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The Anishnaabeg: The People of the Three Fires

Cropped-An Odawa Village, 1842, Mackinac
At the time of European contact and white settlement of southeast Michigan in the early 1800s, the Oakland County area was occupied by members of the Anishnaabeg ("Ah-Nish-Nah-Beg") people. Also known as the Three Fires alliance (which continues today), it is composed of members of the Odawa (Ottawa) (Keepers of the Trade), Ojibwe (Chippewa) (Keepers of Tradition) and Potawatomi (Keepers of the Fire) tribes. The three groups are related culturally and linguistically and share many traditions. At the time of southeast Michigan's settlement, the Anishnaabeg generally moved seasonally throughout their homelands, changing from smaller family or clan encampments in the winter to summer encampments of larger groups where resources were abundant for a larger population in the warm season. (Right,"Village Ottowa, Ile de Michilimackinac," 1842, MSU Libraries)

Wampler 2 N 10 E Annotated Bloomfield - CopyThese Indigenous peoples used resources wisely and left little mark on the landscape, with one significant exception: their trail system. Throughout Michigan, the Anishnaabeg used major and minor inland footpaths to move between seasonal agricultural and hunting areas. Many of these primary so-called Indian trails survive as major highways and transportation routes today. For example, Woodward Avenue extends from Detroit to Pontiac (and beyond as Dixie Highway) following the general path of the centuries-old Saginaw Indian Trail. This was a primary land route in Oakland County, and the first settlements in the county, Pontiac and Birmingham, grew up along this transportation corridor. Even as the first white settlers were buying property in Birmingham in 1818, the native people were still using the trail, although their presence was diminishing as they retreated further and further north. (The Saginaw Trail is the subject of a book by Birmingham Museum Director, Leslie Pielack, which is available at the museum or online [all proceeds go to the Birmingham Museum]).(Left, detail of c1840 annotated surveyor's map by of Bloomfield Township showing the Saginaw Turnpike [a.k.a., Saginaw Trail] leaving the settlement of Birmingham, going northwest to Pontiac; Birmingham Museum Collection) 

Split Ash Basket20231004Because the Anishnaabeg used the land gently and followed lifeways that focused on renewable resources, very little material culture was left behind here that could become part of the Birmingham Museum's historic collections. However, crafts such as basket making survive as living traditions in tribal centers in the northern areas of Michigan, and the methods of preparing, dyeing, weaving, and decorating baskets has been preserved. Fortunately, the Birmingham Museum recently received a generous donation of such exemplary baskets that reflect aspects of all three of the Anishnaabeg tribes. The museum will now be able to display and interpret this aspect of our Anishnaabe history for present-day occupants of southeast Michigan.  To learn more about these techniques and some of the individuals who kept these basket-making traditions alive in the latter 20th century, see this article by Donna Casaceli. To learn more about the natural materials used in traditional Anishnaabe work, see this article at the University of Michigan Natural History Museum's website. (Right, a traditionally made vegetable dyed split Black ash basket made from 1975-1985 by Benjamin Shinos, member of the Zhiibaahaasing Band of the Ojibwe tribe (13.5 X 10 in.); Birmingham Museum Collection.)

Or, if you would like to learn about the archaeology of the Indigenous Peoples who occupied this area, Caitlin Donnelly's article will explain what the archaeological record has to say about the artifacts left behind by these people from the Ice Age period to the present, using artifacts from our collection to illustrate projectile points related to Birmingham.