Indigenous Tribes of Chicago

The Chicago area is located on ancestral lands of indigenous tribes, such as the Council of the Three Fires--comprised of the Ojibwe, Odawa, and Potawatomi Nations--as well as the Miami, Ho-Chunk, Menominee, Sac, Fox, Kickapoo, and Illinois Nations. These tribes had thriving trade networks in the Menominee Nation sealGreat Lakes area prior to European contact. Post-European contact, the tribes maintained trade arrangements with both the French and British. Some roadways in Chicago reflect the trade roads followed by these tribes.

Reciprocal trade relationships between the tribes and Europeans helped maintain the tribal hold on the Illinois area around Lake Michigan throughout the 1700s. The arrival of Europeans on the continent had led to marked losses among the tribes of the Great Lakes area through the introduction of new diseases and the push of Eastern tribes westward. War and starvation further decimated tribal populations.

The War of 1812 significantly affected the relationship between the Indigenous tribes in the Great Lakes area with the British and the United States. The Treaty of Ghent, which was written between the British and the United States following the war, felt like a betrayal to the tribes who had fought alongside the British against the United States government, and with economic shifts toward agriculture and industry, the Americans and British no longer felt the need to maintain economic and military relationships with the tribes of the Great Lakes area.

On May 28, 1830, President Andrew Jackson signed the Indian Removal Act proposing to relocate indigenous tribes west of the Mississippi River. This would mean the relocation of tens of thousands of indigenous people still living east of the river. The tribes in what is now Chicago and the Great Lakes area would feel the brunt of many land cessations and several relocation efforts over the coming years after this.

Relocation itself was a tragic undertaking for tribes. Those who survived the trip would face new hardships. The land allotted to tribes was often rejected by settlers. More often than not, the tribes would struggle for what limited supplies and resources were available. This led to poverty, starvation and severely difficult living circumstances that would continue to plague tribes for years to come.

Urban Natives

In 1893, Chicago put on the World’s Columbian Exposition. Word spread across the country that American Indians would be able to present themselves through exhibits. The endeavor was headed by one of America's first anthropologists, Harvard University professor Frederic Ward Putnam. As David R.M. Beck stated in Unfair Labor, “...the representations of American Indians at the fair fall into five categories: Indians as they wanted themselves to be known and understood, Indians as objects of science, Indians as assimilating into American society, Indians as romantic images and actors reflecting a bygone era, and Indians as savage and wild representations of America’s past” (2019, p. 5). The fair was claimed by Carl Smith to be the “most successful of all world’s fairs,” but in reality, it reinforced many stereotypical ideas about American Indians that would continue to color public perception in regards to the United States government's Indian policy.

Entering the 1900s tribes in the Lake Michigan area had seen so much upheaval through removal, relocation and termination policies. Through the late 1800s to the early 1900s, children were being taken from their tribes and sent to boarding schools with the mission to assimilate them into white society. The policy was unwittingly supported across party lines. Both liberals and conservatives alike assumed that it was in the Native Americans' best interest. In reality, the children faced emotional and physical abuse in an attempt to “Kill the Indian, save the man.”

In 1910 the population of American Indians in Chicago was 188. An American Indian boarding school graduate, Dr. Carlos Montezuma, spent his life assisting this small, but the ever-growing population of American Indians with social services needs until his death in 1922. The following year an organization called the Indian Council Fire (originally called the Grand Council Fire) would pick up where Dr. Montezuma left off. This organization run by and for American Indians would expand their services to legal, housing, education and employment matters over the coming years. Services that proved essential with the growing population of American Indians in Chicago.

By 1952, the Truman administration enacted a new “voluntary relocation” effort coordinated by Dillon Myer, the commissioner of Indian Affairs. Dillon Myer modeled the American Indian relocation process after the same one used when he supervised the relocation of Japanese Americans throughout the Japanese American internment program during World War II.

Individuals from reservations were offered training and relocation into cities--Chicago being heavily favored. What the Native Americans did not realize was that “...the training that they had been given was sometimes on outdated machinery” (Beck, 2000, p. 244) and in fields that they would not learn skills they could take back to their reservations. The housing provided was rejected by most and considered slums in Chicago. Philleo Nash, who was commissioner of Indian Affairs from 1961-1966, stated that “Myer’s relocation program was essentially a one-way bus ticket from rural to urban poverty” (Hosmer, 2010, p. 31)

Still, through all of these attempts at taking care of, what was often referred to as, ‘the Indian problem’ Chicago has maintained a thriving, diversely populated Indigenous population.“Chicago today has the third-largest urban Indian population in the United States, with more than 65,000 Native Americans in the greater metropolitan area and some 175 different tribes represented” (Hautzinger, 2018).

The needs of such a diverse population have evolved over time. Beyond the social services needs provided by the Indian Council Fire earlier in the century, fostering a sense of cultural identity was essential for many American Indians thrust into urban life. The American Indian Center (AIC) of Chicago opened in 1953 in response to the increasing needs. The AIC website states that “Through a combination of short-term relief services and long-term education and support programs, we seek to foster physical and spiritual health in the community, an active connection with traditional values and practices, stronger families with multigenerational bonds, and a rising generation of educated, articulate, and visionary youth” (2019). The AIC is a central location for American Indian cultural heritage and provides essential resources for American Indians living and thriving the Chicago area.

Further Information

To explore topics both present-day and historical of the Indigenous people of Chicago, please visit the following centers or check out the following websites:

Books and articles mentioned in this article:

  • Beck, David. Unfair Labor? : American Indians and the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago, 2019.
  • Beck, David R. M. “Native American Education in Chicago: Teach Them Truth.” Education and Urban Society, vol. 32, no. 2, 2000, pp. 237–255.
  • Hosmer, Brian C. Native Americans and the Legacy of Harry S. Truman, 2010.
  • Hautzinger, Daniel. “‘We're Still Here’: Chicago's Native American Community.” WTTW Chicago, 8 Nov. 2018,


Tara Kenjockety

Tara Kenjockety is part Seneca Nation and an enrolled member of the Ho-Chunk Nation of Wisconsin. She received her Bachelor of Arts in Anthropology in 2002 and her Master of Science in Library and Information Science in 2008 from Indiana University. After working in the public library system, Tara decided to focus on integrating information literacy into the curriculum for adult education students in South Bend, IN. While there she served on the Indiana adult education board and provided several professional development trainings throughout the state for adult education instructors. For the past three years, Tara has been working at the Hesburgh Library at the University of Notre Dame. At Notre Dame Tara serves on the campus Staff Advisory Council, the Hesburgh Library Diversity and Inclusion committee, and is currently forming an employee resource group on campus for Indigenous People. Tara also works with the Native American Initiatives (NAI) at Notre Dame and the Native American Students and their allies group.


The above information may be used by libraries, librarians, and other educators for nonprofit training and educational purposes. All such uses should include the notice "Content used by permission of the American Library Association, Office for Diversity, Literacy and Outreach Services". If you have any questions or feedback, please feel free to email our office at