0796 – Westward Migration of Anishinabe | Formation of The Council of Three Fires


“The Council of Three Fires” forms circa 796 AD

Figure 1. The Migration of the Anishinabe Showing Present-Day State and National Boundaries. Reprinted from “The Migration of the Anishinabe,” by E. Benai, 2010, The Mishomis Book: The Voice of the Ojibway, p. 102.

The “Council of Three Fires” (in Anishinaabe: Niswi-mishkodewinan), is known as many entities:  the “People of the Three Fires;” the “Three Fires Confederacy;” or the “United Nations of Chippewa, Ottawa, and Potawatomi Indians.” The Council is an enduring Anishinaabe alliance of the Chippewa (a.k.a., Ojibwa or Ojibwe), Ottawa (a.k.a., Odawa or Odaawaa), and Potawatomi (a.k.a., Pottawatomie) North American Native tribes.

Originally one people or a collection of closely related bands, the ethnic identities of Chippewa, Ottawa, and Potawatomi developed after the Anishinaabe reached Michilimackinac on their journey westward from the Atlantic coast (Warren, 1984).

Using the Midewiwin wiigwaasabakoon (a.k.a., birch bark scrolls – see Figure 2), on which the Chippewa carved intricate geometrical patterns and shapes, the Potawatomi elder, Shup-Shewana, dated the formation of the Council of Three Fires to 796 AD at Michilimackinac (Loew, 2001).

Figure 2. Birchbark scroll image from “The Midewiwin, or ‘Grand Medicine Society,’ of the Ojibwa.” Taken from: Hoffman, W. (1891). Retrieved from: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Scroll-Hoffman-1885.PNG 

The Council addressed the Chippewa as the “Older Brother,” the Ottawa as the “Middle Brother,” and the Potawatomi as the “Younger Brother” (Rubenstein & Ziewacz, 2014, p. 3). Whenever there is mention of the three Anishinaabe nations of the Chippewa, Ottawa, and Potawatomi in this sequential order, there is an implication referring to the Council of Three Fires.

Within the Council, each Anishnaabe nation bore a responsibility. The Chippewa were the “Keepers of the Faith,” the Ottawa were the “Keepers of Trade,” and the Potawatomi were the designated “Keepers/Maintainers of/for the Fire” (boodawaadam), which became the basis for their name Boodewaadamii (Chippewa spelling) or Bodéwadmi (Potawatomi spelling).

Though the Council of Three Fires had several meeting places, Michilimackinac became the preferred meeting place due to its central location. From this place, the Council met for military and political purposes (Confederacy of the Three Fires: A History of the Anishinabek Nation, 2007).


Benton-Banai, E. (1979). The Migration of the Anishinabe. The Mishomis Book: The Voice of the Ojibway (pp. 94–102). Indian Country Press.

Confederacy of the Three Fires: A History of the Anishinabek Nation. (2007). The Union of Ontario Indians. https://web.archive.org/web/20070722063239/http://www.anishinabek.ca/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=90&Itemid=38

Hoffman, W. (1891). Birchbark scroll image from “The Midewiwin, or ‘Grand Medicine Society’, of the Ojibwa” [Photograph]. Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:Scroll-Hoffman-1885.PNG&oldid=502272778

Loew, P. (2001). Indian Nations of Wisconsin: Histories of Endurance and Renewal. Madison, Wisconsin Historical Society Press.

The Three Fires. (n.d.). The Mitten: A Publication of Michigan History Magazine, (September 2001). Retrieved from https://duvall.dearbornschools.org/wp-content/uploads/sites/12/2015/09/mitten_three-fires.pdf

Warren, W. (1984). History of the Ojibway People. St. Paul, Minnesota Historical Society Press.