The First Immigrants: Indigenous Peoples of the Old Northwest Territory

Thousands of years ago, they arrived here and left an unforgettable print on our region and its history. Today, their descendants are still here, honoring a heritage that lives on.

While the precise timing is hotly debated among scientists, it’s generally accepted that the first humans arrived on the North American continent from Asia, either by crossing a land bridge in the Bering Sea or by boats – or both – some 30,000 to 40,000 years ago.

Thomas Loebel

“There’s good archaeological evidence that people have been in our area for over 13,000 years,” says Thomas Loebel, assistant director of the Illinois State Archaeological Survey in Champaign, Ill. “Very soon after the end of the last ice age, as the Wisconsin glacier retreated, Native Americans are quite visible on the landscape, leaving a unique archaeological record. We refer to this as the Paleoindian period, and it lasted until about 10,000 years ago.”

Paleoindians were hunter-gatherers who traveled lightly in small groups and pursued big game like mastodons and giant beaver.

“They used a distinct type of fluted projectile points on their spears called a clovis point,” says Loebel. “This was the only time in prehistory that this type of projectile point was used.”

Clovis Point

Cultural periods are differentiated from one another by the types of tools used, artifacts created and evidence of differing social conditions. The Paleoindian period was followed by the Archaic period (10,000-3,000 BC). Due to a warming climate, the amount and variety of edible plants increased, allowing people to form larger groups and stay longer in seasonal camps. They also utilized a spear-throwing device called the atlatl.

“There developed a very strong north-south component to their seasonal movements in this area,” says Loebel.

About 3,000 years ago, the Woodland period emerged, marked by the development of pottery, semi-permanent settlements and planting techniques.

“It wasn’t quite farming, but they encouraged and tended wild plants like sunflowers,” says Loebel. “They also developed different ways of preparing, processing and storing foods.”

At the end of the last ice age, Paleoindians hunted large game like these mastodons.

This period also witnessed the rise of the mound-building culture, which was diverse and complex. It was shared by several archaeological cultures. Examples can be found around our region, including at Beattie Park in downtown Rockford and on the Beloit College campus.

“Not every mound is a burial mound,” Loebel says. “Many were probably built as signals to people, modifications to the natural landscape for others to see. Similar to why we build monuments today, they’re a way of signaling our identity to others who come across them.”

The Cahokia mound builders constructed large platform mounds.

The Mississippi period of prehistory began about 1,000 years ago and was prevalent until the time of European contact. It was marked by the construction of large platform mounds, such as those built at Cahokia in Illinois. At one time, Cahokia was the largest settlement of mound-builders in North America and had 10,000 to 20,000 inhabitants.

Europeans Arrive
European activity that led to permanent settlement began with the Spanish, French and British. The first Europeans to visit northern Illinois and southern Wisconsin were the French in 1640. They met members of the Illinois Confederation, a group of a dozen tribes that lived in the Mississippi River Valley and shared a common language and culture.

They called themselves Inoca; the nearby Ojibwe called them Illiniwik, from which the French derived Illinois. The five main tribes of the Confederation, which still exists today, are the Cahokia, Kaskaskia, Michigami, Peoria and Tamaroa.

Dick Rundall

“Most of the natives here were forest people,” says Dick Rundall, professor emeritus from Rock Valley College. “In the spring, they gathered in large groups or villages where they lived in longhouses or smaller wigwams made of bark and reeds. Women planted gardens, usually including corn, beans and squash – the ‘three sisters.’ Almost 60% of the food we eat was also eaten by Native Americans. They domesticated more plants than any other indigenous people in the world.”

In early summer, men went on extended hunting and fishing trips, often following bison herds west of the Mississippi River. In early fall they returned to the main village to harvest crops and cache seeds for the next spring’s planting.

“In winter, they broke into small family groups and scattered throughout the forest, since game was scarce and larger groups could deplete the forest,” says Rundall.

The Ojibwe speared fish in lakes in the summer or through the ice in winter, established sugar camps in the spring to harvest maple syrup, and gathered wild rice from lakes during late summer.

The Ojibwe constructed wigwams made of bark and reeds. (Jon McGinty photo)

By the time the French arrived, our region’s tribal population had already experienced disruption caused by colonists on the East Coast who pushed other natives westward. Such pressure disturbed traditional boundaries and increased the frequency of inter-tribal conflicts. Starting in 1609, the Iroquois Confederacy, a powerful combination of tribes in the Northeast, engaged in deadly competition with their neighbors for control of the beaver trade. These conflicts became known as the Beaver Wars.

Such tribes as the Potawatomi, Meskwaki (Fox) and Sauk were uprooted from their traditional homelands in the Northeast to become refugees in the upper Midwest. This in turn pressured the tribes already living here – the Ojibwe, Ho-Chunk (Winnebago), Illinois and Miami.

Changing Policies
When first encountered by European explorers, indigenous peoples were often viewed as uncivilized savages, potential slaves, innocent aborigines in need of Christian teachings, or sometimes as military allies. Once the federal government was formed, U.S. policies toward these indigenous people went through enormous changes, from eradication to assimilation, as cultures clashed. The Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) was created in 1824 to regulate the relationship between Indians and the federal government.

“The Indian Removal Act of 1830 gave the U.S. the power to – forcibly if necessary – move whole tribes to areas west of the Mississippi,” says Rundall. “During its enforcement, more than 100,000 Native Americans were displaced from their ancestral homes.”

In 1857, the U.S. Supreme Court decided that American Indians could become naturalized citizens, providing they left their reservation and dwelt among the general population “as an emigrant from any other foreign people.” The 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, ratified in 1868, declared all persons born in the U.S. to be citizens – though it left exceptions for some American Indians. They achieved full citizenship in 1924.

This advertisement was used to market the sale of former American Indian lands during the Allotment Period.

In 1887, the U.S. began an era of attempted assimilation with the General Allotment Act, intended to give American Indians a sense of land ownership and integrate them as farmers. This policy ended the federal government’s recognition of tribal sovereignty – the right to make and enforce their own laws. Reservations were broken up, tribal members were given small parcels of land to farm, and the remaining land was sold.

This resulted in the tribes’ loss of more than two-thirds of tribal-entitled land – more than 90 million acres (30 million in Wisconsin alone) by 1934 – when the policy was deemed a failure, and most lands were restored to tribal nations.

This was also the beginning of Indian Boarding Schools, in which American Indian children were forced to give up their language, dress and customs to assimilate.

An Indian Adoption program was instituted in 1950 to permit adoption of American Indian children into non-Indian homes. The law was rescinded in 1978, so their culture would not be lost.

Between 1945 and 1960, the federal government tried another approach to integrate the American Indian population: the Termination and Relocation program. This policy ended the federal government trusteeship of tribal lands and attempted to force American Indians, mostly men, into the city. Promises of employment and education never really materialized, and the policy was abandoned.

In the 1960s, in part in response to rising militancy among some tribes, several laws were passed to re-recognize them as independent nations governing themselves. This re-confirmed the right of tribal sovereignty and renewed certain treaty rights. As a result, negotiations between tribes and the federal government are now done nation to nation.

Artist’s rendering of a proposed Ho-Chunk casino in Beloit.

The Indian Gaming Regulation Act of 1988 secured the right of Indian nations to operate gambling establishments on their sovereign lands, provided they negotiated the terms of their operation with the state governors.

By 2010, there were more than two dozen Indian-operated casinos in Wisconsin. In 2017 alone, they brought in $1.23 billion in net revenues and $53 million in state fees.

Today, every tribe in Wisconsin operates at least one gambling operation. Some are more successful than others, especially those located near large metropolitan areas. The income they generate has allowed many tribes to increase funding for schools, roads, housing and other civic improvements, and in some cases provide allotments to tribal members.

This map shows traditional tribal lands in Wisconsin in the 19th century. Present-day reservations are shown in light tan.

Illinois has no American Indian reservations and, thus, no Indian casinos.

‘We’re Still Here’
Historians estimate there were 7 to 10 million indigenous people in North America before contact with Europeans. By 1900, there were 250,000, and by 2020, their numbers had rebounded to 2.694 million.

Today, there are 574 federally recognized American Indian nations (also called tribes, bands, pueblos or villages) across 35 states. Their members speak 180 languages, and each nation has its own unique origins, customs and traditions. Wisconsin has 11 tribes, each with its own reservation land, the Menominee being the largest.

The Ho-Chunk Nation in Wisconsin does not have a contiguous reservation in the traditional sense. Historically, members of this group regained their ancestral territory by purchasing individual homesteads. Some land has been placed in trust and is overseen by the tribal government. In 2020, there were almost 8,000 Ho-Chunk in Wisconsin. Their headquarters is in Black River Falls. Ho-Chunk means “people of the sacred voice,” but the surrounding Algonquin tribes called them “Winnebago.” A recent tribal constitution in 1994 restored the tribe’s name for itself.

Kealan Hamilton Youngbird

Illinois is one of 15 states without a single nation, although many people with American Indian ancestry live in the state, especially in Chicago. In both Illinois and Wisconsin, the names of cities, rivers, streets, businesses and sports teams remind us we are living on land where indigenous peoples hunted, farmed, traded and made their homes for thousands of years.

Inside Burpee Museum of Natural History, in Rockford, visitors can learn more about the first peoples to settle in this land, from their arrival to their modern ways of life. A video there introduces Kealan Hamilton Youngbird.

“I am the descendant of survivors,” he says. “I have been assimilated, but I am not defeated. I will carry on my way of life in the two worlds I currently reside in [traditional and modern], to tell my story and share the stories of all the indigenous people of this country. We are living – living history. And we are still here.”

Daniel Manyhawks Johnson plays a flute at Burpee’s Native American Heritage Day.

NAAC and the Beattie Park Mounds
The Native American Awareness Committee (NAAC) is a group of local people, most with American Indian ancestry, who meet monthly at Burpee Museum of Natural History in Rockford. Their mission statement (currently under review) is “To promote understanding and respect for Native American culture and teachings.”

Daniel Manyhawks Johnson was instrumental in forming the group in 1992. The idea came from discussions with Lee Johnson, then-director of the Burpee Museum. Manyhawks, whose ancestors include members of the Meskwaki tribe, had become concerned about the condition of effigy mounds located in Beattie Park in downtown Rockford. He wanted to find ways to preserve them and educate the public about their importance.

“I saw people walking on the mounds, throwing litter around, kids using them for bike ramps,” recalls Johnson. “I was upset about that.”

The NAAC formed from local volunteers and eventually developed what became an annual celebration to “Honor the Mounds.” Originally, this event was only spiritual and ceremonial in nature, with tribal elders and others speaking about the origin and meaning of the mounds and sacred dances being performed. Later, it was expanded to include traditional arts and crafts booths, and other pow-wow type activities, although it is still described as a gathering, not a pow-wow.

Discussions with Webbs Norman, then-director of the Rockford Park District, led to the installation of signage describing the mounds, their origin and their significance.

There are four mounds currently in the park (a fifth was destroyed during construction of the high-rise to the north). Two are conical, one is linear, and one is in the shape of a turtle. Although no one knows for certain, local experts estimate them to be at least 1,000 to 2,000 years old, created by people during the Woodland period.

Starting in 1974, an arts festival met annually in the park – and on the mounds. It later moved to Davis Park to protect the integrity of the mounds. Since 2018, the festival has met in the City Market pavilion. Beattie Park is now on the National Register of Historic Places.

Johnson left the Rockford area in 1996 to explore his heritage among the Ojibwe in Wisconsin and other tribal areas. Since his return in 2007, he has been “on a mission” to revitalize both the NAAC and the Honor the Mounds ceremony. The last gathering occurred in 2019.

“I’m now co-chair of the committee with Corey Gettle,” says Johnson. “We are currently seeking nonprofit status, as well as considering a name change for our organization. We plan to hold the next Honor the Mounds event in August 2023.”

Potawatomi bandolier bags are displayed in front of the simulated Rock River.

A New Burpee Exhibit
A new exhibit opened in early September at the Burpee Museum of Natural History in Rockford, titled “Of This Place: Native Nations of the Rockford Region.” Produced by a team of people with and without American Indian ancestry, the exhibit was given major support from the Chicago Blackhawks Foundation, the charitable arm of the NHL team.

“All the curation, text and art items were provided by Native Americans,” says Ryan Pickerill, education lead at Burpee Museum. “It was really important that the information be presented from their perspective.”

Part of the museum’s stated goal is to correct the incomplete and sometimes inaccurate portrayal of American Indians in our public education system, and the stereotypes in popular culture. While all of the collaborators have ancestral roots in the Rockford area, their present locations include Chicago, Wisconsin and Oklahoma.

The exhibition is in two parts. The first is an introduction to American Indian Nationhood and history, including the changing policies of the U.S. government as it attempted to deal with the clash of cultures. The second part describes the history and culture of three specific nations that are related by land and language but have distinct worldviews and histories: the Bodewadini (Potawatomi), Ojibwe (Chippewa), and Sauk of the Sac and Fox Nation.

“Traditionally, museums [including Burpee] have treated Native American culture as existing only in the past,” says Pickerill. “One major point of this exhibit is that these nations still exist, and while their members maintain their traditions, they also live in a modern world. It also celebrates their persistence and survival.”

To emphasize this point, traditional crafts such as clothing and jewelry are juxtaposed with modern paintings and computer-assisted designs.

One display tells the story of the Jingle Dress. Around 1905, an elder of the Ojibwe community (three bands today claim ownership) experienced a vision that told him he could cure his granddaughter’s illness by creating a dress covered with bells (jingles) and using the dress during a sacred ceremony.

According to the story, he did what his vision required and his granddaughter recovered. Since then, the traditional dance with regalia has been adopted by many tribes and is often performed as a healing ceremony. Intricate footwork is part of the dance. The original jingles were made from snuff tin lids rolled up as cones.

The two parts of the exhibit are separated by a large mural of clouds and blue sky. Beneath the mural is a silken blue cloth activated by fans which simulates the Rock River, called Sinsepe in the Algonquin language. An important waterway for travel, the Rock was also a demarcation line between the Ho-Chunk villages on the west bank and the Potawatomi on the east.

A large map, circa 1830, shows the location of dozens of tribal villages in what is today northern Illinois and southern Wisconsin. The southeastern quadrant is dominated by Potawatomi villages, the northwest by Ho-Chunk. By the 1870s, nearly all of them were gone. A total of 34 tribes in Illinois eventually ceded land to the federal government.

“There are several other Native American nations originally from this area that were not involved in making this exhibit, such as the Ho-Chunk,” says Pickerill, “We would like to work with some of them in the future.”

An alternative to the crippling effects of Indian Boarding Schools is explained in an exhibit video. It shows activities at an institution called the Indian Community School, a private, faith-based facility that currently provides instruction for 360 American Indian students, K4 through 8th grade. The school is located in Franklin, Wis., a suburb of Milwaukee.

According to the video, the school “provides distinguished learning environments, enduring cultural identity, critical thinking skills and indigenous teachings.” Its goal is to “build relationships with families, strengthen communities and connect with the natural environment.”

The campus includes a teaching lodge, lacrosse fields, a medicine garden, woodlands, wetlands, ponds and walking paths. Youngsters can be seen working on computers, telling traditional stories in their own native language.

November was Native American Heritage month and Burpee hosted a Native American Heritage Celebration. The daylong event included demonstrations, dances, tomahawk-throwing and family-oriented activities. Several people from nations indigenous to this area came to share their culture.

This map shows American Indian villages in this area around 1830.

What Names to Use?
According to research done for Burpee Museum, tribal members use these terms interchangeably:
• American Indian is the term used for anyone who is a member of a federally recognized tribe or nation.
• Native American refers to anyone born in the Western hemisphere and native to an area.
• Indigenous peoples are those who are
descendants of the original inhabitants of an area.