The Milwaukee area is home to a rich cultural history that dates back hundreds of years. Once home to seven tribes, the landscape of the “Good Land” was shaped by our Native American ancestors. As we celebrate Indigenous Peoples Day, it is important to honor and remember the area’s first residents, the original Milwaukeeans.


Centuries before Milwaukee would become a city, several tribal communities traversed the area’s rivers as they harvested wild rice, fished, or passed through, according to Dr. Bryan Rindfleisch, author, and associate professor of history at Marquette University. Areas such as present-day Walker’s Poi nt, Downtown Milwaukee, and South Milwaukee were the regional hubs for trading and communication.


“There were multiple other nations that were present in this area such as the Sauk and Fox or the Meskwaaakii” said Sarah Gordon Altiman, a doctoral student at University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and an enrolled member of the Red Cliff Band of Lake Superior Ojibwe. “The Kickapoo, the Menominee, the Miami (Ma’ami) people were all here, as well as the Potawatomi, as part of the Indigenous population in Southeastern and Southwestern Wisconsin. But there were many others that traded in this region as well, while not living here.”

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The French were the first European people to have a presence in Milwaukee. Good trade partners, the French were accepting of marriages between Native Americans and settlers according to Antonio Doxator, co-author of “American Indians in Milwaukee” and an enrolled member of the Oneida Nation of Wisconsin. It was in part because of this strong relationship between the two that many Native Americans from Wisconsin fought alongside the French as allies against the British Empire during the French and Indian Wars.


The French eventually lost control of the Northwest Territory, which included some of the present-day Midwest. From 1763 to 1812, the British Empire ruled the region, making many attempts to force tribes of the area. Following the War of 1812, the United States assumed control of the territory, eventually following suit with the Indian Removal Act of 1830.


“That’s the Trail of Tears from this region, which is rarely discussed,” said Gordon Altiman. “Many people died being forced out of here. There are records of hundreds of Potawatomi people being rounded up in the town of Theresa just north of here and marched south to Kansas and Oklahoma. They’ve been there ever since. They didn’t willingly give up this land.”


Today, the impact Indigenous communities had on the area is still noticeable. The Potawatomi Hotel & Casino, a towering building designed for entertainment is emblazoned with an eternal flame that pays homage to the Potawatomi tribe’s tradition as the “Fire Keepers.” Even the name Milwaukee derives from an Algonquin meaning, “the good land,” and, alternatively, the Po tawatomi word meaning, “gathering place.” Still, the tribal roots in this region run much deeper than many locals and visitors realize, and much of the past can be glossed over.


“We are on stolen land and that’s an uncomfortable truth,” said Rindfleisch. “People don’t like to admit that.”

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Rindfleisch said he has been grappling with how Milwaukeeans should go about discussing the area’s past as it relates to Indigenous people. For example, when discussing the city& rsquo;s first mayor, Solomon Juneau, he believes we would be wise to acknowledge the importance of Juneau’s wife, a member of the Menominee tribe named Josette Vieau who helped foster the mayor’s relationship with tribes throughout the region.


“Juneau was so successful in many ways because he married a Menominee woman who helped him establish connections with tribes,” Rindfleisch said, adding that it is Vieau who truly deserves a statue.


Despite this deeply intertwined history between the region and the many tribes that once occupied the Milwaukee area, it wasn’t until the 1950s that many returned to the city. In 1952, the United States government created the Urban Relocation Act, which promised reservation Native Americans jobs, housing, and a better life in cities. A large population of Oneida was established in Milwaukee at that time, according to Gordon Altiman.


“Other people came from other places, too, but the 1950s was the first time many Natives began entering cities since the establishment of reservations,” she said.


Today, Doxator thinks he and the other members of the Oneida Nation living in Milwaukee are supported. This is thanks to the social services the Oneida tribe offers like computer literacy classes, youth programs, and scholarships towards higher education to those who qualify. However, there is a lot of room for improvement, too. He thinks the city would benefit from a museum devoted to Urban Native Americans to promote learning about Native American culture as a living, thriving culture would help.


Ultimately, Doxator said, “People who are not Native American should try to educate themselves — by reading, traveling —to be a good ally.”