Potawatomi in Spring
Architect Richard Thornton is a member of an alliance of Creek, Choctaw and
Seminole scholars, who over the past seven years have been intensely studying
the heritage of the Muskogean peoples. Much of their activities have involved
re-examination of the archives of the early Spanish, English and French
exploration of the Southeastern United States. We have asked Richard to provide
AccessGenealogy with some of his work. As we add to these articles we will
also be providing a question and answer section for the reader to ask questions
Never heard of the Potawatomi Indian
Tribe? The Potawatomi Nation is a sister tribe to the
Ottawa and Obijwe (Chippewa.) At one time, they were
part of the same tribe and living somewhere in the
vicinity of Canada’s Maritime Provinces or perhaps, New
England. As the tribe gradually migrated westward along
the edge of Lake Erie, it eventually broke up into three
bands, which eventually became distinct tribes. The
three tribes still share very similar cultural
traditions and languages.
Although they never lived in permanent villages until
the early 1800s, the Three Sister Tribes had very rich
cultural traditions. Still today, their beadwork and
paintings were some of the finest in the Native American
world. They had a writing system which was preserved on
bark or deer skin scrolls. The original syllabary was in
use several centuries ago. It is remembered in their
traditions in the appearance about 500 years ago of
seven prophets carrying scrolls, which accurately
predicted the future. In the 1700s, French priest
developed the original glyphs into a writing system that
could communicate complete sentences. Modern Ojibwe and
Potawatomi writing is derived from that system.
Maple syrup candy and fresh sturgeon steaks!
By March the days were getting longer, but snow still
clung to the frozen landscape. The triple walled teepees
were still necessary habitation to avoid frostbite.
However, the maple trees somehow knew that spring’s
warmth was imminent. The maple sap began rising. It was
time to go into the forest; tap holes through the bark
of the maples; and attach birch bark buckets underneath
the holes. For the Potawatomi children, it was one of
the most joyous times of the year. By mid-March enough
sap had collected for the women to start boiling in down
into syrup and sugar. Meanwhile the men had carved
wooden molds set form to the hot, viscous syrup the
women would ladle from the big ceramic pots. If the
children had been especially good during the past year,
grandmother just might slip them a chunk of maple candy.
Another favorite dessert was maple ice cream, made from
clean snow and big spoonful of maple syrup.
Early spring was the time when the winter camp would be
partially dismantled. Some of the women, children and
elderly might even start the trek to the summer village
by the lake, but the men, boys and younger women headed
to the shoals and waterfalls of rivers where the
sturgeon were running up stream to spawn. The boys and
girls made fishing poles and sat on the banks of calmer
sections of the rivers to catch trout, lake salmon and
perch. Teenage boys cast nets into the water or built
v-shaped rock dams. A cone shape basket, woven out of
split oak, would trap small fish as they tried to exit
The grown men, though, stood on the cliffs next to
shoals and waterfalls to throw their spears at the
sturgeons jumping out of the water to climb the rapids.
Many sturgeons weighed over 200 pounds. One successful
spear throw could feed the band for several days.
Sturgeon meat that was not eaten immediately, was sliced
thin, and smoked on wood lattice grills over slow fires.
Sturgeon eggs were harvested to give extra nutrition to
pregnant or nursing women. Very little was wasted.
The architecture of the fishing camps rarely was more
than lean-to sheds or lightweight teepees. Some
springtime nights could drop down below freezing near
the Great Lakes, but by this time the young and the
vigorous were thoroughly adapted to cold weather. Those
who couldn’t tolerate the cold night air because of
illness or age, hiked on down to the main village
composed of sturdy wigwams. The “Potawatomi in summer”
will describe the construction of the wigwams and the
layout of the main village.
The Citizen Potawatomi Nation operates a 36,000 square
feet cultural heritage center in Shawnee, Oklahoma. The
photos displayed in this series of articles are of
models in this museum. Shawnee is about an hour’s drive
Native American caught large fish with spears and smaller fish with
nets, traps or baited hooks.
Photo: Photo & model by Richard Thornton, Architect
Notes About this Material
Source: Richard Thornton, an alliance of Muskogean scholars, professors and
professionals. Copyright Richard Thornton, Blairsville, GA, 2010. Used here with