Agency employees got an introductory lesson on the known history of a regional American Indian tribe during Battle Creek’s Native American Heritage Month event at the Hart-Dole-Inouye Federal Center Nov. 8.
Pine Creek Indian Reservation Cultural Events Coordinator Danielle Pfeifer and Potawatomi Culture Specialist Kevin Harris II took attendees from the 1600s through the present day as they recounted the findings of historians and the Notawaseppi Huron Band of the Potawatomi’s own traditions and generationally-passed beliefs.
Pfeifer said the tribe began to move south through the upper Midwest from Canada along waterways in the 1600s. She said tribal history differentiates between the migration period and the forced removal period and that farmers, researchers and outdoorsmen continue to find culturally significant mounds, gravesites and artifacts along regional waterways that help define a history that was in many ways lost.
“Everyone’s in a process of learning. We’re no different,” Pfeifer said, referring to the Potawatomi’s efforts to fill in the missing parts of its ancestors’ history.
In the 1820s, tribal leaders signed the “Treaty of Chicago,” which ushered in an age of relocation. The Potawatomi heavily resisted relocation from the areas that they knew and felt a connection to and would regularly escape from the established reservations. When they were brought back, they would escape again. Eventually, after the Indian Removal Act of 1830, an estimated 900 Potawatomi men, women and children were marched for months along a trail from northern Indiana out to Kansas territory. This chapter in the tribe’s history is referred to as the Trail of Death.
Dozens died along the way. Others took up with farmers along the route, offering to help work the land. Others continued even beyond Kansas; there is evidence that members of the tribe went as far south as Mexico.
Pfeifer said that as children were taken from their families and forced to go to assimilation-centric boarding schools – a practice that didn’t end in the U.S. until the early 1980s – their braid was cut and they lost the ability to speak their language. Much of the tribal identity was lost. Much of what made them unique was forgotten.
Harris said the tribe is the only one in the U.S. to gather all of its bands – nine bands in the case of the Potawatomi, geographically split up by where they live along the Trail of Death – every year to educate, share songs and engage in cultural revitalization through language classes, sporting events and workshops. He said the funds provided by the tribe-operated FireKeepers Casino near Battle Creek have helped the Nottawaseppi Huron Band to sponsor wider-ranging efforts.
He said it remains difficult for Potawatomi members and its young people to confront the trauma of history loss, language loss, and the loss of seemingly small details like having English names instead of traditional names.
“It did happen. But we must move forward,” Harris said. “…. Without this sadness and tragedy, we wouldn’t know what smiling is all about.”