Pokagon historian shares tribal stories in museum program

Published 12:00 pm Friday, March 3, 2017

From the Chieftains logo affixed to the uniforms of local athletes, to the Round Oak Stove Company’s famous “Chief Doe-Wah-Jack” mascot, to even the name of the city itself, Dowagiac’s history is inextricably linked to the people who first called the area home centuries ago.

The Pokagon Band of Potawatomi today remains an integral part of the community’s fabric. Whether it be supporting tribal citizens and local institutions through revenue from its Four Winds Casino chain or protecting residents through the tribal police department, support from the tribe and its members continue to bolster Dowagiac.

However, the tribe’s climb to the heights it experiences today was not easy one to make.

Marcus Winchester, the Pokagon Band’s director of language and culture, shared the history of the tribe — from their arrival in Michigan a millennia ago to their struggle for federal recognition during the later part of the 20th century — with visitors to the Dowagiac Area History Museum Wednesday evening. In spite of the snow flurries outside, a packed house was in attendance that night to listen to Winchester’s talk, which served as the kick off to the museum’s 2017 spring lecture series.

The Potawatomi people — to whom members of the Pokagon Band belong — were among the first settlers of the Great Lakes region, alongside the Ojibwe (Chippewa) and Odawa (Ottawa) nations, who migrated to the area from East Coast. The three peoples formed an alliance called the Council of Three Fires, with the Potawatomi serving as the “keepers of the fire.”

While many anthropologists have said that the council was a loose union between the Native nations, Winchester contests this assertion.

“We were a very strong confederacy,” Winchester said. “To this day, we have meetings under that identification. We still call ourselves ‘The Three Brothers,’ ‘The Three Fires Confederacy.’ When important decisions need to happen, we always come together to make them. If we were such a loose confederacy, how could we still exist today, under that same title?”

It was the Potawatomi who dubbed the area “Dowagiac,” which loosely translates to “where to go fish” or “where to gather/harvest.”

The Potawatomi did not make contact with Europeans until the 17th century, when, in spite of language and cultural barriers, they began trading with the French. They later had contact with the British, who asked for their military allegiance for their conflicts with the French, and, following their victory in the War of Independence, the Americans — who wanted their land, something the tribes were not willing to easily concede.

“Native American people were not naked, barbarian savages running around the woods,” Winchester said. “The federal government calls us nations for a reason. When European powers came here, we were a very sophisticated people, with a very sophisticated way of governing ourselves, of raising our people, of taking care of our elders, taking care of people who did bad things and how we reprimanded them, how we regulated our economies. It was very advanced and sophisticated — it just didn’t make sense to Europeans.”

In effort to remain on their homeland, the Potawatomi joined other tribes in signing the Treaty of Greenville in 1795, which established a boundary between lands Native American lands and those occupied by European American settlers.

In the 1822, Baptist missionary Isaac McCoy established the Carey Mission in the Niles area. Although he was supposed to help the Potawatomi living in the region by providing them with housing, livestock and other needs, McCoy ended up pocketing much of the money he received to support them, Winchester said.

“The cabins that were built for the families are said to have been so poorly made that, if it rained or snowed, the fires inside the cabins would go out,” he said. “The fences that were built to keep livestock in were so bad that they blew over if the wind was hard enough.”

Things got even worse for the Potawatomi when President Andrew Jackson signed the Indian Removal Act of 1830, which forced many of the Native Americans to relocate west — with many perishing during the travel.

In order to spare his village a similar fate, Leopold Pokagon — the leader of a small group of Potawatomi living in what is now Bertrand Township in Niles — traveled by foot across Michigan to Detroit, to ask Catholic leaders living there to send a missionary so that his people could integrate and remain on their lands.

“At first, Father Gabriel Richard said he wanted to nothing to do with it,” Winchester said. “Then, as the old story goes, Leopold dropped to his knees and starts reciting prayers. When the interpreter told Richard what Pokagon was saying, it blew him away. Leopold was reciting old Catholic prayers the tribe had learned from the French a century prior. When Richard heard that, he told Pokagon he would send a missionary back with him.”

Pokagon later moved his people to what is now Silver Creek. The settlement thrived until his death in 1841, where the tribe spilt into three factions following a dispute over who should serve as their next leader — one group remained in Silver Creek, another relocated to what is now Hartford and another moved to the South Bend area.

For the next 100 years, many of the old Potawatomi customs were driven underground or abandoned altogether by the descendants of Pokagon’s village, although some kept traditions alive through basket weaving and other artwork, Winchester said.

In 1934, the U.S. government passed the Indian Reorganization Act, which ended previous policies aimed at assimilating Native American nations and instead granted them lands and sovereignty. However, due to its enactment during the Great Depression, federal funds were limited, and as a result the Pokagon Band was passed over by the legislation, Winchester said.

For the next 60 years, members of the Pokagon Band united to receive federal recognition, with many in the tribe spending years filling out paperwork and completing research for applications to the Bureau of Indian Affairs. After decades of failing to receive sovereignty through the executive branch, the tribe went through Congress instead, with several area lawmakers successfully pushing through a bill that granted the Pokagon Band federal recognition in 1994.

When President Bill Clinton signed the act into law on Sept. 21 of that year, many with the tribe traveled to Washington on their own dime to witness the historic event.

“Many were waiting outside the White House, as only a few members of tribal council were allowed into the Oval Office [for the ceremony],” Winchester said. “When President Clinton got wind that there were all these people waiting outside, he said ‘bring them all in.’ So the Secret Service did a background check on everyone real fast and let them in the Oval Office.”

The rest is history. The tribe established its headquarters in Dowagiac, and, in 2007, established the first of its Four Winds Casinos in New Buffalo, paving the way for the economic surge the tribe has experienced in recent years.

The Dowagiac Area History Museum’s lecture series continues April 5 with “World Wide Webb Miler,” a talk about the famed Dowagiac journalist by area expert Jim Bussler.