The Voices of Detroit: The People of the Council of the Three Fires

The Council of the Three Fires
The Council of the Three Fires

The El Moore, a sustainable urban living reconstruction project in Detroit at the corner of 2nd Avenue and West Alexandrine, is a beautiful example of late 19th and early 20th century history in Detroit. But Detroit’s history, of course, goes much, much further back—starting with the original people to inhabit this area: the First Nations of the future Michigan Territory: the Ojibwa (also known as the Chippewa), the Odawa (also called the Ottawa), and the Potawatomi. These native and original inhabitants, especially the Potawatomi, represent the first “voices of Detroit”.


Centuries ago, these three indigenous tribes, speaking a common language (Algonquin) formed a loose, family-like confederacy known as the Three Fires. These three nations were originally one group known as the Anishinaabe who settled near Michilmackinac in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula after traveling from the Atlantic Coast around 796 AD. In the Council of the Three Fires, the Ojibwa were addressed as the “Older Brother,” the Odawa as the “Middle Brother,” and the Potawatomi as the “Younger Brother”; that is why even today, the three nations as listed in that particular order. The Ojibwa were also known as the “keepers of the faith,” the Odawa as the “keepers of trade,”, and the Potawatomi as the “keepers of the fire.”

From their headquarters near Michimackinoc, the members of the Council of the Three Fires met and traded with other First Nations, and were here to greet the first Europeans to Michigan, the French explorers in 1612. One of the later French explorers, Antoine de la Mothe Cadillac, founded Detroit as a fort in 1701. (There is a street named “Lamothe” in Detroit just north of West Grand Boulevard near Henry Ford Hospital.) The people of the Three Fires traded with the European explorers, taught them their culture and form of government, and fought with them on both sides of the Revolutionary War, French and Indian War, and the War of 1812.

Upon its completion, the El Moore will welcome visitors and new residents from all over Michigan, the United States, and the world, and we are proud of the very early history of the Native peoples in Detroit and Michigan, including the “original names” of many of our towns, cities, and streets. People coming to Detroit from other places in Michigan (“great lake”) may be coming from Cheboygan (“Chippewa water”), Kalamazoo (“reflecting river”), Ishpeming (“heaven”), Munising (“island in a lake”), Petosky (“rising sun”), or Escanaba (“flat rock”).