring spawning season. Because French colonization of North America was relatively sparse, this subsistence pattern did not change substantially until the advent of Iroquois and British incursions into New France toward the middle of the 18th century. By this time, Miami had been allied with the French for at least 100 years by marriage, by gift giving between French government officials and Miami warrior chiefs (who were both men and women), and because the French by and large treated Native Americans equitably. Therefore, the Miami joined with the French to fight the British-Iroquois coalition. Unfortunately for the French and Miami-Ottawa-led Native American nations, the British were triumphant. Quebec surrendered to Britain in 1750, and Montreal surrendered in 1760. General Jeffrey Amherst sent Major Robert Rogers to take Fort Ponchartrain (present-day Detroit) in November 1760. On November 19, 1761, the British took possession of Fort St. Joseph on the St. Joseph River (River of the Maumee) in southern Michigan.
The Indians resented their treatment by the British. Whereas French gifts to the Native Americans had been generous, the British were parsimonious and far from cordial if Amherst’s racist attitude toward them as “vermin” to be “exterminated” is any indication of British policy in general. This attitude also prevented the British from intermarrying with Miami, a fact that was not lost on Native Americans.
In 1763, the Ottawa chief Pontiac, in alliance with the Miami and other Native American nations, rose up against the British, who surrendered Fort St. Joseph in May and Fort Michilimackinac in June. By August, the British had lost every post east of the Allegheny Mountains except Niagara, Pitt, and Detroit, and although they held onto a few forts, they never again were able to impose British hegemony on the region. The American Revolution sealed the fate of the British, who ceded the Northwest Territory to the United States by the 1783 Treaty of Paris, but not until 1803 did the United States begin to actively take charge of the Great Lakes and Ohio Valley regions. Shortly thereafter, the Miami experienced accelerated culture change that had begun with the tragic loss of Native American lives due to a century of constant warfare and to European diseases such as smallpox.
In describing cultural transformation resulting from European contact, Charles C. Trowbridge had the advantage of being close to the American Revolutionary War and its consequent impact on Miami. Although his work Meearmear Traditions (published in 1823 and reprinted in 1938) was somewhat marred by contradictions regarding gender roles, he nevertheless recorded important ethnographic data. Given that he was not an anthropologist but rather a U.S. government agent, Trowbridge discounted what the Miami had to say about themselves, offering his own ethnocentric interpretations instead. On the one hand, he stated that there were “female chiefs, both of war and the village,” and that “they are more implicitly obeyed than the male chiefs.” Further on he stated, however, that women chiefs were “never listened to the first time.” Trowbridge immediately contradicted this statement with “the influence of the woman [sic] chiefs is very great,” also describing narratives that explicitly praised the exploits of warrior women. Perhaps Trowbridge may be forgiven for not having understood the social phenomena that he observed. However, this had the deleterious effect of obscuring Miami egalitarianism, although Trowbridge’s painstaking record of Miami customs strengthens an egalitarian hypothesis nonetheless.
The prerogative of women to actively pursue, choose, and desert their husbands and lovers is one indication that a society is egalitarian. Miami women simply walked away from undesirable liaisons, as did men. Both sexes fished and hunted, suggesting that there was little division of labor. For instance, the woman trader Tacumwah organized her own separate hunts.
Miami attitudes about raising children also suggest egalitarianism. Trowbridge recorded that boys and girls were treated with the same affection and that legitimate children were not differentiated from illegitimate children. It was common for unmarried Miami women to have children, and their “reputations” were not affected by doing so. Permitting women to defend themselves is also an indication of high status for women and egalitarianism. If a Miami man physically attacked a Miami woman, she had the right to kill him. Murder, if committed by a woman, was subject to the same punishment as if committed by a man. In nonegalitarian societies, it is usual for women to suffer harsher treatment than men for the same offense. Originally, Miami descent may have been determined matrilineally given that a male Miami chief’s “successor” was not his own son but rather the son of his sister. Matrilineality and the importance of the sister’s son is often a concomitant of egalitarianism.
The ethnohistorian Rafert offered insights into Miami culture change by documenting the hegemonic forces that influenced Miami to join the Euro-American market economy. Assimilation required the suppression of the Miami and French languages, both Catholicism and Miami Shamanism, as well as egalitarianism. The Miami leader, Meshingomesia, became wealthy during the 1830s after becoming a Baptist minister. He encouraged male agriculture in violation of Miami custom, for traditionally farming was the occupation of Miami women, who then owned the product of their labor. Meshingomesia also pressured Miami elders to permit Miami tribal lands (held in common) to be sold to private owners. Religious pressures for Miami to assimilate were apparently so acute that in 1846 the non-Protestant Miami were marched under armed guard to Kansas Territory, with many of them dying along the way due to exhaustion, hunger, and/or exposure. The Baptist Miami who lived on Meshingomesia’s land were not subject to this removal action. In 1873, the Miami people on Meshingomesia’s land were also granted exemption from taxes and mortgages.
Whereas Rafert interpreted economic incentives that encouraged Miami to convert to Baptist Christianity as a phenomenon “strengthening tribal leadership,” there is an alternative explanation for this Protestant conversion story. Although conversion of Miami by male Baptist ministers strengthened male tribal leadership, it may have done so by usurping women’s political power. By the 1850s, all of the most important male Indiana Miami leaders had converted to the Baptist religion, and at the same time Miami councils were becoming all male, thereby disenfranchising Miami women. Yet Miami matrifocal tradition must have remained viable despite patrifocal trends. Ozahshinqua (ca. 1810-1877) seemed to have retained her independence, being the sole owner of many horses and 850 acres of land (the Ozahshinqua Reserve) until her death.
The Indiana Miami are the descendants of Miami who escaped the 1846 removal by the U.S. government. Following widespread starvation and impoverishment after removal to the largely unknown ecosystem of Kansas Territory, some Miami migrated to Missouri in 1860 and many Miami made their way back to the ancestral heartland of Indiana. Eastern Miami who were not forced to relocate to the western territory, and who were joined by returnees from forced removal, were ultimately divested of all treaty rights in 1897.
The U.S. government still has not “recognized” the Indiana Miami at the time of this writing, meaning that they are disqualified from receiving compensation for the expropriation of their lands, the near extinction of their language, and the loss of their ancient religious traditions. Nor do Indiana Miami receive government health care or other services and resources received by “recognized tribes” to which the Oklahoma Miami belong. The Indiana Miami have been fighting nonrecognition ever since Robert Owens, a descendant of the famous Chief Richardville (Richerville) and Chief La Fontaine, began proceedings to regain federal recognition during the late 1970s. By 2005, they still had not gained recognition, even though genealogical data linking the Oklahoma and Indiana Miami are indisputable.
- Anson, B. (1970). The Miami Indians. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press. (Reprinted in 1999)
- Carter, H. L. (1987). The life and times of Little Turtle. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.
- Leacock, E. (1978). Women’s status in egalitarian society: Implications for social evolution. Current Anthropology, 19, 139-164.
- Rafert, S. (1996). The Miami Indians: A persistent people 1654-1994. Indianapolis: Indiana Historical Society.
- Trowbridge, C. C. (1823). Meearmear traditions. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press. (Reprinted in 1938)
- Wheeler-Voegelin, E., Blasingham, E. J., & Libby, D. (1974). Miami, Wea, and Eel-River Indians of southern Indiana: An anthropological report. New York: Garland.