Customs & Traditions

The Illinois Indians were an alliance of native Indian groups or sub-tribes who shared the same language, customs, culture, and who inter-married. Some of the larger and better known sub-tribes included the Peoria, Kaskaskia, Cahokia, Tamaroa, Moingwena, and Michigamea. Some of the lesser known were the Coiracoentanon, Chinko, Chepoussa, Espeminkia, and Tapouaro. Early French missionaries reported that the Illinois called themselves, "Inoca".

The Illinois Indians had a cyclical existence that revolved around hunting and gathering and agriculture. In the spring, each Illinois sub-tribe moved to its particular large summer agricultural village where corn, beans, squash, and pumpkins were planted. After the spring crop was established, the next noteworthy event was the summer buffalo hunt that usually lasted about four or five weeks and, like most other aspects of Illinois life, involved the participation of everyone in the village. As autumn approached, the dry corn was stripped from the stalks and stored in pits. It was later consumed as food and it was used as seed for the following year's crop. Then, usually by mid- to late September, the village dispersed into small clan groups for the winter hunt. When the hunt was over each sub-tribe returned to their summer agricultural village and the cycle began anew.

The family unit was the foundation of the Illinois village and every member regardless of age, sex, or talent did his or her part to ensure the survival of the group. Men were hunters and warriors while women did most of the family domestic work. Grandparents were teachers whose lifelong learning experiences were passed on to the next generation. Children played a role in family survival by collecting firewood and by doing other menial tasks. Adolescence was a time in which Illinois boys and girls learned skills that would make them capable adults.

Each Illinois Indian belonged to a kinship or blood division called a clan. Each clan was represented by a specific totem or symbol, like the otter, deer, or other animal. Certain clans had particular roles within Illinois villages. Some clans provided village chiefs while others provided representatives or shamans. Clans were considered family or bloodline divisions. Members of one clan could only marry members of their clans. The clan system prevented intermarriage, and it provided a particular identity to each group. It also helped to form and keep alliances and friendships among certain clans.

The Illinois had a system of government based on consensus and council. The village civil chief was a position of leadership that practiced facilitation and cooperation between individuals and groups in the village that resulted in voluntary compliance. Some civil chiefs had influence and jurisdiction over several villages and among several sub-tribes. Other sub-chiefs had influence only in one village. Even though the civil chief's position was hereditary, he still had to demonstrate his leadership skills in hunting as he oversaw and conducted the village buffalo hunts each summer. Illinois civil chiefs and their counterparts, the village council and elders, made decisions as a group for the benefit of the group.

The civil chief was distinguished from the war chief who was a proven leader who had demonstrated his warrior prowess many times. The war chief's responsibilities were great. He was personally accountable for the safety of every warrior under his charge and was sometimes required to make restitution to a slain warrior's family. At the same time the decision whether or not to join the war party was up to the individual. An Illinois man usually joined a war party to address perceived wrongs or to retaliate against an enemy. Except during times of attack, the potential volunteer was persuaded to join a war party by the persuasion of the war-chief, not by coercion.

The Illini had a sharp division of labor. The main activities of the men were hunting and warfare, while the women worked in the fields. In fact, the women did much of the work around the camp and village. The Illini found it easy to grow their maize, pumpkins, and squash with which to vary their diet. They dried maize and stored it against the predictable shortages of winter. Fish were also plentiful in the Illinois River and its tributaries when necessity demanded their harvest. As mentioned previously, they enjoyed an annual buffalo hunt during the course of which they fired the prairie to concentrate the bison. The Illini practiced polygamy. Wives suspected of unfaithfulness were severely punished, sometimes suffering the loss of an ear or nose. The French were astonished to find among the Illini some few men who dressed and acted out the social role of women. These the Illini called Ikoneta, but the French called them berdache. Small boys who showed marked tendencies toward femininity were raised as girls. This included use of tatooing and language patterns that were traditionally female. Many confirmed their status as Ikoneta in their dream fasts.

The Illini men also practiced the ritual of dream-seeking. At the age of fifteen or so, the young men painted their faces and removed themselves to a secluded location to fast and pray. They hoped for a vision that would reveal a spirit guardian to them who would be their helper throughout life.

The Illini did not use the birchbark (or elm) canoe, according to some sources. Instead, the Illini used pirogues, which were boats made by hollowing out logs with adzes and fire. Some were up to fifty feet long. These were not nearly as sleek or portable as the birch bark canoes of, say, the Ottawa but they served the Illinois well enough, who used them to cross the Mississippi River as well as to navigate the Illinois River, its tributaries, and the shoreline of Lake Michigan.

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