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Columns

Reflections: Seasonal migrations part of Indian life on the prairie

This oil painting, which dates to 1832-33 and is now in the Smithsonian American Art Museum, depicts Native Americans hunting buffalo under the cover of wolf skin masks. Since more than half the calves born each year died, bison tolerated the packs of wolves that took care of the carcasses. Buffalo were unprepared, however, for Indians in wolves' clothing, who approached "within a few rods of the unsuspecting group, and easily [shot] down the fattest of the throng."
This oil painting, which dates to 1832-33 and is now in the Smithsonian American Art Museum, depicts Native Americans hunting buffalo under the cover of wolf skin masks. Since more than half the calves born each year died, bison tolerated the packs of wolves that took care of the carcasses. Buffalo were unprepared, however, for Indians in wolves' clothing, who approached "within a few rods of the unsuspecting group, and easily [shot] down the fattest of the throng."

The days are getting shorter and the nights longer as the seasons settle into the cold months here on the Illinois prairie. I imagine it must be almost unbelievable to many people today that great numbers of Indians could have lived comfortably winter and summer in the Fox Valley, despite their apparently flimsy dwellings and clothing.

Before whites came to the Midwest, and sometime prior to 1600 A.D., the Native peoples of our area began to live a dual life. In summer, life centered on a large village in which several clans lived. Extensive farming was carried out from spring through fall. Corn, beans and squash were planted and tended by the women, while the men protected the village, hunted and fished.

The autumn harvest was completed after the corn was picked and made ready for drying, along with the beans and squash.

Soon after the harvest, the vital autumn hunt began, in which almost the entire village participated. While buffalo still existed on the Illinois prairies, travel to hunting grounds was relatively fast. Later, after buffalo became scarce in Illinois, the villages traveled west of the Mississippi to find sufficient animals.

Buffalo are huge animals, so processing the carcasses took place on the hunting grounds, where each dead animal was carefully butchered, and the meat hauled back to the hunting camp. There it was cut into strips and dried, after which it was packed into bark containers to be taken back to the village to be stored for later sharing out among the residents.

With both the autumn harvest and hunt completed, the village broke up into family groups that moved to winter hunting camps. Such family groups consisted of six or more adults and a number of children. Village populations scattered so that large groups did not exhaust the wildlife resources of a given area. This practice explains why reports of the location of Native American village sites seem to conflict so often in early histories of the Fox Valley.

As soon as family groups arrived at their favored winter camp, a lodge was built to house the family. Sometimes they were lucky enough to find the frame of the previous winter’s lodge still usable; other times they had to start from scratch.

Winter lodges were loaf-shaped, and were framed with bent saplings, lashed in the middle. Reed and rush mats were used as the initial covering and protection, with those then covered by mats of elm bark strips laced together to make the roof weather-tight.

Two benches were built down the length of the lodge, one against the wall on either side. These benches, which were covered with a variety of tanned skins and pelts, were where the families slept, ate, and sat while working or visiting. The platforms had the advantage of elevating family members above the lodge’s cold, pounded earth floor.

One or more fire rings were built on the floor. Some lodges had a single, long fire pit down the middle of the floor. A smoke hole was cut in the roof directly over the fire for ventilation. All the cooking was done over the fire, which also provided heat and light.

Indian dwellings could be made comfortable and warm, but the Indians couldn’t stay inside all the time, so warm clothing was also a must for survival.

Before European trade goods became available, robes or blankets were made from strips of tanned rabbit skin with the fur attached, woven on simple looms. Bear skins were favorites for sleeping platform coverings. Men, women and children wore capes, leggings and detached sleeves during the winter months.

Moccasins, made of thicker elk hide for winter use, were stuffed with dried grass, mouse nests, or bits of fur for insulation and comfort. Snowshoes were kept ready so that hunting, gathering or travel could continue even during the snowiest months.

After the arrival of the Europeans, blankets obtained through the fur trade were the primary source of winter clothing. Blankets were not only worn intact, but were cut into breech cloths for men, made into leggings and sleeves for both men and women, and fashioned into heavy winter coats.

While some deer and other skins continued to be tanned and turned into clothing, after cloth became available, more and more of the Native People chose to adopt the new material. Cloth was more comfortable to wear, especially when conditions were wet or hot – wet deerskin, for instance, tends to become slimy and stretch out of shape when wet. Wool, on the other hand, continues to insulate the wearer even when soaking wet.

After the completion of the lodge, the winter hunt supplemented the dried meat already procured during the village hunt.

Before the arrival of the whites, winter quarters hunting was done for subsistence to ensure survival during the long, cold, snowy winter months. After the arrival of the Europeans and their trade goods, however, the winter hunt took on new significance. Food was still necessary, but the major effort went into trapping and shooting marketable animals for their skins and fur pelts that could be turned into a variety of useful items obtained from the French, English and Dutch traders.

When spring came to the Illinois prairies, some family groups moved once again, this time to areas with thick stands of sugar maple trees.

Maple sugar was a major food and trade item used by Native People and whites alike. Huge quantities could be made by a relatively small group of people. Labor was strictly divided for the task, with the women tapping the trees and tending the fires with their boiling kettles of sap, while the men cut the tremendous amounts of wood needed to keep the fires constantly burning.

In late spring, the winter’s accumulation of furs, hides and maple products was traded for blankets, beads, tools and cooking utensils, and the family groups, back in their villages, turned their efforts toward planting for another round of seasons.

Following this tradition, Native Americans were able to live and prosper in the Fox Valley for thousands of years without the use of modern technology.

• Looking for more local history? Visit historyonthefox.wordpress.com.

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