What is the Winnebago Tribe?

J. Stuchlik

The Winnebago Tribe is a Native American tribe in North America whose traditional lands were in the Green Bay area of Wisconsin and which resides on a reservation in northeast Nebraska. The Winnebago people were discovered by whites in 1634 by a Frenchman named Jean Nicollet. The Winnebago Tribe shares many characteristics with surrounding tribes, but its history of peaceful relationships with other tribes and with Europeans sets it apart. After several forced moves because of treaties signed with the United States government, the Winnebago Tribe eventually came to an Indian reservation encompassing the northern half of Thurston County, Nebraska.

Like many Native American groups, the Winnebago used canoes for trade, fishing, and warfare.
Like many Native American groups, the Winnebago used canoes for trade, fishing, and warfare.

When it came into contact with Europeans during the 17th century, the Winnebago Tribe was a timber culture whose basic buildings and clothing resembled that of its neighbors, such as the Sauk, Menominee and Fox tribes. The Winnebago culture, though, maintained a distinct art in individual decorations. The Winnebago language is a Siouan dialect related to that spoken by the Missourians and the Iowas.

Deer were one type of food commonly hunted by the Winnebago tribe.
Deer were one type of food commonly hunted by the Winnebago tribe.

Socially, the Winnebago Tribe is spit into two phratries, or kin groups, consisting of 12 clans. The first phratrie is the Upper Air and consists of the Eagle, Thunderbird, Pigeon and War People clans, and the Lower Earth phratrie consists of the Bear, Water Spirit, Wolf, Buffalo, Elk, Deer, Fish and Snake clans. Individuals can intermarry between clans, but members of clans with linked traditional roles, such as the Thunderbird clan being the lodge of peace and the Bear clan the lodge of war, tend to wed more frequently.

The Winnebago religion is nearly identical to other Central Algonquian tribes, revering a god known as the "Earth-maker." Winnebago mythology surrounds five personages — the Bladder, the Trickster, the Turtle, the Hare and He-who-wears-heads-as-earrings — who were sent out by the Earth-maker to rid the world of giants and evil spirits. There also are a large number of myths pertaining to clan icons such as the Thunderbird, as well as clan heroes.

The Winnebago Tribe has always been a small tribe, and numerous forced moves during the 19th century, as well as smallpox outbreaks have kept the tribe's population low. In 1806, it was reported that the tribe had 1,750 members, and grew to 5,800 by 1820. This number was reduced by smallpox in 1836 and further reduced after the tribe moved to the Iowa Neutral Territory in 1840 with numbers of 4,500. They were moved subsequently to Minnesota, North Dakota and finally Nebraska, by which time there were only 1,200 Winnebago left. In 2010, the Winnebago Tribe consisted of about 4,000 people.

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Discussion Comments


So many times with Native Americans in history, you hear about smallpox. I wonder if this was another case of the infamous tainted blankets being given to the tribes to try and wipe them out? That is nothing short of biological warfare, and it seems insane when you hear about it now. I hope that whole thing is a myth, but I'm not all that confident that it is one.

Smallpox could have spread by other means. If the tribes had never been exposed to it, and soldiers or other White settlers had it, it would likely spread pretty rapidly, and of course they had no way to treat it. The whole thing is a terrible tragedy.


It's an odd question, but I think it bears asking. I wonder if the Winnebago got any money for licensing from the people who make the RVs? I would bet not, since the company has been around a long time and especially back then, Indians pretty much were not compensated for what was taken from them (not that they get such a great deal now).

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