Potawatomi Government History History_of_the_Potawatomis

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The history written below is by James A. Clifton who is a cultural anthropoligist and a leading authority on the ethnohistory of the Indians of the Great Lakes - Ohio Valley area. He is Frankenthal Professor of Anthropology and History at the University of Wisconsin, Green Bay, and previously taught at the Universities of Oregon, Colorado, and Kansas. He earned a Ph.B. at the University of Chicago and a Ph.D. at the University of Oregon.



Potawatomi Government History

Who's Potawatomi, Who's Not


Above: Wahquahbeshkuk/Wahquahboshkuk/Roily Water

"Throughout the 19th century Americans believed that the Potawatomi and other peoples could not be both Indian and American. Americans of that time understood being Indian to mean belonging to a tribal organization, owning land in common, practicing "heathen" religions, speaking alien language, and living apart from other Americans. The Pokagon and Huron Bands showed how false such assumptions were. The members of these bands became responsible citizens of Michigan, literate in English, Christians, and - the most powerful symbol of all - taxpayers. Yet, while living like other citizens and mingling daily with them, they remained Potawatomi.

But the very definition of who was a Potawatomi was changing rapidly. Until the 1820s, the People themselves had defined their own identity. Being Potawatomi required having a father who was a member of a clan. Children of Potawatomi parents became Potawatomi themselves by learning the traditional language and culture. Remaining Potawatomi obliged an adult to lead a proper life by traditional standards, contributing to the welfare of the family, clan, and community. By the end of the century, much of this definition of who was a legitimate Potawatomi would change.

A large part of this change came from outside. Americans and Canadians, for example, imposed their own legal definitions of being Potawatomi on the People. American ways of defining "Indianness" were and still are based on confused notions about race or "blood" According to Americans, a person who had even a distant relationship to a Potawatomi ancestor, no matter how little the "degree of blood," was still considered an Indian. This is a racist definition, based on biological myth, since there is no such thing as Indian or any other kind of "racial blood."

At the same time, many individuals and families who did not meet the traditional identity requirements of the Potawatomi clamored for recognition and acceptance within the community. From time to time numerous Americans decided there were advantages to being considered Indian, and many got themselves recognized as Potawatomi by various devices. One way was to claim adoption into a Potawatomi community. Another was intermarriage. During the mid-1800s, for example, some American men obtained Potawatomi rights by marrying a Potawatomi woman. Others simply invented Potawatomi ancestors, redrawing their family trees to suit their purposes. Sometimes all that was required was a position of power. In the 1890s, for instance, a Kansas Indian agent wrote the names of his wife and children onto the official tribal roll, and their descendants have been listed as Potawatomi ever since.

A new government policy made it advantageous for many Americans to become Potawatomi. In 1887 the United States began a major effort to eliminate tribally owned reservations and to assimilate Indians into American life. The General Allotment Act provided a legal basis for the government to break up communal ownership of reservations and eliminate tribal organizations. The intention was for all Indians to become landowning, taxpaying citizens, so that the United States would no longer have to recognize or deal with tribal governments. This was to be accomplished by allotting (giving title to) farmsteads, taken from reservation land, to individuals.

The Prairie Band, which had held on to its diminished tribal reservation in 1861, strongly opposed the allotment policy. Under the leadership of an unusually outspoken leader, Wakwaboshkok (Roily Water), the band members stuck together, flatly refusing to accept individual allotments. Roily Water and several others were thrown into the military prison at Fort Riley, Kansas, for leading demonstrations, but the Prairie Band persisted in its opposition.

To break down this resistance, American authorities started awarding choice 180-acre allotments from the band's reservation to other individuals. People of obscure ancestry, among them the Indian agent and his family, saw an opportunity for substantial profit. Under the pressure of having their land given away to others, the Prairie Band gave up. Finally the reservation was fully allotted, and within 30 years the People of the Prairie Band were nearly landless.

Every time a valuable resource, treaty money, or government service was made available to a Potawatomi community, outsiders tried to lay hands on these windfalls. The large sums available during the treaty era had attracted traders, the marginal "mixed-bloods," and many others. Many marginals had followed the Potawatomi west to the Kansas reservation, where they persuaded American officials to accept them as legitimate Potawatomi. They soon came to dominate the affairs of some communities.

The Mission-Citizens Band came under domination of marginals by the 1860s. Even at that time many of their "chiefs" bore such non-Indian names as Joseph Napoleon Bourassa, Anthony Navarre, Perish Le Clere, and Claude La Framboise. These were the grandsons and great-grandsons of the old French traders, who continued their families' traditions of making careers among the genuine Potawatomi and extracting profits from their resources. The Prairie Band would not be dominated by marginals for another century.

Other Potawatomi communities managed to avoid such interference. Those who resettled in Canada left behind the marginals who had been associated with them in earlier years. They were aided by the Canadian law defining Indian status, which effectively blocked the marginals' attempts to obtain band resources. For different reasons, the Strolling Potawatomi of northern Wisconsin also experienced little interference. Landless, lacking even annuity payments, nearly impoverished, they had nothing of value to attract the marginals.

From time to time the tiny Pokagon Band of southern Michigan attracted outsiders wanting to share in what seemed to be a bonanza. Three times in the last half of the 19th century, the Pokagons successfully lobbied in Washington for payments of debts owed them by the United States. Each time some marginals showed up to claim their shares of the fund. The last time was in 1895. The resulting confusion led the Commissioner of Indian Affairs to dispatch two special agents to investigate in 1895 and 1896.

Among the claimants were several thousand descendants of those Potawatomi who had fled to northern Michigan in the removal era. Their claims were excluded by the investigators because only the Pokagons had treaty-guaranteed right to remain in Michigan, and only they had not been paid the annuities due them. Those who had gone north had for years been obtaining benefits as Ottawa or Ojibwa. They could not now also claim to be Potawatomi.

One typical case was that of Alex Beaubien, from an old Chicago family, who claimed that he had a Potawatomi great-grandmother. After investigation, Special Agent M. D. Shelby rejected his claim. If Beaubien was an Indian, as he claimed, Shelby noted, "it was a fact he had carefully kept secret from his neighbors."

The leaders of the Pokagon Band, who worked hard for more than 50 years to win this case, were much annoyed by all these latecomers. They coined a new English word, in common use among them since, to mark such behavior. It is "meandom," signifying "mean" in the sense of selfish or greedy. "That's meandom for you," they say, pointing to strangers who show up wanting a share of the band's resources.

The Pokagons pioneered in using attorneys to serve their interests, and by the end of the 19th century most other Potawatomi communities were being represented by private lawyers. Generally, these legal firms went to the federal courts on behalf of their clients, seeking payments for injustices or failure to carry out the provisions of treaties.

In the late 19th century the more traditional Potawatomi found other ways to defend themselves and to improve their lives. Among these were new forms of magic and religion."


Clifton, James A. Indians of North America: The Potawatomi. New York Philadelphia: Chelsea House Publishers, 1987, pp. 73-77