At the time of first contact with Europeans in 1634, the Winnebago tribe inhabited Red Banks, the South Shore of what is now Green Bay, Wisconsin (Radin 1990). Although it appears that the tribe migrated into the area during the second of four Siouan migrations from the East, the tribe has no migration stories. The Winnebago tribe asserts that their people originated at Green Bay. All other locations mentioned within the tribe’s creation stories are also located in modern day Wisconsin. The tribe is thought to have migrated to the area along with the Iowa, Oto, and Missouri tribes. Sometime after the 16th century, they were isolated from other Siouan groups and formed their own distinct way of life.
As is common throughout Native American history, the name given to the Winnebago by Europeans is the name used through another tribe of people when referring to them. “Winnebago” is not what the tribe initially called themselves, but what their neighbors, the Algonquin peoples and the tribe’s geographical neighbors, called them. Many similarities exist between the two groups as a result of their close proximity. Prior to contact, the Winnebago’s called themselves “Hotcangara,” which has been interpreted to mean “big fish people” by tribal observers.
The Winnebago tribe, and their geographical area are associated with numerous effigy earth mounds. During anthropologist’s first attempts to interpret the mounds in the 19th century, the earthen mounds were thought to be antiquarian. After speaking with tribal members, however, researchers found that many of the tribal elders remembered when some of the mounds were erected. The mounds themselves were built as an effigy to the particular clan’s animal, and it appears that the mounds were essentially property markers that were erected near clan habitations and plantations. Similar effigies are also seen in porcupine quillwork, on war bundles, and on woven bags still used by the tribe today.
The Winnebago speak a Siouan dialect called Chiwere (Sultzman). With the exception of the Dakota Sioux who were originally located at the western edge of Lake Superior, the Winnebago were the only Siouan speaking tribe of the Great Lakes. Their language is nearly identical to that of the Iowa, Oto, and Missouri. These tribes acknowledge that they separated from the Winnebago not long before the tribe’s first contact with Europeans. Despite the fact that the Siouan language family is named after the Sioux tribes, Dakota, Nakota, and Lakota, the Winnebago are probably a more important branch of that particular language family. This is because it is closer in relation to the Dhegiha dialect of the Osage, Quapaw, Omaha, Kansa, and Ponca, many of whom refer to the Winnebago as grandfathers or elder brothers.
Prior to contact, the Winnebago resembled the Algonquin in many ways. They fished using dugout canoes, and hunted buffalo from the prairies of southern Wisconsin. The Winnebago also gathered a form of wild rice from the nearby lakes during the fall. The tribe supplemented their hunting and gathering with horticultural crops. In fact, the Winnebago were one of the northernmost horticultural groups in North America. Despite the limited growing season at Red Banks, the Winnebago managed to grow three types of corn in addition to beans, squash, and tobacco. The tribal members used pottery for cooking and food storage, and copper implements created using resources from the south shore of Lake Superior.
The Winnebago also resembled the Algonquin in that they were patrilineal with respect to descent and clan membership (Sultzman). This means that clan membership is determined through the father. Clan membership is important because the twelve Winnebago clans served both ceremonial and social functions. In Winnebago society, the clans were grouped into two major moieties, an Upper Sky group with four clans, and a Lower Earth group consisting of eight other clans.
Clan membership was also extremely important among the Winnebago tribe for political reasons. The Winnebago’s Chiefs governed the tribe with the aid of a Tribal Council composed of a principal member of each individual clan. Traditionally, the Thunderbird and Bear clans were the most important groups in Winnebago society because the hereditary Chiefs of the tribe were always chosen from the Thunderbird (Upper) and Bear (Lower) clans (Radin 1945). The Upper Chief of the Thunderbird clan was the tribe’s representative of peace. Despite the tribe’s apparent emphasis on war, the Upper Chief could not go to war, or participate in any of the tribe’s war ceremonies. He was responsible for pleading for clemency for an accused criminal, and for providing refuge to prisoners in order to maintain their safety. His lodge was a sacred asylum, and no one dared violate it. The Lower Chief’s duties, on the other hand, were a sharp contrast from those of the Upper Chief. He was associated with the policing of the tribe, as well as responsible for disciplinary and war functions. The Lower Chief was charged with inflicting punishment on criminals, housing prisoners, and guarding the village. In addition, he took charge of the tribe when they were on a communal warpath, or hunt. His lodge is where the sacred war bundles were stored and guarded against contamination.
From five years of age, both boys and girls in the Winnebago society were exposed to a series of talks from an older male relative in order to teach them various tribal customs (Radin 1990). This training ended abruptly at puberty when both sexes were sent out to fast. Boys were sent out overnight after their faces were painted with charcoal and instructed not to return until dawn. If they were not blessed, then they were sent out for progressively longer periods of time to fast and pray until they were blessed by the Spirits. This was the only puberty rite for male adolescents. Females, on the other hand, had a different puberty custom. Although also encouraged to fast and become blessed, girls were required to do so while residing in a menstrual lodge. From the onset of menses to menopause, Winnebago women were required to reside in a menstrual lodge for a few days each month over the course of their entire adult lives. A lodge may contain anywhere from one to three women at any given time, but no reason was given as to why a limit of three women was placed on each lodge. Women were required to retire to the lodge because it was believed by the Winnebago that if a menstruating woman were to come into contact with sacred objects, the object would lose it’s power. Great care was taken in this society to keep menstruating women away from anything of value, even other tribal member’s food. It was almost as if the menstruating woman was cursed.
As soon as a girl returns to her parent’s lodge after her first menses, she is then considered ready for marriage. Both men and women were married off as soon as they reached the appropriate age, and their spouses were chosen by their parents. No ceremony was involved aside from the exchange of presents. Polygamy was permitted in Winnebago society, but rarely chosen. If a man did choose to take a second wife, it was generally a female relative of his first wife such as a sister or niece.
The religion of the Winnebago is difficult to describe. It appears to have been a close spiritual relationship with perceived supernatural powers (Radin 1990). The Winnebago of the past, and many of today, believe in guardian spirits. They attempted to bring such spirits into close relations with themselves through fasting, prayer, mental concentration, offerings, and sacrifices. In their religion, the concept of evil, death, reincarnation, an afterlife, and the soul all exist. Origin myths, such as the origin myth of the medicine dance, placed an Earthmaker, or Great Spirit, as the giver of life, and other spirits as his intermediaries. Through both the spirits and shamans, the Earthmaker bestowed blessings upon the Winnebago people.
The tribe also believed in a creature dubbed the Trickster (Radin 1956). The Trickster is an impulsive creative and destructive force who does not consciously make any decisions. He does not understand the concepts of good or evil, but he is nonetheless responsible for both. He is not moral or social because he possesses no values, yet somehow it is through his actions that all values came into being. He is not however the only being in the Winnebago religion that possesses such powers, other various supernatural beings, as well as man and the animals are connected with the same characteristics.
In recent times, other religious ideas have permeated into the Winnebago society. Two apparently related revival movements have occurred within the Winnebago society (Radin 1990). The first is the teachings of the Shawnee Prophet. He proposed that all Native American tribes must return to the older, purer way of life that they lived before contact with the Europeans. The second is the peyote (mescal) religion. Peyote was apparently brought to the tribe by a man named Rave when he returned from a trip to Oklahoma in the early 1900’s. The man claimed that eating peyote cured him of disease. Later, elements of Christianity were mixed with the ingestion of peyote. The peyote cult spread quickly along family lines and is still practiced today in many Native American tribes, including the Winnebago.
The Winnebago tribe first encountered white men in 1634 when Jean Nicollet, an agent for Governor Champlain of France, sent him to the Green Bay area. The tribe’s pre-contact population is estimated to be about 8,000 people. Many believe that it was likely much higher. When Nicollet revisited the Winnebago in 1639, he estimated that the tribe had about 5,000 warriors. Such a number suggests a total population of around 20,000 Winnebagos living in the area. The higher figure, if true, would be consistent with the Winnebago’s oral tradition which states that, due to over-population, several large groups, such as the Iowa, Oto, and Missouri tribes, left the Winnebago tribe a short time before Nicollet’s initial visit. For many reasons, such as epidemic disease and war in the region, when the French returned to the area 30 years later, the Winnebago consisted of fewer than 500 people.
From near-extinction, the Winnebago tribe began a slow repopulation. In 1736, the French estimated the tribe to contain only about 700 members. Their population soon grew rapidly through intermarriage with neighboring Algonquin. As a result, the purest Winnebago bloodline may actually be the Iowa, Oto, and Missouri tribes. It should be noted, however, that even after intermarriage with Algonquin, the Winnebago made few changes to their traditional social and political structures. Remarkably, at a time in history when other native populations were declining, the Winnebago’s numbers actually increased. In 1825, American Indian agents in Wisconsin estimated the Winnebago tribe’s population to be around 5,800 people. Even after a smallpox epidemic in 1835, the tribe’s numbers only dropped to about 4,500 members. The first accurate count of Winnebago peoples was done in 1842 after they were removed by the United States Federal Government from Wisconsin to Fort Atkinson, Iowa. At the time, there were 2,200 Winnebago living in Iowa, and an unknown population attempting to remain in Wisconsin.
With Iowa statehood in 1846, the Winnebago were removed again. In 1845, the Winnebago exchanged their Iowa lands for an 800,000 acre reservation in Minnesota. The move placed the Winnebago as a buffer between the warring Dakota Sioux and Ojibwe tribes. Some Winnebago managed to remain in Iowa, but most of the tribe was removed to Minnesota during the late 1840’s. The new location consisted of poor soil and a short growing season, not to mention the constant battles taking place there between the Dakota Sioux and the Ojibwe. The Ojibwe used the Winnebago reservation as a battleground to attack the Dakota Sioux. As a result, in 1856, the Federal Government allowed the Winnebago to exchange the reservation for another located farther south in Minnesota. Unfortunately, as the Winnebago tribe’s population declined, they were forced to surrender a portion of their reservation in 1859 because it was deemed by the Federal Government to be “excess lands.”
In 1862, the Winnebago were again forcibly gathered together and deported by the Federal Government. This time, they were sent by steamboat to the Crow Creek reservation of the Yankton Sioux in South Dakota. Conditions were unbearable at the Yankton Sioux reservation. Many members of the Winnebago tribe attempted to return to Minnesota or Wisconsin. The remaining 1,200 Winnebago living in South Dakota fled down the Missouri River to the Omaha reservation in eastern Nebraska for refuge. In 1865, the Federal Government finally accepted the Winnebago self-relocation and purchased 40,000 acres from the Omaha tribe to provide them with their own reservation. Again in 1868, in the Federal Indian Bureau’s infinite wisdom, a plan was proposed to once again relocate the Winnebago tribe. This time, they wanted to remove the Winnebago to North Dakota so that they could act as a buffer between the Lakota Sioux and the Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara tribes. The Winnebago promptly declined the offer, and unbelievably, the Federal Government left them in Nebraska.
During this time, Winnebago men and women were regularly being arrested in Wisconsin and returned to their reservation in Nebraska. Within a month, the same individuals were usually already back in Wisconsin. In 1875, after ten years of arresting the same Winnebago over and over again, the Federal Government purchased homestead lands in Wisconsin for the Winnebago, and let them remain there if they wished. As a consequence of this purchase, over half of the Nebraska Winnebago returned to Wisconsin in the late 1800’s and have remained there sprinkled across ten counties ever since. The Winnebago who remained in Nebraska eventually lost a portion of their reservation to whites through the Allotment Policy which took effect in 1887.
Currently, both the Nebraska and Wisconsin Winnebago tribes are federally recognized. For this paper, due to their close geographic proximity to myself, I chose to concentrate on the Winnebago tribe of Nebraska. The Winnebago tribe of Nebraska currently operates under a constitution consistent with the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934 (Winnebago Tribe of Nebraska). They are governed by a tribal council which consists of a Chairman, Vice-Chairman, Secretary, Treasurer, and nine other elected council members. The Chairman is elected from within the tribal council and acts as the administrative head of the Tribe for a one year term, while other Council members serve three year terms. The Winnebago Tribal Headquarters is located on the 30,647 acre Winnebago reservation which houses 1,204 members in Thurston County, Nebraska. At this time, 3,736 Winnebago Indians have tribal membership in the Winnebago Tribe of Nebraska. Remarkably, unlike many other Native American tribes, the Winnebago still own over ninety percent of reservation lands, despite the fact that much of it is allotted to individual tribal members. The majority of employment available on the reservation is currently provided by “WinneVegas” (the tribal Casino), the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the Indian Health Service, and the tribe itself.