How We Know

Historians and anthropologists (including archaeologists, ethnographers, and many linguists) have tried to describe and understand continuity and change in Native societies both prior to and after European arrival. In recent years, ethnographers, who conduct research in communities, have tried to explain how present-day innovations are related to long-held Native values and understandings as well as global developments. All these scholars obtain information in a variety of ways, including using accounts of oral historians and Native writers, then interpret that data to arrive at explanations.

How do archaeologists interpret the meaning of the earthworks that were the focus of religious ceremonies long before Europeans arrived on this continent? One approach is to study the belief systems of the Native peoples who met the first Europeans and see if these ideas are reflected in sacred landscapes. Consider the effigy mounds. The forms of these sculptures in Wisconsin seem to be compatible with the depictions of spirit beings in the origin stories of people such as the Ho-Chunk and Menominee, who have lived in this region since before the arrival of Europeans. For example, the “lizard” figure fits Winnebago accounts of the “water serpent” in the early twentieth century. In the cosmology of these peoples, the world has Upper and Lower dimensions. The Upper World has spirit beings associated with the Sky, and beings of the earth and water are associated with the Lower World. Rituals work to maintain balance between these dimensions and to maintain good relations with the spirit beings who control food resources in their respective realms.

The mound clusters in Wisconsin represent this belief system. Note that in the illustration “Effigy Mound Distribution” the majority of the bird-shaped effigy mounds are in the upland region of western Wisconsin (near the Mississippi River route of millions of migratory birds). Effigies of bears and other land-dwelling animals are most frequent in central Wisconsin. Effigy mounds of the water spirit type are in the eastern part of the state, close to wetlands. On virtually every site of a mound cluster there is at least one representative of the opposing realm. Where there is a cluster of birds, there will be at least one water spirit mound. This distribution symbolically maintains balance. Archaeologists also link the mound symbolism to the social organization of groups like the Ho-Chunk and Menominee, whose people were organized into Sky and Earth divisions. Each division had family groups or “clans” that belonged to it, and people in the Sky division had to marry people from the Earth division and vice versa. The Sky division had the Thunderbird, Eagle, and Hawk clans. The Earth division had the Bear, Buffalo, Deer, Snake and Water Spirit Clans.

What other evidence do archaeologists draw on to link historic peoples to the moundbuilder sites? If archaeologists excavate a site and find deposits of objects with no European association and these are later covered with deposits of European objects, they might establish a link between the people living there before contact with Europeans and those whose descendants are living today. But these sites are difficult to find in the Midwest. The research of linguists offers another type of information.

When groups of people who speak the same language move away from each other and remain apart for a long time, they develop different dialects then, over time, lose the ability to readily understand each other. They eventually speak different languages. Linguists compare languages to calculate how many years probably passed for distinct languages to develop from an original or “proto” language. They compare basic vocabulary terms for native plants or numbers or natural features such as water. The more similarity there is, the more recently the speakers spoke the same language. The more dissimilar the terms, the longer the time the speakers of the languages were apart. “Proto-Algonkian” was the original language spoken by groups including Ojibwa, Ottawa, Potawatomi, Menominee, Miami, and Shawnee. Linguists theorize that about 3,000 years ago their original homeland was west of Lake Ontario in what is now southwestern Ontario Province in Canada. From there, Ojibwas moved west, the Potawatomi moved to the east of Lake Michigan, the Menominee moved to west of Lake Michigan, and the others moved farther south into Illinois and Indiana. Other Algonkian speakers traveled far to the east. Eventually the Algonkian-speaking groups in the Midwest developed different languages or different dialects of languages. Some of their vocabulary shows evidence of more recent borrowing from Siouan speakers.

The Proto-Siouan homeland probably was in the Ohio River valley. There, 3,000 years ago, lived the ancestors of the Winnebago (Ho-Chunk) and Dakota, who would have been associated with the ceremonial centers in Ohio. Over time, groups migrated to the southeast (for example, the Tutelo to Virginia), to the south (the Biloxi to Mississippi), and others to the Cahokia region, then to the north up the Mississippi River (the Winnebago and Dakota), or farther west. Note the similarities between Dakota, Winnebago, Biloxi, and Tutelo:

Linguists also look for borrowed words or new vocabulary in languages.  These new words may indicate significant contact between people, as well as something of the nature of interpersonal relations.


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Video Transcript

Historians and ethnohistorians (who use approaches of both anthropologists and historians) rely on primary sources to document what has happened in the past. What are primary sources? People write letters and reports, publish newspapers, sit for photographs, grant interviews, draw maps, take censuses, and make drawings. Historians studying a particular time period look for documents like these “primary” ones that were produced then. They try to learn what went on and also how different individuals and groups viewed events and interacted. Black Hawk’s autobiography sheds light on his actions in 1832. In another example, historians studying the fur trade have learned much from journals of fur traders such as Joseph Marin, a French official and trader in the mid-18th century. Marin recorded his efforts to use gifts to attract trade and to prevent Indian wars that made trade difficult. As Marin’s journal shows, the highest ranking French official had the kinship role of “father” to his Indian allies.

Ethnographers spend time in Indian communities observing and talking with people to try to understand the way of life and the ideas people have in these communities. One of the ways these anthropologists try to understand change is by working with autobiography. Nancy Lurie’s autobiography of a Ho-Chunk woman (1884-1960) is one of the best examples. This individual, whose name was Mountain Wolf Woman, joined the Medicine Lodge, then became a follower of the peyote religion. Lurie observed first-hand the major changes in Ho-Chunk life. She recorded the life story in the Winnebago language, then Mountain Wolf Woman repeated it in English. Lurie uses her research in the Ho-Chunk community to contextualize the incidents in the autobiography and to show how “characteristic and recurrent [Ho-Chunk] themes underlie her [Mountain Wolf Woman’s] opinions, decisions, and behavior.”

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