Pokagon practiced ‘passive resistance’Published 10:02am Thursday, December 3, 2009
By JOHN EBY
Dowagiac Daily News
If Leopold Pokagon was non-violent Martin Luther King with his resistance, Tecumseh was more like militant Malcolm X.
What some residents might not appreciate about how the Dowagiac-area Pokagon Band of Potawatomi Indians remained in Michigan while so many other Native Americans were forcibly removed in the 1820s and ’30s is that this was where national Indian policies were written.
The friction between perceptions and realities discussed Wednesday night at The Museum at Southwestern Michigan College by Dr. Ben Secunda of Niles, an historian and archaeologist who teaches at the University of Michigan.
“You might have heard about larger tribes like the Cherokees and the Trail of Tears and famous Supreme Court cases they brought,” Secunda said.
“Those were formative, too, but they have been romanticized and popularized. Pokagon waged war, if you will, against false perceptions of his people and what they were living like and what they were capable of doing and who they were capable of interacting with.”
“What you see here,” Secunda continued, “is the strategy Leopold Pokagon employed. I generally refer to it as adaptive resistance. There are too many Americans to kill and they’re not going anywhere. In fact, Pokagon’s forebears understood that Americans are not necessarily bad people. Maybe some of them were bad, but they admit that some of their own people do wrong things, too, and we have to find a way to live together. We have to adapt and figure out how we’re going to preserve our rights as the original inhabitants of this land while, at the same time, get along with our new neighbors and their government. That becomes the real problem.”
Adaptive resisters compare to militant resisters, such as Tecumseh, who “wanted to drive all of the Americans out. Leopold and his forebears were at odds with Tecumseh pretty early on. They probably agreed with him on a lot of the assessments of the Americans – a lot of them are disrespectful and they take your land without asking. They lie, they cheat, they steal, but not all of them. Their government has a problem keeping promises. The question was tactics. That’s where they differed. Do you fight them all and kill them all or is that a suicide mission? The flip side, what Pokagon said, was that we can’t fight them all or kill them all, so we must resist on a more intelligent basis. That requires adaptation. You must first survive before you can fight, before you can resist. An apt comparison I often use with students of mine is the difference between Martin Luther King and Malcolm X.”
“Pokagon advocated working within the system and figuring out a way to work with Americans and to gain their respect for their rights as indigenous people. It was a tense impasse. Tecumseh and some of his prophets even threatened to kill Leopold Pokagon and his forebears,” he said.
Once Tecumseh dies in battle, Pokagon’s strategy gains more prominence.
“The key to adaptive resistance is the difference between acculturation and assimilation,” Secunda said. “Assimilation is forced on you as something you have to do this way or you’re a problem the government is going to remove. Acculturation is self-directed. We pick and choose what we’re going to take from the dominant culture and reinterpret it so it makes sense in our society.
“All kinds of immigrants do this when they come to America – Irish Americans, English Americans, French Americans, Italian Americans, Polish Americans, Mexican Americans. Immigration historians say everyone finds a way to blend the old ways and the new ways. They’re not mutually exclusive. You can find some sort of common ground. This is the Native way of doing that – and Leopold was a master.”
Pokagon decided to direct such a blend in three areas.
First, what they did to survive, agriculture and ranching. Second, life ways – how they dressed and acted and sending their children to school to learn English. Third, religion and spirituality.
Many were Catholics due to their exposure to their exposure to the French.
“They trusted their black robes,” he said. “It gave them continuity and control. The origins of this policy was the Treaty of Greenville in 1795. What was called ‘civilization policy’ meant self-sufficient farming. What historians call yeomanry – the family farm. You can provide for yourself.”
Bringing civilization policy into fruition were such “heavy hitters” as “G.W.,” by which Secunda means father of his country George Washington, not President Bush; Secretary of State John Jay; and Secretary of War Henry Knox, who oversaw Indian affairs.
“Knox said, ‘Look, this is the flip side of ‘we can’t kill all the Americans.’ He says, ‘We can’t kill all the Indians and get away with it.’ We’re supposed to be the new government on the block. Europeans are now looking at us to do things differently and not get bogged down in all the wars that they do. We’re different! The Puritans’ city on the hill, an example to the rest of the world of what a nation is supposed to be. Our values are important to us. Knox believed that in a very sincere way,” Secunda said. “Every Native killed is a stain on the national honor. If we lie, cheat and steal our way into the West, it does us a disservice. The rest of the world will stand in judgment that we are no better, no different, and just as cruel and despicable as the rest of us. Henry Knox did not want to get off his high horse.”
“They turned to some old models, the French, who had been here for generations,” he said. “They had better relations with Native peoples than the British, who came here with families and took a lot of land. They didn’t really want to trade and interact with Native peoples all that much … Indians around here didn’t like the English all that much.
“Americans had a choice to make, much like Leopold and Tecumseh. Do we go the English model and try to subjugate all the Native peoples? Or do we go with more of a French model and try to interact with them, respect their rights and make treaties? Trade with them. They made them family, by trade if not blood. Trade creates friendships and partnerships. That’s what Washington, Jay and Knox saw. They liked the French model of kinship.”
Little Turtle evolved from a militant resister to an adaptive resister.
Secunda said pro-removal Baptist missionaries, led by Isaac McCoy, were assisted by two men who became the leading proponents of the Indian Removal Act of 1830.
“They were the experts the federal government used. The Michigan territorial governor (Cass County namesake) Lewis Cass became the Secretary of War, who oversaw Indian policy. He relied on McCoy and his assistants, who were living right here. Their mission was in Niles. The daily lives of Pokagon and his people were what they were assessing to see if the Indians were capable of living with white settlers, being accommodating and good Americans. Could they be peaceful and interact or are they just going to make war against the white folk?
“One of McCoy’s assistants concluded to settlers, ‘Every hope, every prospect for Indians around us is prostate. I entreat you, the citizens of the United States, to plead for their removal.’ It was in their best interest to move them out of the way. Problem was, the settlers who heard this were nervous about what they were going to see. An early settler in Niles said, ‘I find this completely untrue. There are no cases of rampant drunkenness and debauchery. The Indians came in families and were friendly, hunted and fished with the whites on the best of terms, always strictly honorable with the laws of the woods.’ ”
Another settler commented, “Although extremely backwoodish in habit and mode of living, we could not wish for kinder and more accommodating neighbors. The smoke from a wigwam ascending upward, united with the smoke descending from a white man’s cabin into one volume, so white man and Indian became one in friendship.”
Indians were often of great help “raising” houses or barns. “They treated us so much like kin that we called them our country cousins,” went another account.
“Whom do you believe?” Secunda asked. “The missionaries or the settlers? The missionaries had the ear of the president. But the settlers interacting with the Potawatomi said everything they’d heard about them is completely untrue. As historians, looking at documents, during this time everything was so politicized you don’t know who or what to believe.”
Since Native people didn’t leave much in the way of written records, archaeology offers a glimpse of daily living by recovering artifacts.
Contrary to running around in “war bonnets,” someone dining at Pokagon’s village where Sacred Heart Catholic Church is today on Leach Road in Silver Creek Township, their hosts would have been wearing coats and ordinary clothes they sewed themselves, as they had since the 1600s.
The village itself, in addition to domed wigwams, featured “pointed lodges” (tepees) and “square lodge” cabins built by the federal government. “They began adding on to them themselves and improving them themselves,” Secunda said.
Places at the table were set with fancy dishes and silverware or pewter utensils – not wooden.
The “gaudy Dutch” pattern appeared aptly named.
The Pokagons might serve venison, but they also might serve beef, pork or chicken purchased with their annuities.
“They were becoming ranchers,” Secunda said.
Chipped dishes were recovered in Philadelphia during the Liberty Bell’s new installation. Transfer printing afforded many colors in addition to blue.
Director Steve Arseneau said the 2010 spring lecture series is still being firmed up, but he expects April’s program to be on homes designed by Frank Lloyd Wright and another topic to be the Fort St. Joseph dig in Niles.
Also, in an addition to the Beckwith Theater replica in the gallery, 1893 stained glass windows from the original building in downtown Dowagiac have been incorporated.