The History of the Anishinabek Nation, begins with the historical Confederacy of Three Fires. The Ojibway, Odawa and Potowatomi Nations formed the Council of the Three Fires, a confederacy of peoples whose languages and territories were close, and who met together for military and political purposes. The Potowatomi Chiefs were Firekeepers. The Council of Three Fires had a number of meeting places: one of the most used, and most central, was Michilimackinack.
During the 1600’s and 1700’s, the Confederacy held the hub of the Great Lakes and maintained relations with the Iroquois Confederacy, The Sauk, Fox, Menominee, Huron, Winnebago, Sioux, British and French Nations, among others. Often these international relations would deteriorate into wards, though most frequently, trade and peaceful co-existence prevailed.
By the mid 1700’s, partly with the encouragement of the British, the Council of Three Fires became the core of the Western of Lakes Confederacy. The Hurons, Algonquins, Nipissing, Sauks, Foxes, and others joined the Confederacy, and this powerful body provided the British with important allies in times of war and a balance to the Iroquois Confederacy to the south and east. The Great Treaty of Niagara of 1764 marked the formal beginning of the peaceful relations with Great Britain.
In 1776, the American Revolutionary War divided the continent, and many of the British as well. Most of the people of the Lakes Confederacy sided with the British, to protect their lands from the American settlers and to honor their alliance with the Crown. After that war, Britain invited many people to cross the lakes and settle on Canadian lands, hoping to gain their military support in any future war with the United States. Many people came: others continued to use the lands of their Nations on both sides of the lakes, ignoring the line that the British and Americans had drawn.
The wars between the Indian Nations and the United States did not end with the making of peace between Britain and the U.S. The Ohio Valley and parts of Michigan continued to be a battleground, and in 1812 the British began to fight the Americans again. In 1815, they again made peace with the United States, and left the Indian Nations to fight alone or make peace alone.
The relations between the Indian Nations and the Crown were usually described as “the Covenant Chain”. On Treaty belts, this appears as two people holding hands, or holding up opposite ends of a chain. As long as they grasp the silver chain firmly, it binds them together in friendship. The Covenant Chain was renewed regularly, in meetings in which the peoples would “remove the tarnish” of any misunderstandings, and strengthen their alliance and mutual protection.
During the 1700’s, the Council of Three Fires had rules of procedure that were as well known and well respected as any that existed in European Parliaments. The Nation that acted as host to the meeting would first perform the ceremony of condolence for the guests, through its speaker.
The condolence ceremony involves removing the person’s mind and senses the burdens and sorrows of deaths and sufferings in his Nation. Through this ceremony, symbolically, the dead are put to rest and out of sight; people’s eyes are cleared of tears so they can see clearly; their ears cleansed so they may hear; their mouths and throats so they may speak freely and without grief; and their hearts so they are not weighed down by sadness. The words of condolence are words of welcome and comfort, and they are answered by Nations invited to the Council in the same way.
Each Nation sat in Council at its own fire within the larger Councils. The Nation’s positions were debated internally first, and when agreement was reached, one speaker from the Nation would make this known to the entire Council. The Chiefs could decide to go to war, but once the decision was made, the conduct of the war was handed over to the War Chiefs: once the hatchet of war was buried the “Peace Chiefs” resumed their control again. All matters were discussed fully, often for days: there was always enough time to spend on important questions to make careful decisions, to get as much agreement as possible, and to give them the importance they deserved.
As the American border became more of a reality, Indian Nations on the south side of the lakes began to make treaties separately with the United States and with Britain: both countries tried to clearly separate “American Indians” from “British Indians”. Even so, the annual gatherings of many Indian Nations to receive the presents promised under the Niagara Treaty also served as a time of Grand Councils.
The presents were gradually discontinued: people living in the United States were cut off between 1837 and 1840, and all others by 1858. The Grand Councils continued, though. Each band had people appointed as runners to carry messages between bands. Chiefs travelled to the Councils with delegations and would stay in tents or people’s houses. The Government paid less attention to Indian Grand Council decisions as Indians became less powerful as military or economic threats or allies.
In the 1830’s, for example, Grand Council warned the Government that the Ojibway people intended to keep the “Saugeen Territory” as their place of final refuge and settlement once the rest of the land of Southern Ontario was taken up and sold. The Government ignored this and took what it thought was a surrender in 1836.
Grand Council records for the years 1840 to 1880 are difficult to locate. Traditional structures and procedures changed: wampum was less important as a means of keeping records when more people could read and write, and since Government no longer responded to the belts. Older ceremonies were replaced by Christian ones, and the meetings began with prayers. Gradually a structured Indian organization came into being, made up of the same Chiefs that had taken part in the older Councils.