The traditional homeland of the Miami Nation was south of Lake Michigan in what is now Indiana and western Ohio. Here the people lived along the timbered river valleys and hunted buffalo on the open prairies. In 1650, there were six Miami-speaking groups, two of which, the Weas and Piankashas, eventually became separate tribes.
The name “Miami” is of uncertain origin and meaning, although some sources claim that it means “People of the Peninsula” referring to their original homeland near Green Bay. According to one Miami tradition, their original name was Twaatwāā which was an imitation of the alarm call of cranes. In some English accounts this became Tewecktowes, Tweeghtwees, Twightwees, Twightwighs, and Quitways.
As pedestrian hunters, they would trap the buffalo in a ring of fire and then harvest the animals using bows and arrows. In his Encyclopedia of Native American Tribes, Carl Waldman reports:
“Most of the village, except the old and weak and a handful of warriors as guards, would go on the buffalo hunts. The women and children would prepare the meat and hides for travel back to the river valley.”
In addition to hunting, the Miami also raised a special variety of white corn which was an important trade item.
The Miami language belongs to the Central Algonquian group of the large Algonquian language family. It is most closely related to Illinois, Shawnee, Sauk, Fox, Kickapoo, Menominee, Potawatomi, Ojibwa, Cree, Montegnais, and Naskapi.
Like many other Indian nations of this region, the Miami alternated between summer villages and winter hunting camps. In the villages there were oval lodges covered by rush mats. Village houses were typically scattered along a riverbank. The village would also have a large council house which was used only for public events.
Clothing and adornment
With regard to the clothing of Miami men, Josephine Paterek, in her book Encyclopedia of American Indian Costume, reports:
“In winter, despite the cold winds of Lake Michigan, men wore only a deerskin shirt of simple cut, moccasins, and a breechclout painted red, a popular color with the Miami. During the summer, only breechclout and moccasins were worn.”
Women wore a red deerskin wrap-around skirt and knee-length leggings.
Both men and women were tattooed. Women would have parallel lines on their cheeks and chins while the men would have more elaborate designs.
Miami government involved the duality between peace chiefs and war chiefs. The peace chiefs or village chiefs were concerned with village administration and with negotiations. Peace chiefs were not allowed to join war parties. A peace chief had to be generous and to provide for those in need. Others in the band would provide the peace chief with game and furs. The office of peace chief was usually patrilineally inherited, but it had to be validated by the tribal council.
The Miami also had female war and peace chiefs. The oldest daughters of the male war chief and the male village chief became the female war and village chiefs. The female village chiefs could halt war parties and outbreaks of revenge killings. The female chiefs supervised major feasts and prepared supplies for war parties.
Tribal warfare among the Miami started with a speaker carrying a belt of wampum, painted red, to each war chief. The council of war chiefs would then decide whether or not to go to war. If the decision was to go to war, then the war chiefs would call a meeting of the warriors, explain their decision, and outline their plan.
At times, a woman might accompany a Miami war party, carrying the sacred bundle which went with the party. The woman would first have a dream about the war and if this dream was sanctioned as valid by the war chiefs, she would then go with the war party in a role which was primarily spiritual.
The mother of a Miami child would summon an old woman to give the child a name. The name would usually come from a dream which revealed the adult traits of the child. In his chapter on the Miami in the Handbook of North American Indians, Charles Callender reports:
“This name usually designated an animal or natural phenomenon and apparently had to be one proper to the child’s clan.”
Later in life, an adult could change their own name to avoid illness or misfortune by asking a friend to give them a new name in exchange for a gift.
Originally, the Miami were organized into several patrilineal clans: each person was born into the father’s clan. Some sources indicate that there were five clans while other sources name ten clans. By the mid-nineteenth century, the clan system was of little importance.
Among the Algonquian-speaking Indian nations of the western Great Lakes, visions were of great importance as they provided individuals with the guardian spirit or tutelary spirit who would guide them for the rest of their lives.
Both Miami boys and girls participated in a vision quest at the time of puberty. Children would begin training for the vision quest while quite young and would fast for periods of increasing length. Boys would blacken their faces with charcoal, while the girls would put earth on their faces. A successful vision quest would attract the pity—and visitation of-- a spiritual being, usually in the form of an animal. Charles Callender reports:
“A few males, called White Faces, were directed by a female spirit to assume the dress and occupations of women.”
One of the important roles of the guardian or tutelary spirit was to provide cooperation in hunting. Hunting dreams came to both men and women. This spirit can also provide the individual with the ability to make prophesies and/or the power to cure.
Concerning death among the Miami, Charles Callender reports:
“Although extended burial [meaning the body was stretched out straight] was usual, a person could request scaffold burial or internment in a seated position.”
The body would be carried to the grave by four non-relatives. At the gravesite, the body would be addressed by an elderly relative who would ask that the dead not take any living person with it. For four days following burial, an elderly relative of the same gender would watch over the grave to make sure that nothing was stolen.
On Tuesdays and Thursdays this series presents American Indian topics. More tribal profiles from this series:
Indians 101: A Very Brief Overview of California's Achumawi Indians
Indians 201: A very short overview of the Chickasaw Indians
Indians 101: A very short overview of California's Chumash Indians
Indians 201: A short overview of the Duwamish Indians
Indians 101: A very short overview of the Havasupai Indians
Indians 101: A Short Overview of the Huron Indians
Indians 101: A Brief Overview of the Kansa or Kaw Indians
Indians 201: A very short overview of the Tututni Indians