How the Potawatomi, the Ojibwe, and Ottawa united as one confederacy


Last Updated: 19 years

Earthmaker made the world with trees and fields, with rivers, lakes, and springs, and with hills and valleys. It was beautiful. However, there weren’t any humans, and so one day he decided to make some.

He scooped out a hole in a stream bank and lined the hole with stones to make a hearth, and he built a fire there. Then he took some clay and made a small figure that he put in the hearth. While it baked, he took some twigs and made tongs. When he pulled the figure out of the fire and had let it cool, he moved its limbs and breathed life into it, and it walked away. Earthmaker nonetheless realized that it was only half-baked. That figure became the white people.

Earthmaker decided to try again, and so he made another figure and put it on the hearth. This time he took a nap under a tree while the figure baked, and he slept longer than he intended. When he pulled the second figure out of the fire and had let it cool, he moved its limbs and breathed life into it, and it walked away. Earthmaker realized that this figure was overbaked, and it became the black people.

Earthmaker decided to try one more time. He cleaned the ashes out of the hearth and built a new fire. Then he scooped up some clay and cleaned it of any twigs or leaves, so that it was pure. He made a little figure and put it on the hearth, and this time he sat by the hearth and watched carefully as the figure baked. When this figure was done, he pulled it out of the fire and let it cool. Then he moved its limbs and breathed life into it, and it walked away. This figure was baked just right, and it became the red people.

The red people became many tribes, and they spread across the land. Among these tribes were the Ojibwe, the Ottawa, and the Potawatomi. These three tribes were enemies and fought many battles.

An Ojibwe man had ten children, all boys. He brought them up to be warriors and all ten sons were killed in battle. There was also an Ottawa man who had ten sons who were warriors, and they too were all killed. At the same time, a Potawatomi man had his ten sons killed in raids as well. Each father was left without children. All three men mourned their sons and could not see the point in living any longer. They wandered away from their tribes and into the woods, looking for a place to die.

The Ojibwe man traveled west until he was completely exhausted. As he came to a place to rest, he saw a tree which had a long root running toward the east. The root was as long as a tree is tall, and very thick. He laid down and rested awhile, and then looked towards the south. There he saw another very long root-as long as the one which went to the east-running toward the south. He went to the west and north sides of the tree and found two other roots, each as long as a tree is high. All around the tree, the grass grew long and rich. He walked around the tree until he had come to the east, he realized that the four roots pointed exactly in the four directions.

As he looked up at the tree, he realized that there were also four huge branches, one to the East, one to the West, one to the South and one to the North. The tree had beautiful leaves, but only had these four branches, each extending out as far as the roots. As he examined the tree, he could also see that the tree had a big root that ran straight down into the earth and a huge branch that went up from the center straight to the sky. There were no leaves on that branch until the very top, and then there only a few. All around the tree he could see the blue sky, and there was no wind or breeze.

As the Ojibwe man walked around the tree, he was happy and forgot all of his sorrow at losing his sons. He had never seen so beautiful a place. As he sat there, he heard a noise like someone crying. He looked around, but didn’t see anyone. At last he saw a man walking toward the tree, weeping and mourning just as he had earlier. He saw that the newcomer was an old man, just like him, and that he approached the tree from the south. As the newcomer came to the spot, he saw how beautiful it was and stopped crying. He looked around and noticed all the things about the tree and then he saw the first man. He saw that the man was mourning, and asked him why.

The Ojibwe man, who was sitting at the base of the great tree, said, “I had ten sons and I lost them all in war. I decided I had nothing left to live for and wandered until I came to this beautiful place.” The other man, an Ottawa, said, “I did the same as you. I had ten sons and they were all killed and I did not wish to live. I wandered off to die and came to this place.”

They talked over the past, and while they were talking they forgot their sorrow and felt happy. While they talked, they heard the noise of a person crying. Far off they saw a man approaching, mourning and crying. It was an old man, about the same age as the other two, and as he walked along wearily. They watched him as he came from the west and approached the west root of the tree. He stopped and examined the root, and he began to notice how beautiful the tree and the place was and wiped away his tears. As he came up to the tree, the Ojibwe man and the Ottawa man asked him who he was and why he was mourning. He answered that he was a Potawatomi and that he mourned his ten sons lost in war. Like them, he had wandered off to die.

They each told their stories and saw that the same thing had brought them to this place. The Ojibwe man said, “It is the will of the Great Spirit that has brought us here to meet.”

They all agreed. They walked around and explored the place together, and saw that the air was very still and calm around the tree. It was very quiet and it seemed to them that every word they spoke could be heard by the spirits. Together they said, “The spirits have sent us here to hold council together. There has been too much fighting in our lives.”

The Ojibwe man said, “I think I had better go back to my people.” The Ottawa man agreed, saying, “Yes, I think it has been wrong for us to fight all the time. We have suffered and neglected our children. It is best for us to go home.” And the Potawatomi man said, “All this is true. It is wrong to allow all these people to die because of the fighting between us. We should all go home, and stop the fighting between our tribes and live in peace.”

They lit their pipes and smoked, agreeing on what they had said. They talked a long while. As they smoked and talked, the Ojibwe man-having been the first to get to the tree-felt he had a right to speak first. “Our people should unite as one. I will be the eldest brother. And the Ottawa will be our second brother. And you, Potawatomi, will be the youngest brother.” They all agreed.

The Ojibwe man said, “My brothers, I will make a pipe and a stem for it. When I get home, I will present it to my people. I will tell them that I had ten children who were all killed in war; but I will wash that away. I will paint the stem of the pipe blue, like the sky, and we will use this pipe when we make peace with other nations.”

And the Ottawa man said, “I will do the same. I will remind my people of my sons, and I will have them quit fighting.”

The Potawatomi said, “I too will make a pipe of peace. I will call a council of our people and tell them of our resolution, and explain the foolishness of allowing our people to be killed.”

The Ojibwe said again, “It is good. Our spirits have brought us together at this point, and have brought us to agreement.” They agreed that in ten days they would all meet and bring their tribes to the roots of the tree, and at these roots their tribes would live, each sheltered by one of the great branches. And then they all went their separate ways home.

When he got home, the Ojibwe man took tobacco and put it in his pipe. He was not a chief, only an old man. He took the pipe to the Chief and told him that it was the pipe of peace. The Chief smoked it with him. The old man told all his people to make peace. He told all the head chiefs of different Ojibwe bands to take the pipe, and to tell his story and to explain that the pipe was to be used in friendship. The smoke from the tobacco would soothe and purify their hearts and maintain peace. The older people, who had learned the lesson of peace through their losses, would teach the messages to the younger people, who would carry it on. The same thing happened with the Ottawa and the Potawatomi.

Ten days later, they brought their people to the roots of the beautiful tree. As they all got there, each set up camp on one root of the tree. The Ojibwe man brought a chunk of wood, and so did the Ottawa man and the Potawatomi man. Together, they started a common fire and brought food so they could cook together. As they began cooking, they took tobacco and lit the pipe of the Ojibwe man from the fire they had built together.

They were going to offer the pipe to their chiefs to smoke together, but they thought that they should it first offer the pipe to the Great Spirit who had brought them together. They pointed the pipe stem straight up in the air by the tree.

Then they pointed the stem to the East and offered it to the spirit of the east. Then they pointed to the south and offered it to the spirit of the south and then to the spirit of the west and lastly to the spirit of the north. Next, they turned the stem down toward the central root of the great tree, offering it to the spirit that keeps the earth from sinking in the water.

After this, they offered the pipe to the Ojibwe Chief and he smoked it, and passed it to the braves and warriors. They all smoked. The man of the Ottawa tribe did the same, as did the Potawatomi tribe.

After that, they all lived as one people, and said “We will keep this fire to represent our bond with each other, and the youngest brother, the Potawatomi, will be keepers of this sacred fire. As the oldest brother, the Ojibwe people will be the Keepers of the Faith. The Ottawa (Odawa), the middle brother, will become the Keepers of the Trade.” And from that day forth, so it was.

The three old men made rules for the people to live together, and presented them as a path that their people must follow. From the point at which they met under the tree, they must live always in peace and friendship. From that time forward, they kept their rules and the three tribes lived in peace and intermarried with each other and came to be almost as one people.