By Lloyd Divine
Wyandotte Nation Culture Committee
When my interest in our history was first kindled I inherited the belief that we are the lineal descendants of the Huron. After a little research I had to quickly alter this misguided view. The first thing I came to understand, and it was quite obvious, is that the Huron were not a single tribe but rather a confederacy of five tribes (Trigger). I then began the quest to determine, if we are not Huron, then who are we? I dug deep, the deeper I dug the more confusing it became. I found names such as Attignawantan, Tobacco, Pétun, Tionontati, Wendat, Ouendat, Wyandot, and of course our beloved Wyandotte along with scores of other names. What do these names mean, who are they, and how do they relate? Let’s go back to the very beginning and weave some of them together. In doing so, I intend to show why we are not Huron and then briefly define the reasons as to why Wyandotte can be spelled two different ways.
More than a dozen Iroquoian speaking tribes of the St. Lawrence River Basin and the Great Lakes Region collectively called themselves Wendat. Much like saying I am an American or I am a Canadian. Five of these tribes comprised a confederacy known as the Huron Confederacy. The name Huron was given to these five tribes by early French explorers. It was a direct reference to a hairstyle worn by many of the men. This hairstyle, called a roach, reminded them of the bristly hair, on the back of wild boars that roamed the forests of Europe. It was a derogatory name derived from their word ‘hure’ meaning rough or ruffian. The French needed to give a special designation to these five tribes because of the political, military and economic power they held over the other Wendat tribes. Only these five tribes, who were members of the Huron Confederacy, can rightly be labeled as Huron. Throughout history as the name Huron is universally applied to all the tribes of the region, known as Huronia or Wendake, it all but obliterates the unique identities held by each of the tribes. A sixth tribe has been hidden in ambiguity, which makes the Tionontati the most controversial, but nevertheless for our purposes the most important tribe of them all.
One of the founders and oldest tribe of the Huron Confederacy was the Attignawantan, who along with the Attingueenongnahac initially formed the confederacy around 1400. They quickly expanded and admitted three other tribes; the Arendaronon, Tahontaenrat and the Ataronchronon were lastly admitted around 1644 into a trading empire that spanned a large portion of the eastern half of the North American continent (Trigger). The French formed a special relationship with the Huron Confederacy, because they yielded great power and influence throughout the entire Great Lakes region. The French desired to take advantage of this power thus their alliance with the Huron.
It was during the French and Iroquois Wars, also known as the Beaver Wars, that the five tribes of the Huron were all but annihilated. These series of wars were fought between the Huron Confederacy who were allied to the French, and the Iroquois Confederacy who were allied to the Dutch. After the Huron had been decimated, the Attignawantan chose to seek refuge with their close friends the Tionontati, rather than flee northward to Quebec with the remnants of the other four tribes of the Huron Confederacy who sough protection among the French.
The Tionontati are encased in mystery. They are believed to be a relative newcomer into the area known as the Niagara Escarpment, which lies south of Georgian Bay and east of Bruce Peninsula in the present day Canadian Province of Ontario (Trigger). This area lies directly south of the region inhabited by the Attignawantan. Samuel de Champlain reported that upon his arrival to the area in 1615-16, peace had recently been established between the Tionontati and the Attignawantan. It’s assumed that they had been at war due to a Tionontati migration or northward resettlement into the area. Once peace had been established a strong relationship was built upon their similarities. The Attignawantan were the strongest tribe of the Huron, obviously the Tionontati also fielded much power, enough to force the mighty Attignawantan into a truce. With the Tionontati on their southern frontier this gave the Attignawantan a sense of protection and security from an emerging enemy, the Iroquois.
With peace established the Attignawantan continued to focus their efforts into their trading empire, and shielding the Tionontati from contact with the French. The Tionontati on the other hand focused their attention west and into the region south and southwest of their homeland. This land, Michigan and Ohio, would be very familiar to them in a few short years when they would settle there after a forced migration.
It is through the brief and limited contact with Champlain and the Jesuits that we find any historical knowledge of the Tionontati. They are referenced as having many similarities to the Attignawantan (Thwaites). However, they were not admitted into the Huron Confederacy for two possible reasons. The first reason is economics. The Attignawantan were very protective of their trading empire and relationship with the French. They were not going to share anything with the Tionontati, as they wanted them as a customer and not a partner. The second reason is military might. The Tionontati were a smaller tribe than the Attignawantan, but they were evidently quite fierce on the battlefield. They too had their own friends and alliances; the greatest of them were the Ottawa. If they had been admitted into the Huron Confederacy they would have been a direct threat to the Attignawantan’s supremacy of the Huron; hence, they were never admitted (Trigger).
When combining their similarities with their close proximity and friendly relations, it was a natural for the Attignawantan to unite with the Tionontati during the relentless attacks of the Iroquois Confederacy. In doing so it brought the full might of the Iroquois upon them during the winter of 1649-1650. Rather than concede to extermination or adoption the Tionontati, who constituted the larger number, and Attignawantan fled west seeking protection from their vengeful cousins. During their fifty years of wandering from 1650-1700, our homeless, defiantly proud and uncompromising ancestors united; hence our bloodline flows from the Tionontati and the once mighty Attignawantan. Did they unite as a confederacy? No, they merged as one, forming a distinct new people and collectively called themselves Wendat.
Our ancient tribal name is Wendat but pronounced as though it is spelled Wandat (Barbeau). Though spelled differently, both our traditional name Wendat and our current name Wyandotte are pronounced the same. The Tionontati and Attignawantan people assumed the name Wendat, as their own while lying aside their personal tribal names; after all this was the universal, common name shared by both tribes. Much like saying I am an American, even though you may be from, Oklahoma, Kansas, Michigan, Texas or California, we’re all universally Americans. The Wendat were known as the “Grandfathers,” this was most likely a direct reference to the Attignawantan, as they were the oldest tribe of the Huron Confederacy and most likely the region in whole. Since the remnants of the Attignawantan were now part of this new tribe, called the Wendat, no one disputed their claim to use of the name. We are a most ancient tribe, yet at the same time we are a very young tribe. This has proven to be a very difficult concept to grasp for many people.
It cannot be denied that we, the Wyandotte Nation, do indeed hold a direct path back to the Huron Confederacy, but this does not make us Huron. This connection would have made it almost impossible for early ethnologists to make any distinctions, between the Wendat and the Huron, unless they first studied the language (Barbeau). The Jesuit missionaries, who lived with the tribes of Huronia, initially had a difficult time identifying differences in the several tribes that lived so close together (Thwaites). If they had difficulties, it’s no wonder that outsiders and historians, both historical and contemporary, have made a mess of things with their improper observations and subsequent publication of misidentities. This ‘new’ tribe that used the ‘old’ familiar name Wendat is now today the Wyandotte Nation.
I like to classify our history into three distinct periods. Depending upon what time period being discussed, determines how our name is spelled. The first period is from our dispersal in 1650 to the conclusion of the French and Indian War in 1763. This was a time in which the fused culture and traditions of the Tionontati and Attignawantan people remained relatively pure, thus forming the basis of our unique Wendat language and culture. Throughout this period we were commonly referred to as the Huron-Tionontati, and simply the Huron. It was throughout this 113-year period that properly identifying us as a people, separate from the remnants of the Huron Confederacy located in Quebec, became a lasting issue that haunts us today. This period culminated at the end of the French and Indian War, after which contact with the British corrupted the name Wendat to the Anglicized and familiar Wyandot.
From 1764 thru 1866 we can easily be identified as the Wyandot. This was a period in which we inserted ourselves as a dominant presence in the Ohio Valley, and was reaffirmed as the ‘Keepers of the Council Fire’ by the other tribes of the region (Smith). This status followed us to Indian Territory, present day Kansas, where in 1843 we were the last tribe to be removed from Ohio. Upon removal it took no less than 12 years for us to be terminated as a tribe. This was justified in the Treaty of 1855 by stating that we had “become sufficiently advanced in civilization, and being desirous of becoming citizens” (Kappler). In actuality this was an excellent way of obtaining our reservation, which was on highly sought and fought over land. It was located at the crossroads of Western expansion for the United States, between the Missouri and Kansas Rivers. Once again we found ourselves on the cutting edge of contention between white settlers and our desire to remain Indian. Upon termination our land was quickly allotted and ultimately sold to white interests.
Many Wyandot accepted United States citizenship; however, in 1857 under the leadership of Matthew Mudeater, approximately 200 relocated to Indian Territory in present day Oklahoma with intentions of remaining ‘Indian.’ During the Civil War they had to briefly return to Kansas due to difficulties inflicted upon them by rebel Indian forces predominately lead by the Cherokee. As soon as the war was over, they returned to Indian Territory and sought reinstatement as a tribe, which was granted in 1867. After signing the 1867 treaty, there was a forced geopolitical split that occurred within the tribe requiring the simultaneous use of two different names. Wyandot was to refer to those who remained in Kansas and accepted citizenship while Wyandotte, as required by the 1867 treaty, would identify those reinstated as a tribe in Indian Territory – Oklahoma.
From 1867 onward the name Wyandotte, reflecting a French influence upon the spelling, is the name by which we are know in Oklahoma. It was first used in the 1867 treaty, reestablishing us as a federally recognized tribe on land purchased from the Seneca. Even though we were treaty bound and recognized as the Wyandotte Tribe, official letterheads used by the tribe as late as 1976 show that we still occasionally used the name Wyandot along with a willow tree as our national emblem. Today both this name and emblem officially identify the Absentee Wyandot, preferably known today as the Wyandot Nation of Kansas. After our removal from Ohio and Michigan in 1843, a few Wyandot refused to leave the Detroit area and still reside there today. They are known as the Wyandot of Anderdon Nation. In Oklahoma we are the Wyandotte Nation and are the only Federally recognized tribe of the three.
Because of the geopolitical split imposed upon us by the Treaty of 1867 and the Olive Roll census of 1904 which was, “…an act to authorize the Absentee Wyandotte Indians to select certain lands…,” we have distinct boundaries between our respective tribes. In essence we are one people, one tribe – separated by fate and politics. Today, unlike other times in our recent history, good relations exist among all our people and we will continue to work ensuring that it remains this way. Regardless of the location, Oklahoma, Kansas or Michigan, we all proudly honor or Tionontati and Attignawantan heritage. Even though much of our ancient culture is lost in antiquity, we do know from where we came. Unless we forget, by ceasing to pass this knowledge on to our children, we will continue to grow and take great pride in being Wyandotte.
Barbeau, Marius. “How the Huron-Wyandot Language Was Saved from Oblivion.” Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society 10 June 1949: 226-32. Print.
Kappler, Charles J. ed. Indian Affairs: Laws and Treaties, Vol. 2. Washington: GPO. 1904. Print.
Smith, Robert E. The Wyandot Indians, 1843-1876. Diss. Oklahoma State U. 1973. Print.
Thwaites, Ruben Gold, ed. The Jesuit Relations and Allied Documents. Cleveland: The Burrows Brothers Company, 1898. Print.
Trigger, Bruce G. The Children of Aataentsic: A History of the Huron People to 1660. Montreal, Canada: McGill-Queen University Press, 2000. Print.