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Our question-asker came across a troubling passage in a local history book. He wonders, "is this how it really went down?"

Why's That: How the Pokagon Band escaped removal (Story 2)

Leopold Pokagon portrayed in his later years. He gazes off center with a slight smile, white hair flowing.
Courtesy of The History Museum, South Bend, Indiana
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Used with permission
Van Sanden portrait of Leopold Pokagon, who was born circa 1775 and died in 1841

As he negotiated with a government eager to push out his people, Chief Leopold Pokagon left nothing to chance.

Today we’re continuing our three-part series answering a question from listener Chris Chopp. Chris is the principal at the Comstock STEM Academy. He wants students to know the area’s history before and after colonization. While researching local history, he came across a passage on the forced removal of the area’s original people. Chris wondered if this removal really happened in the passive way the paragraph describes. I asked Chris to read from the text when we met in his office at the school.

“Colonel Thomas A.H. Edwards gathered the Indians together for a long journey west of the Mississippi. Along the route they passed the house of judge Epaphroditus Ransom…the prominent Kalamazoo man who often had befriended them in their dealings with the government. As they passed by they raised their hands and headdresses in respect and farewell,’” he reads.

The text belies the injustice of forced removal, and the many ways native communities resisted it. But as we’ll hear, scenes of departure like the one in the paragraph really did take place across the Midwest. Today we’ll learn about one Potawatomi chief who outwitted government and military officials as they tried to force his people out – and his connection with Epaphroditus Ransom, who was a Michigan Supreme Court justice and later governor of Michigan.

We’ll also consider how settlers’ feelings about removal may have shaped American culture.

"Leopold was thinking of us today, right now"

Marcus Winchester directs the Center of History and Culture for the Pokagon Band of Potawatomi. The tribe is now headquartered in Dowagiac. We reached Winchester on Zoom. He says, in the early 19th century, as the US government embraced removal as a means for seizing indigenous land, the Pokagon Band’s leader was thinking ahead. This was the tribe’s namesake, Chief Leopold Pokagon. Winchester says the Potawatomi way of looking at the world is to think seven generations ahead.

“When I say seven generations, I’m literally talking about, Leopold was thinking of us today, right now. He wanted to make sure that my cousins, my friends, my family, all of us could continue to be Potawatomi and live this beautiful way of life that the creator had given us,” he said.

A Baptist missionary named Isaac McCoy ministered near Pokagon’s village. Winchester says McCoy became a leading advocate of forced removal.

“He interpreted what went on at that mission from his very narrow ethnocentric viewpoint and from his perspective there was just all these things wrong with the Potawatomi,” he said.

McCoy was so keen on removal, “Sending all these letters and testimonies to Congress, Leopold saw that first hand. He knew what was up and he knew that was going to take place,” he added.

Pokagon began to strategize. First he invited a Catholic missionary to his village. Winchester says the new mission thrived while McCoy’s became obsolete. Then, during a key treaty negotiation, Pokagon parlayed the new mission’s success into an exemption from removal.

But he doubted the government would honor the treaty.* Also, under the terms of the agreement the tribe was supposed to move north, and that didn’t work out. So, Winchester said, the band put its money together, “and they obtained land from the land office in Kalamazoo Michigan at that time and they bought land close to where we are today in Silver Creek, Michigan.”

But Pokagon suspected the deeds would not be honored either. So he went to Judge Ransom, then an associate justice of the Michigan Supreme Court. Ransom wrote an opinion affirming the tribe’s exemption from removal. At the time the court did not routinely publish justices’ opinions, so it’s hard to find a copy. But Winchester said, as understands it,

“What the justice said in that letter was, ‘if you ignore this letter and you attempt to remove that group of Potawatomi down there in Southwest Michigan, I will, at the expense of the United States, make the United States army bring back every single Potawatomi person, bring them back to Michigan and Indiana and sort out on the government’s dime who is supposed to be in Michigan and who is not to settle it straight.’”

Pokagon took this letter back to his community.

“Of course he was right, there was no intentions to honor that treaty,” Winchester said.

But the general charged with removing the Pokagon Band abided by Ransom’s letter. And so it escaped removal. But many communities didn’t.

"That happened in every community"

At the transit center in downtown Kalamazoo, a plaque in the doorway commemorates the same 1840 removal described in the text Chris found. According to the plaque, three thousand Native Americans gathered on the site in the days before the government forced them to leave for the west. It mentions the same scene of the forced migrants passing Judge Ransom’s house, and saying goodbye.

“This scene that they’re describing, about how the Potawatomi are leaving and everybody is kind of remorsefully gathered to see them out, that happened in every community where there was a close – early settlement that was close to a village,” Winchester said.

Close up of a plaque with several paragraphs commemorating a removal in 1840
Sehvilla Mann
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WMUK
The plaque at the transit center in downtown Kalamazoo

He added that most whites settled near indigenous villages, not least because the newcomers sought original residents’ help in learning how to survive. But Winchester says some whites grew bitter over the compensation the government paid to some tribes, in exchange for the land they signed away.

“Concerning like dishware, plates, pots and pans – we were getting the best of the best, and it made a lot of the settlers jealous cause in their eyes it was like, ‘look at these dirty Indians just getting all of this exquisite stuff,’” he said.

Despite that, some Potawatomi and white communities did bond – and blend. But expansionism strained those ties.

“When everything had culminated in a need to cultivate the land, and start planting crops and start clearing trees to make way for towns, those relationships were easily disregarded. But a lot of the locals didn’t agree. I’ve read that time and time and time again, just a lot of the guilt that those communities felt,” over forced removal, Winchester said.

He called it an “ambiguous” guilt.

“In their hearts they didn’t feel it was right, but you lived in a time where you’re being told that land that isn’t being used is a waste and you’re letting down your religion if you don’t cultivate the land,” he said.

He added that settlers, who didn’t know what to do with their conflicted feelings, ultimately they made up version of history they wouldn’t have to feel bad about.

“That’s where the noble savage comes in, and all those types of stereotypes. It comes from the guilt of this time period. Exactly what this passage is identifying, is going on. It all connects,” he said.

The text our question-asker Chris Chopp found papers over hard truths about removal. But Winchester’s reading, it reveals something about settlers’ conflicted feelings, and, yes, guilt about it.

Raphael Wahwassuck is a historic preservation officer for the Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation in Kansas. He read the text and thought of the present fight over what version of history gets taught in schools. It’s often linked with the term critical race theory, a term Wahwassuck says he’s not crazy about.

“I would rather just have it be referred to as what it should be, an accurate historical accounting of what happened,” he said.

We’ll hear more from Winchester, when our series concludes.