Native Americans of the Clinton River Watershed

While archaeologists have confirmed that humans occupied the Great Lakes Basin at least 12,000 years ago, the exact origin of these ancient peoples is a controversial subject in the field. Some archaeologists support the “Land Bridge Theory,” which infers that, during the last ice age, when sea level was much lower than it is today, humans migrated from eastern Asia to this continent on a land bridge that connected Siberia to Alaska. This theory accounts for similarities in bone structure between some Native Americans and Eastern Asians. However, the Land Bridge Theory also suggests that oldest archaeological remains should be found in the northwestern region of the continent and the youngest remains in the southeastern region. Since the oldest remains in North and South America were actually found in Chile, it seems that some Native Americans may have arrived via different means of transportation. Some archaeologists think that Native Americans migrated to this continent by boat, island hopping along the way. While both theories have their strengths and weaknesses, it is likely that a series of migrations occurred, some via land bridge, and others by boat.

When these ancient peoples came to this continent 12,000 years ago, the environment of the Great Lakes Basin was much different, due to glacial covering. Temperatures were, on average, colder by at least 10ยบ Celsius; coniferous spruce and fir trees; and large mammals such as the mastodon dominated forests and mammoth roamed the Great Lakes Basin. In fact, fragmentary remains of both mastodon and mammoth have been uncovered right here in Oakland County and are now at the Cranbrook Institute of Science in Bloomfield Hills.

It is likely that human newcomers to the Great Lakes Basin hunted large game such as mastodons, elk caribou and gathered wild plants and seeds. Hunting these types of migrating game animals would have required a nomadic lifestyle. Therefore it is not likely that groups or individuals acquired many belongings, rather they rebuilt their lives wherever they went.

About 10,000 years ago, the climate grew warmer, and the flora and fauna of the Great Lakes region began to change and adapt to this warmer climate. Mammals that were adapted to ice age conditions migrated north, and some even died. Many Native Americans decided to stay behind and adapt to the new environment, but some humans followed the beasts north into Canada, continuing to hunt and gather. Nevertheless, the archaeological record still suggests a significant increase in human population in the Great Lakes region during this time, most likely due to the less hostile climate. It seems that this increase in human population triggered the development of separate group identities with complex social structures.

The Native Americans that settled in the Great Lakes Basin 10,000 years ago consist mainly of three Nations (groups) that shared a common linguistic stock called Algonguian. This means that the three groups spoke different dialects of the same base language, allowing communication between groups. These three Nations include Ojibwa, Ottawa and Potawatomi. The Ojibwa nation occupied parts of Canada, Wisconsin and the upper peninsula of Michigan. The Ottawa, to some degree a more nomadic people, occupied the northern 1/3 of Michigan’s Lower Peninsula, and traveled throughout the great lakes area further west, past the Mississippi River trading goods with western Nations. Finally, the Potawatomi nation occupied the southern region of Michigan’s Lower Peninsula and parts of Ohio, Illinois and southern Wisconsin.

The three Algonguin Nations lived similar life styles, all depending on wild game, fish, farming and mineral resources for food and shelter. Each Nation lived in smaller groups that compromised a clan system, in which clans were named by the animal spirits that were believed to guide and protect the group. Clans would live and travel separately during cold seasons; because food was less abundant, this increased their chance of survival. During warm seasons, food was plentiful and clans gathered to feast together and discuss honorable hunting stories. While these similarities unite the three Algonguin Nations, even to this day, subtle differences in each their environments fostered unique cultural aspects that signify each nation’s identity.

The Ojibwa nation, residing furthest north, experienced poor soils and a short growing season; they could not depend on summer crops because an early frost could wipe out the entire crop stock. They may have depended more heavily on seeds, nuts, and game meat as main staples. Aquatic resources from Lake Superior, such as fish, shellfish, plants and driftwood would have also been key to survival in the North Country. Ojibwa clans also had access to some of the most productive copper deposits in the northeastern United States, a useful trade item during cold years that brought hardship. Copper was used by Ojibwa and other great lakes nations to make tools, weapons, armor and other decorative wear by the process of cold hammering and annealing. It is hypothesized by many that the Ojibwa nation was extremely prosperous before and after European settlement because of the high demand for copper by other Native American groups and by European settlers.

Ottawa Clans also had a hand in the distribution of copper throughout the Northeast and Midwest. They were known for their keen business and travel skills, and acted as a mediator between nations, such as the Ojibwa, Potawatomi and Iroquois, and later developed a trading relationship with European settlers. Early archaeologists hypothesized that nations such as the Miami, Iroquois and Sioux must have occupied the great lakes region judging from the findings of their goods. However, archaeologists now believe that these items founded their way to the great lakes region through trade agreements, rather than settlement. Traders most likely made use of the Midwest’s many rivers for transportation in large canoes that could carry all of their trade goods, especially copper, which would be heavy and awkward to carry. Ottawa nations also had access to Lake Huron and Lake Michigan for aquatic resources, and also experienced a fairly longer growing season than the Ojibwa nation, making fish, maize and squash important staples for survival. Few Ottawa settlements have been found in Oakland County, and existing sites seem to be temporary encampments.

The Potawatomi Nation that occupied the southern part of the Great Lakes Region practiced and were highly dependent on community farming, and tended to stay in one place for long periods of time. They grew corn, squash and beans as their staple crops. In fact, several of these worked fields were reported by early settlers to be just south of the City of Rochester along the southern bank of the Clinton River. It has been suggested by a few archaeologists that the Potawatomi even dug small irrigation canals, diverging water from Stony Creek. However these small irrigation canals were more frequently found along the Kalamazoo River.

The Potawatomi also used wild plants to spice foods and for medicinal uses. For example, sumac berries were boiled for a tea similar to lemonaide; raspberries were also boiled for a tea that removed tartar from teeth and the leaves were mixed into a paste and applied to sores; cattail roots and stems were eaten, flowers used for diaper lining and leaves for weaving.

While Potawatomi were mainly farming people, they also hunted deer, elk, bear, raccoon and opossum for food and for the use of their fur and bones. Especially during the winter, when crops were impossible to maintain, Potawatomi groups would split up into smaller, family groups to hunt and survive the cold. Fur and hide was used to make a variety of items, including clothing, shoes, bags and rugs to cover their shelter structures, which were called wigwams. The wigwams of the Potawatomi consisted of a dome-shaped framework of wooden poles covered with hide, then with bark and mats of cattails laced together with fibers.

The Potawatomi also took advantage of Oakland County’s many lakes and streams, especially the Clinton River. From these waters they added fish, beaver, turtles, snails and crayfish to their diet. Their fishing gear included bone fishhooks, notched pebble net sinkers and nets woven from wild flax, milkweed, swamp ash, and the inner bark of the basswood tree. Gill nets, which block off a cove or stream with floats to support it and weights to hold it down, were useful in catching fish during winter when the waterways were frozen. Dugout canoes also made their appearance at this time, as Potawatomi used the Clinton waterways as freeways for transportation.

The significance of aquatic and terrestrial species to the Potawatomi who lived within the boundaries of the Clinton River Watershed is represented in pottery artifacts. Archaeologists have found fragments of clay pottery that had been fired and marked upon with plant and animal symbols using red ochre. These artifacts were most often found in previous middens (garbage piles) and in association with burials, along with other grave goods. A few large Indian cemeteries have been found in Rochester Hills, one of which held the remains of at least 18 individuals. The pottery remains in these cemeteries, and in archaeological sites throughout the watershed, confirm the high degree to which the Potawatomi depended on the Clinton River Watershed’s abundant resources.

In short, to the Native Americans who inhabited southeastern Michigan, the area that now constitutes Oakland County must have been a paradise. With its more than 400 lakes, the Clinton River and its tributaries, the locale was ideal for agriculture, hunting and fishing, which sustained them.

The Algonguin Nations that originally occupied the Great Lakes Basin, spanning all of what is now Michigan, and parts of Canada, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois and Wisconsin, were greatly affected by foreign exploration and settlement. European settlement occurred in the Midwest during the early 18th century, as populations in the New England colonies grew and a new wave of farmers saw fit to take advantage of the immense natural resources that were available in the Great Lakes Basin. The Potawatomi of Michigan were pushed further west, where they summered along Lake Michigan and wintered along the Kalamazoo. Between 1795 and 1841, over 11 treaties were established, restricting Potawatomi and other Algonguin Nations to small reservations in the Great Lakes region. However, Algonguin Nations never gave up their rights to fish in the waterways that their ancestors had fished in for thousands of years.

The Indian Removal Act of the 1830’s and 1840’s is said to be the most devastating legislation in the History of the Potawatomi politics; members of the Potawatomi nation were forced to move to reservations that were located in foreign territory, west of the Mississippi River. Further efforts during the late 1800’s through the 1920’s to eradicate Indian culture by assimilation contributed to the modern conflicts that plague contemporary Native American communities, such as loss of language and cultural identity. While tribal councils are working to combat these problems by teaching ancient customs to young members, it is clear that, through many hardships, the Potawatomi and other Algonguin Nations have maintained their relationship with and reverence for local watersheds and their resources. Some Native Americans have even joined forces with environmentalists and conservationists to help ensure the quality of the Great Lakes and their watershed system, including that of the Clinton River.


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