In a landmark case in July of 2020, the Supreme Court ruled that about half of Oklahoma is Native American land, a decision that could have major implications for current and future litigation. In another victory for indigenous communities the same year, a judge halted progress on the Dakota Access Pipeline, long protested by the nearby Standing Rock Sioux community. While most major events and conversations involving native communities remain centered in Western states, many of these communities have roots elsewhere. Though historically forced to relocate or migrate West, tribes called Northwest Ohio their home long before European settlers did.
“Ohio was the original ‘Indian territory’ of the U.S. in the 1790s. We had reservations, for a brief time,” Dr. Barbara Mann, author and professor at the University of Toledo, said in an email. Mann has published extensively, noting that as she went into academia, the Ohio Indigenous elders gave her the task of “setting the record straight.”
Along with the formation and gradual expansion of the United States came the strategies of creating oftentimes-dishonest “Indian treaties” to claim Ohio for settlers. Such treaties include the Fort Stanwix Treaty, Fort McIntosh Treaty, the Mouth of the Great Miami Treaty and the Fort Harmar Treaty, which applied pressure to the Union of Ohio Natives, which allowed Indigenous peoples to call Ohio their territory. The Greenville Treaty, however, granted a collective of European settlers permission to claim Ohio as farmland. Amidst turmoil and expansion with the succession of wars and the American Revolution from 1747 to 1794, many settlers took the opportunity to obtain cheap and available land, seeking after their own prosperity. From that point on, the Indigenous communities in Ohio either left or remained unrecognized.
While in recorded history these treaties often appear constructive and mutually beneficial, in reality, they caused serious problems for the Indigenous communities of the time: deceitful federal agents negotiated unfair treaties, translators purposefully miscommunicated the contents of the treaties and some Natives were forced to sign under fear for their lives.
This series of treaties led to the Ohio Removal between ca. 1840-1845. But while most history books stop here, the true story is a bit more complicated.
“A tremendous number of Indigenous people remained in Ohio after Removal. Another thing little known by the general public is that people flatly refused to go west,” Dr. Mann said. “The government simply declared those people no longer Indian.”
In those cases, the United States government refused to record someone’s existence or even deliberately misrecorded it.
“The upshot of record-falsification on identities is that about one-half of all living Indigenous Americans in the U.S. do not have identity cards issued by the U.S. government. Because the Ohio reservations were quickly taken away, and the government declared holdouts in Ohio no longer Indian, the official story is that ‘there are no Indians in Ohio’ but that is bunk. This problem leads to very painful fights between ‘enrolled’ and non-treaty peoples,” Dr. Mann said.
While Ohio may not be at the forefront of conversations today around Indigenous peoples and land ownership, a closer look reveals a past and arguably even a present fraught with struggle and hardship but also rich with heritage and culture. Below is compiled information on some of the nations known to have occupied what is now known as Ohio, and more specifically, the Toledo region.
Native Ohio Nations
The original inhabitants of Ohio consisted primarily of three nations: the Erie, Kickapoo and Shawnee, the first two both residing in areas near modern-day Toledo.
The Kickapoo Tribe*
The Kickapoo tribe branched out from a part of the Shawnee tribe, and linguists speculate that the word “Kickapoo” is a reinterpretation of the Shawnee word for “wanderers.” Speaking in a tonal language similar to Algonquian, the Kickapoo also used a distinct lingual code called “whistle speech” to communicate simple statements—today, considered a lost art. The Kickapoo were somewhat pacifistic, wanting neither to fight in wars nor surrender to invaders. They refused to assimilate to colonization when European settlers first arrived, but the settlers later forced the Kickapoo to relocate further south and out of Ohio. The Kickapoo soon immigrated to reservations located in other states.
Today, the Kickapoo community is largely accounted for in 3 states—Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas—, although there is a smaller community situated in Coahuila, Mexico. About 3,000 Kickapoo live in this community, with roughly 800 people who speak the native language. Revitalization efforts are continuing in the modern Kickapoo communities to teach the younger generations, but the language remains endangered in America.
The Erie Tribe
The Erie tribe settled lakeside in Northern Ohio, giving way for European settlers to name Lake Erie after them. Erie tribal history is not well recorded, but their language bears distinct similarities to those of the Iroquois and Seneca tribes. Like other tribes in the area, they were known as an agrarian community and natural enemies to the Iroquois over land disputes. The Erie tribe is no longer around after being defeated in war by the Iroquois Confederacy in 1654. Survivors merged with the Huron-Wyandot nation or were captured by the Iroquois and Seneca tribes.
Today, possible Erie descendants have blended with several other tribes, like the Iroquois, Huron-Wyandot or Seneca.
The Shawnee and Ohio Valley tribes
With noted ancestry from the Lenape (Delaware) tribe, the Shawnee were commonly known to migrate around Ohio at will. Archaeologists have also found evidence of villages in New York, Illinois and Georgia. In the mid-1600s, the Shawnee also had to travel due to pressure from the Iroquois and American settlers. With other Ohio Valley tribes in parts of the southern region also under stress from the Iroquois Confederacy and European-American colonization, Shawnee leader Tecumseh and his brother Tenskwatawa tried to unite eastern tribes under a movement called the Pan-Indian Unity in the early 1800s. The alliance allowed the tribes to band together to fight against colonization until it was dissipated by Americans shortly after Tecumseh was defeated in the Battle of Thames in 1813. This forced the Shawnee tribe to relocate to Oklahoma.
According to the Greenville Treaty, Ohio was considered “original Indian Territory” to the U.S. in the 1790s. When other Indigenous nations were forced into conflict or relocation, Ohio was one of the areas to which they migrated.
Many Native American descendants still living in Ohio today follow ancestry from these migrated tribes. The main migrated tribes include the Lenape (Delaware), Miami, Ottawa, Seneca and Wyandot. Several other tribes migrated in and out of Ohio, but these five represent the greatest share of the Indigenous population.
The two tribes that migrated toward the present-day Toledo region were the Ottawa and Seneca. The Ottawa tribe lived by lakes and rivers and were known as traders. Ottawa tribes originally migrated to Ohio due to conflicts with the Iroquois Confederacy.
The Seneca lived in longhouses along riversides and by the lake, similar to the Ottawa. Although fierce and skilled in warfare, the Seneca also had a pronounced flair for diplomacy. Eventually they joined the Iroquois Confederacy.
Toward the middle and eastern borders of Ohio were the Wyandot and Lenape tribes, and to the south was the Miami tribe.
The Wyandot used a language that was closely related to Iroquois and spread their ancestry through several branches. Outer parts of the Wyandot community, who did not want to be a part of the Iroquois Confederacy, fought in many conflicts and were eventually defeated. Survivors of the conflicts branched off to create a new tribal identity called the Wendat tribe. After various land invasions, cattle theft and killed leaders, the Wyandot had limited options and were forced to depend on the American government for support, relocating out of Ohio.
The Lenape, also known as the Delaware tribe, lived in an area they called Lenapehoking, which means “Land of the Lenape.” This land was vast and included all of New Jersey, eastern Pennsylvania, southeastern New York, northern Delaware and a small section of southeastern Connecticut. Due to spread of disease and hostile conflicts over trading and hunting because of the Europeans, some Lenape disbursed and left Lenapehoking, thus migrating to Ohio.
The Miami tribe called themselves the Myaamia, which translates to “the downstream people,” and were excellent hunters of white-tailed deer. The Myaamia endured hardships of disease, war and colonization, as well, and were eventually forced to relocate under the Greenville Treaty of 1818.
Eventually, all of the five tribes that migrated to Ohio were forced into relocation elsewhere. Some descendants branched off and lived off-site from their communities, which ensured that some presence would remain in Ohio. Some founded nations are federally recognized communities on reservations in places like Oklahoma, Kansas, Mexico and Canada. Meanwhile, others are banding together to become federally recognized and receive government assistance and to keep their smaller communities alive.
Currently, there are no federally recognized tribal communities or nations in Ohio, but there are non-federally funded communities trying to stay connected to their ancestry and become federally recognized, such as the Munsee Delaware Indian Nation of Ohio and the Shawnee Nation United Remnant Band. Some Ohio universities are also putting out statements to acknowledge and show respect for the people who inhabited this land long before European settlers did. By understanding our region’s past and educating ourselves on the history of who lived here before colonization, we recognize and re-open the lost histories and stories that otherwise fall to threaten to be whitewashed or erased completely.
*Utilization of the terms ‘tribe’ and ‘nation’ have been under debate since the early 19th century. “Tribes” refer to “any group that derives from a common ancestor” whereas “nation” refers to “a body of people associated with a particular territory, that is sufficiently conscious of its unity to seek or possess a government of its own.” Learn more here.
John Harvey and Cielle Waters-Umfleet contributed to this article.
This article was updated on 07/20/20 to reflect additional insight from Dr. Barbara Mann.