Tribal History

The Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation is a tribal unit that originated in the Great Lakes area many years ago. During this time, the tribe was an autonomous and prosperous group living off the bountiful natural resources of the Great Lakes. What they couldn’t catch in the lakes or hunt in the forests, they acquired through trade with other tribes and later with the non-Indians.

After the first contacts with non-Indians in 1641, land became a central issue that intensified with the expansion of the 13 colonies or “13 Fires.” Non-Indians wanted the land for mines, timber and the growing number of towns, cities and ports.

During this time of advancing settlement, the Potawatomi people held no real concept of land ownership. Their beliefs taught them that land belonged to all living things alike. However, the U.S. Government, in its first treaties with the Indians, established boundaries for tribal land. In the numerous treaties that followed, known as “cession treaties,” the Potawatomi agreed to sell land to the U.S. Government. Those early concessions soon led to more drastic policies.

The 1830 Removal Act was a governing policy of the United States government. The policy revolved around a dream that the Indian “problem” could be eliminated forever by persuading the eastern Indians to exchange their lands for territory west of the Mississippi. The exchange would leave the area between the Appalachians and the “Father of Waters” free for white exploitation and settlement.

However, the 1829 Treaty of Prairie du Chien reserved two sections of land near Paw Paw Grove, Illinois for Potawatomi Chief Shab-eh-nay and his Band. In 1849, the land was illegally sold through public auction by the U.S. Government. Since an act of Congress or a subsequent treaty is necessary to extinguish the Tribe’s rights to the reservation and it wasn’t included in the cession treaties, it continues legally to belong to the Prairie Band.

During this forced migration west, the Potawatomi made temporary stops in Missouri’s Platte Country in the mid-1830s and the Council Bluffs area of Iowa in the 1840s. The tribe controlled up to five million acres at both locations. After 1846 the tribe moved to present-day Kansas, a new region which was once called the “Great American Desert.” Although the area lacked the beauty of the Great Lakes, the circumstances of removal left the tribal people little choice. It amounted to another period of adjustment for the tribe, just like so many times in the past. At that time, the reservation was thirty square miles which included part of present-day Topeka.

Even this temporary settlement changed with the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854. Opening this territory to white settlement initiated a stream of immigrating white settlers. The settlers, without even waiting for the land to be officially taken from the Indians by treaty, moved onto Indian lands known as “squatter sovereignty.”

Additional white migration to Santa Fe and Oregon areas made land like the Kansas Territory suddenly doubly appealing. In this context, Indians posed a threat to this expansion and were, as a result, victimized by less-than-ethical land deals.

Soon after, railroad interests, religious groups and politicians got involved in new treaty negotiations. But the tribe also experienced an internal divide: 1,400 members wanted the land divided into allotments coupled with the promise of eventual citizenship. However, a small group of 780 Potawatomi stood firm for communal holdings. They were neither interested in obtaining citizenship nor rejecting their heritage, and they held firm in their belief that no single person owned the land. This group became what is now the Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation.

Two treaties, one in 1861 and another in 1867, carved the existing reservation with a land base of 568,223 acres into portions that accommodated individual interests. The railroad received over 338,000 acres, Jesuit interests 320 acres, Baptist interests 320 acres, and the rest was divided into separate plots. The Jesuits, although failing ultimately to make Kansas a center of Catholic interest, did eventually settle approximately 2,300 acres around St. Mary’s Mission.

The Prairie Band Potawatomi Reservation initially constituted 11 square miles in the northeast corner of the reservation. Here, as elsewhere, the exploitation of the Indian lands became the key to the development of the white man’s economy. The total Potawatomi holdings began at 568,223 acres in 1846 and by 1867 had decreased by 87 percent to only 77,357 acres.

With the conclusion of the railroad treaties of the 1860s, the Potawatomi settled upon the 11 square-mile Reservation expecting to live in peace. But, as so many times in the past, continued development overlooked the interests of the tribe.

“The reservation must go!” became the cry of eastern reformers determined to fashion Indians in their own image and therefore to proclaim them self-reliant citizens. As a result, in 1887 Congress passed the Dawes Act or the General Allotment Act of 1887. The government deemed this law a “virtual necessity.” They said they could no longer protect Indian lands from further settlement and the demands of the railroads and other enterprises. The basic premise of the General Allotment Act was to give each Indian a private plot of land on which to become an industrious farmer. To hasten assimilation, the law provided for the end of tribal relationships, such as land held in common. It stipulated that reservations were to be surrendered and divided into family-sized farms which would be allotted to each Indian. The supreme aim was to substitute white civilization for tribal culture.

The Potawatomi still persistently refused to recognize their allotments of land or the right of the government to make such a disposition. Persuasion consisted of withholding federal payments due the Prairie Band and giving double allotments of their land to whites, Indians from other tribes, and the residing agent’s relatives. Furthermore, much of the land allotted to them was too poor to farm, and they received no financial credit and little help of any kind.

Many Indians, including the Potawatomi, were totally unaware of non-Indian economic motivations and customs. They leased or sold their lands to whites for a fraction of its true value. Others were swindled out of their land holdings under the Dawes Act and later legislation designed to accelerate the sale and lease of the Indians’ allotments to whites. Conditions on reservations became scandalous. Indians received little or no education and were treated as wards, incapable of self-government or self-determination. In the years following the Dawes Act, the Potawatomi weathered these injustices along with the Great Depression by virtue of their ability to adapt to economic conditions. However, the passage of the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934 was another matter.

The Reorganization act dealt with Indian self-government, special education for Indians, Indian lands and a Court of Indian Affairs. The Potawatomi looked favorably on the termination of the allotment policies of the Dawes Act and the return of surplus lands to the Potawatomi because, by this time, the tribe had lost close to fifty thousand acres as a direct result of this law. Indians living on the Potawatomi Reservation, however, greatly opposed self-government. Basically, the tribe opposed the foreign concept of the formation of a new governing body.

In the history of the tribe, most decisions were made by the entire tribe, not a few individuals. Many tribal members were older people who were suspicious of anything they didn’t fully understand.

Another stumbling block for tribal members was that the Indian Reorganization Act wasn’t designed to recognize sovereignty, nor did it encourage it. Most decision-making had to be approved by the Secretary of the Interior or Commissioner of Indian Affairs. Nevertheless, this particular bureaucratic mechanism was installed against the wishes of the Potawatomi and remained a problem for years. A tribe couldn’t embark on any business venture, handle its own trust money, or pass any major change in their government without first seeking bureau approval.

All future dissent of the tribe can be directly traced to a form of government imposed on the tribe. A ruling body was never part of the Potawatomi story, and though changing times dictated this concept, it was never accepted nor were the leaders that became part of the new tribal body politic.

The issue became almost a moot point in 1947 when a conservative Republican Congress wanted to reduce the expenditures of the federal government. Acting Indian Commissioner William Zimmerman was asked to testify on Indian programs, evaluate tribal conditions and list those tribes that could immediately succeed without further federal help. This laid the groundwork for the hectic 1950s and the next commissioner Dillon Myer who advocated the immediate government withdrawal from the Indian business.

Myer had many people in Congress who shared his sentiments. Hence, this period became known as the Termination Period. This was another assimilation effort on the part of “friends” in Washington — a campaign similar to the allotment policies of the 1800s, but far more serious. Now the entire Indian system was slated for elimination.

In 1954 the House of Representatives drafted a resolution called HR 4985 with the express purpose of withdrawing federal supervision over five Indian tribes as soon as possible. This list included the Potawatomi Tribe. Potawatomi strategy to avoid termination included a grassroots campaign. It included signing and sending petitions of protest to the government. Multiple delegations from the Potawatomi Tribe went to Washington D.C. to testify in front of congressional committees and to lobby policy-makers. Thankfully the message of Potawatomi unity came across strong and clear, and Congress withdrew the Potawatomi name from the termination list.

There is much more to the Potawatomi story than what’s described in these last few paragraphs, but it can serve as some background information. Other material goes into more depth on the contributions of individual nation members. Within the last decade, the nation has experienced a revitalization: The introduction of gaming activities has initiated an improvement in social, educational and cultural leadership programs. As a result, the nation is able to provide a wide range of opportunities for employment and business development while contributing to the economic viability of the region. Today, the Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation can once again look optimistically to the future and to the preservation of a valued culture.

  • Courtesy of Gary Mitchell