Before and after European contact, Native Peoples living in the areas that became the states of Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Michigan, used the Great Lakes and the rivers as transportation corridors to hunt, trade, and travel. The origin stories of the Ho-Chunk (Winnebago) and Menominee Nations place them in Wisconsin. Other Indian Nations fled the onslaught of Europeans further east and preceded them in the central Great Lakes region. Known as refugee nations because they were escaping the violence of the warring Dutch, French, and British, these Native Peoples included bands of the Sauk, Mascouten, Potawatomi, and Kickapoo entering from the south shores of Lake Michigan. The Ottawa, Ojibwe, and Mesquakie bands moved across the lake from the east. Some bands stayed behind; others moved further west. The Dakota (Sioux) also lived in Wisconsin at one time. Europeans and Euro-Americans followed. By the time the treaty lands of 1825 were established, the Ojibwe, Menominee, Potawatomi, and Ho-Chunk had ceded the lands that eventually became the state of Wisconsin. During that same decade, the Oneida and Mohican (Stockbridge-Munsee Bands) resettled in Wisconsin from New York State, so that today Wisconsin has more reservations and tribal lands than any other state east of the Mississippi River. Each Nation has its own unique history, traditions, and rituals.
Beginning in the early nineteenth century, the United States government began negotiating treaties with Great Lakes Nations in order to acquire the rich natural resources—timber, minerals, and prairie (for agriculture)—of these lands to be ceded. Specifically, the U. S. government wanted Ho-Chunk lands for lead and farmland; Ojibwe lands for timber and copper; Dakota lands for timber; Menominee lands for timber and farmland; and Potawatomi lands for farmland and natural harbors.
The treaty negotiations were inherently one-sided. Most significantly, the government officials knew that the Native Peoples lacked or understood little English. The Native Peoples also had very different concepts of land ownership. Most Indian Nations believed that land was a gift from the Creator. Although people could use and even control the land and its resources, the land itself could not be owned, bought, or sold. Tribal Peoples therefore often believed that they were only signing away access, not ownership, to the treaty lands. Such misunderstandings colored the future relationship of Natives and non-Natives in the region.
Similar to what occurred with the famous “Trail of Tears” from the 1820s to the 1870s, the U.S. government forcibly removed many Nations west of the Mississippi River to make way for settlers. In 1832 one of the most tragic of these removals resulted in what became known as the Black Hawk War, when some Sauk tribal members followed the warrior Black Hawk in an attempt to regain their homelands east of the Mississippi. When they realized this was a futile effort and tried to surrender, they were tracked down, and many were massacred when they tried to loop back across the river. Another tragedy occurred in the winter of 1850 when the Ojibwe in northern Wisconsin were forced to travel to Sandy Lake, Minnesota for annuity payments. Of the 400 people who made the trip, more than half died of cold and starvation before they were able to return to their villages. Some of the Ho-Chunk and Potawatomi who were expelled west of the Mississippi hid out in Wisconsin and never left; others moved to reservations.
Although Great Lakes Nations relocated to places as far away as Nebraska, Kansas, and Oklahoma, others returned or stayed on what became reservations or tribal lands. Of the six Ojibwe bands in Wisconsin, each has a reservation. The Ojibwe in Wisconsin fought to retain off-reservation rights to hunt, fish and gather plants (especially wild rice) and finally gained recognition for these rights in the late 20th century. Ojibwe reservations exist in Michigan and in Minnesota, and the Potawatomi Nation has a reservation in Michigan.
The U. S. government worked to assimilate Native Peoples into the larger American majority culture by forcibly sending young Native children away from home to attend boarding schools where they could not speak their own languages nor honor their tribal traditions. Later in the 20th century, the U.S. government encouraged Native people to move away from their reservations and into urban areas, such as Minneapolis, Milwaukee, Detroit, and Chicago. This relocation dramatically increased the Native population in many urban areas. Although the Bureau of Indian Affairs offered to help with the transition to urban life, there were insufficient resources behind the effort, and many of these urban Indians suffered from loneliness, lack of education and job training, discrimination, and other significant problems of cultural displacement. Some returned to their reservations, while others have remained—some thriving, some not—in urban areas throughout the central Great Lakes region.