Winnebago Tribe

“Many a good meal has the Prophet given to the people traveling past his village, and very many stray horses has he recovered from the Indians and restored them to their rightful owners, without asking any recompense whatever. “–Major Thomas Forsythe, re: Wabokieshiek Winnebago Prophet and medicine man.-

The Winnebago Tribe. photo; Omaha Library


The Winnebago lived in the vicinity of Green Bay in northeastern Wisconsin. The most powerful tribe in the region, they dominated the western shore of Lake Michigan from Upper Michigan to southern Wisconsin.

Around  1400, three closely related tribes – Ojibwe, Potawatomi, and Ottawa – began moving west along the shore of Lake Huron towards the Winnebago land.  The Winnebago were  powerful enough for the moment to prevent the Ojibwe from moving further south, but the loss of territory and a growing population must have stressed the resources available to them.

From subsequent events, it appears that the Winnebago tried to solve this by moving into southern Wisconsin creating confrontations with the tribes of the Illinois Confederation. With no place to expand, the Winnebago began to separate.

The French first learned about the Winnebago from the Ottawa in 1620, and what they heard was not especially good. Knowing that the Ottawa were closely related to and trading with their Ojibwe enemies, the Winnebago were suspicious and refused to allow Ottawa and Huron traders to proceed further west.

The Winnebago fought the Ojibwe  who were receiving weapons from the French in exchange for their furs. Trying to break the impasse, the Ottawa finally sent envoys to the Winnebago to arrange trade. Revealing a talent for treachery, the Winnebago killed and ate the Ottawa representatives.

While the Ottawa and Huron prepared for war, the French in 1634 sent Jean Nicollet west to the Winnebago on what appeared to be a suicide mission. When Nicollet landed at Red Banks on the south shore of Green Bay, he was the first European the Winnebago had ever seen which probably saved his life.

Nicollet ultimately succeeded in arranging a truce between the Winnebago, Huron, and Ottawa which allowed trade. The fragile arrangement lasted for some time afterwards allowing Nicollet to make a second visit to the Winnebago villages at La Baye (Green Bay) in 1639. Twenty-six years would pass before another Frenchman would visit Green Bay.

The Winnebago were almost destroyed in the meantime. The Beaver Wars started in 1628 when the Iroquois, having defeated the Mahican for control of the Dutch fur trade, began a war to reclaim their territory on the upper St. Lawrence River from the Algonkin.  The first refugees from these wars to arrive in Wisconsin were a group of Potawatomi who attempted to settle near Green Bay in 1641. Showing no mercy, the Winnebago immediately attacked and by 1642 had driven them north into upper Michigan.

With the start of the French and Indian War (1755-63), the Winnebago once again went east to fight for the French. They paid a terrible price when Great Lakes warriors contracted smallpox at Fort William Henry and brought it back with them to their villages that winter.

Smallpox swept through the Great Lakes and Ohio Valley taking most the western tribes out of the war. Meanwhile, a British blockade was having the same effect it had in 1746 in stopping French trade goods. Dissatisfaction resulted, and during the winter of 1758, an Menominee uprising at Green Bay killed 22 French soldiers. After the capture of Quebec by the British in September, 1759. France had lost the war in North America.

The British assumed the French role of mediator and provider of trade goods. In preventing the outbreak of serious warfare, the British won the trust and loyalty of the Winnebago and Menominee.

The United States purchase of the Louisiana Territory from France in 1803 changed the Winnebago’s homeland from being at the edge to the center of American territory. Before this, the Winnebago had known the Americans as a distant enemy. Aside from their foray into the Illinois with the British in 1780, the Winnebago had never really met an American.

During 1804 William Henry Harrison entertained a visiting Fox and Sauk delegation at St. Louis and, after getting them drunk, succeeded in convincing them to sign away their tribe’s lands east of the Mississippi in exchange for a few presents. Next came Fort Madison, the first American fort on the upper Mississippi, built in southeast Iowa in 1809 and garrisoned with 50 soldiers.

The threat of American takeover  was now a reality in Ohio, and the Winnebago listened with great interest in 1809 to the religion of Tenskwatawa, the Shawnee Prophet and the call for unity and no further land cessions by his brother Tecumseh. Within a short time, the Winnebago were one of the most militant members of Tecumseh’s alliance against the Americans.

After Tecumseh was killed at the Battle of the Thames (October, 1813), the Winnebago joined 500 warriors from the upper Great Lakes to help the British defeat the American attempt to retake Fort Michilimackinac in August, 1814.

The War of 1812 ended in a stalemate between the British and Americans, but for the tribes of the Great Lakes and Ohio Valley it was total defeat. During the next 15 years the Winnebago would be forced to surrender most of their homeland.

One out of four Winnebago died during a smallpox epidemic in 1836, which may have been a not-so-subtle hint for them to leave Wisconsin. A second treaty signed at Washington, D.C. in 1837 confirmed the Winnebago cession of Wisconsin and reduced the size of the Neutral Ground, but the Winnebago did not leave until 1840 when General Henry Atkinson refused to make their annuities except at the Turkey River Subagency (Decorah, Iowa).

Many Winnebago slipped away to return to Minnesota and Wisconsin. Finally, the remaining 1,200 left enmass and fled down the Missouri to ask the Omaha in eastern Nebraska for a refuge.

The government finally accepted their self-relocation and in 1865 purchased 40,000 acres from the Omaha to provide the Winnebago with their own reservation.

Life in Nebraska was far from easy, and exposed to Lakota (Sioux) raids, many of the Nebraska Winnebago volunteered as army scouts against Lakota during 1868. While Winnebago were serving as scouts, the Indian Bureau – in its wisdom – conceived a plan of relocating the Winnebago to North Dakota as a buffer between the Lakota and the Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara.

The Winnebago declined. Meanwhile, the Winnebago in Wisconsin were routinely being arrested and returned to Nebraska. Within a month, they were usually back in Wisconsin.

The U.S. government finally allowed the Wisconsin Winnebago to homestead land there. The Nebraska tribe members are today the separate Winnebago tribe.


The social organization contained two structural patterns, the first, Upper and Lower groups, and second, the clan, with descent in the male line.

The chief was selected from the Upper group,  usually from the clan generally regarded as the most important, the Thunderbird.

He (unlike the other members) could not go on the warpath. One of his most important functions was to assist the needy and plead for clemency in all cases of infractions of tribal law and custom, even in case of murder. His lodge was a sacred asylum. If a murder had been committed he not only interceded for the life of the murderer but actually, if need be, offered to take the place of the criminal.

In contrast to the role and functions of the chief of the Upper division, were those of the chief of the Lower, who belonged to the Bear clan. His duties included that of the police, the disciplinary and the war powers. He and his associates policed and guarded the village, inflicted punishment for transgressions of law and custom, took charge of the whole tribe when it was on a warpath or when engaged in hunting or other communal activities. It was in the official lodge of the chief of the Lower phratry that prisoners were confined before being killed, and it was in his lodge where the sacred war bundles of the tribe were stored and guarded against contamination.

The Winnebago believed in a large number of spirits, some defined vaguely, others sharply. The vast majority were depicted as animals or animal-like beings. The main trait of these spirits was their ability to take on any form they wished, animal or human, animate or inanimate. To these supernatural beings man made offerings of various kinds which were always accompanied by tobacco.

In a class by himself was the supreme deity, Earthmaker. While the conception of Earthmaker had probably been influenced by the Christian concept of God, there is little question but that it antedated the coming of the Europeans and belongs to the oldest of Winnebago beliefs.

Hunting in the area was limited primarily to fish, deer and small game. As such, the people of the Winnebago tribe exceeded at gardening, and were able to plant and raise large crops of corn, roots, berries and squash to sustain their tribes during the harsh and brutal Wisconsin winters.

Winnebago Tribes Today

Ho-Chunk Nation

This tribe is headquartered in Black River Falls, Wisconsin. Formerly known as the Wisconsin Winnebago Tribe, they changed their name to the Ho-Chunk Nation. There were 7,192 tribe members as of May 23, 2011; 5,042 lived in Wisconsin, and 2,150 lived somewhere else. 3,158. The tribe owns 4,602 acres scattered across parts of 12 counties in Wisconsin and one county in Minnesota. The largest concentrations are in Jackson County, Clark County, and Monroe County in Wisconsin. Smaller areas lie in Adams, Crawford, Dane, Juneau, La Crosse, Marathon, Sauk, Shawano, and Wood Counties in Wisconsin.

The tribe operates six casinos in Wisconsin: Ho-Chunk Gaming Wisconsin Dells in Baraboo, Ho-Chunk Gaming Black River Falls in Black River Falls,Ho-Chunk Gaming Nekoosa in NekoosaHo-Chunk Gaming Wittenberg in Wittenberg,Ho-Chunk Gaming Tomah in Tomah, and Ho-Chunk Gaming Madison in Madison.

Winnebago Tribe of Nebraska

The tribe has a reservation in northeastern Nebraska[19] and western Iowa. The Winnebago Indian Reservation lies primarily in the northern part of Thurston County, but small parts extend into southeastern Dixon County and Woodbury County, Iowa.  The largest community is the village of Winnebago, with other communities in Emerson and Thurston, Nebraska.

The Omaha also have a reservation in Thurston County. Together, both tribes cover the whole land area of Thurston County. The Winnebago tribe operates the WinnaVegas Casino in the Iowa portion of the reservation. This land was west of the Missouri River, but the United States Army Corps of Engineers changed the course of the Missouri River, and the reservation land was divided into Iowa and Nebraska. So, although Iowa is east of the Missouri River, the tribe successfully argued that this land belonged to them under the terms of a predated deed. This land has a postal address of Sloan, Iowa, since rural addresses are normally covered by the nearest post office.

Winnebago Myth: The Origin Lake Winnebago

One day while Trickster was walking through the woods, he chanced upon Bear. “I am very anxious to go see Earthmaker,” he told Bear, “do you have any idea how I can get to where he lives?” “Well, there’s only one way that I know of,” said Bear, “and that is to die.” “All right,” said Trickster, “then die I must!” So he walked into a village and went to where a large number of warriors were taking archery practice, and sang,

Shoot me! Shoot me!
You are not good enough to hit me;
Shoot me! Shoot me!

They shot him with so many arrows that he resembled a porcupine. However, Earthmaker had fashioned Trickster so that he could not be killed. Trickster wandered up a hill and knelt looking over the edge of a cliff. He pitied himself, and wept so many tears that it seemed like a rainstorm. Soon a whole reservoir filled with his tears. This became Te Xetera, “Big Lake” (Lake Winnebago).


Wiinnebago Tribe of Nebraska

Winnebago Lee Sultzman

Wikipedia Winnebago /Ho- ChunK

Native American Nations The Winnebago

Indian Congress Photo Gallery.

The Winnebago Tribe by Paul Radin