Traditions of the Potawatomi

Woman wearing black shirt sitting on chair.jpg

The Potawatomi are a band of Native Americans who originally settled near Lake Michigan. Their name translates to "People of the Fire," relating to their role as keepers of the council fire. To keep their traditions alive, the Potawatomi hold an annual three-day-long powwow, or celebration of traditional food, clothing, song and dance.

1 Language

Potawatomi natives traditionally spoke the Potawatomi language. Every band of the Potawatomi in modern times has been trying to revive their language and cultural traditions. Many have established language programs to help with this revival.

2 Clothing

The Potawatomi clothing came from the skins of the animals they slaughtered for food. Shirts, pants and moccasins for men as well as dresses and moccasins for women were made from deer skin. Buffalo skins were used for heavier clothing in winter. Clothing was decorated with quills from porcupine, shells and beads.

3 Appearance

Potawatomi men normally kept their hair long but, traditionally, during times of war, they shaved their heads, except for a scalp lock, and painted their faces and bodies with red and black markings. Women wore their hair long, parted down the middle and pulled back into a single braid.

4 Homemaking Traditions

The traditional homes of the Potawatomi were birch-bark, dome-shaped wigwams. Woven reed mats covered the floor. Potawatomi women made baskets and bags from hickory tree bark or animal skins and used mussel shells as utensils.

5 Hunting and Gathering

Using bow and arrow, the Potawatomi hunted deer, elk and beaver. In larger groups, they also hunted buffalo. They fished in the numerous streams around Lake Michigan, using spears and fishing nets. The men and women grew corn, beans, onions, tobacco, pumpkin and squash. Women gathered a variety of wild plants for food, including nuts and berries, greens and roots.

6 Maple Sugar Traditions

In a big spring tradition, the Potawatomi tapped maple trees for sugar. The children made maple sugar cones from the bark of the birch tree. This was the time of marriage ceremonies when everyone came out dressed in their finest to dance and celebrate. At this time, men made music by beating on drums made from hollow logs covered in animal skins, rattles made from deer hooves and wooden or bone flutes.

7 Oral Traditions

Each Potawatomi clan held a sacred bundle containing oral traditions describing the clan's origin, special clan songs and dances, rituals and medicinal beliefs.

Ann Yacono has been editing scientific books and journal articles for more than 20 years. She writes and copy edits nonfiction articles on diverse topics. Yacono earned a B.A. and M.A. in English from Lehigh University and is a board-certified editor in the life sciences (ELS).