Why's That: Toward an "accurate accounting of what happened" (Story 3)
The Prairie Band Potawatomi survived forced migration in the 19th century. Now a council member wonders if Americans will confront the past.
Today we’ll hear the third and final story in a series on a question from listener Chris Chopp. The question is based on a passage Chris found while researching local history. He reads from it in his office at the Comstock STEM Academy, where he’s the principal.
“New settlers and natives lived in harmony. Natives and the pioneers traded and benefitted from one another until 1840, when the US government had to enforce the treaty. Colonel Thomas A.H. Edwards gathered the Indians together for a long journey west of the Mississippi.
The author goes on to describe the departing Native Americans saluting prominent judge Epaphroditus Ransom as they walk past his house in Kalamazoo.
“It seems so pleasant and peaceful,” Chris said. “I thought, is this how it actually went down?”
As we’ve learned, in one sense the passage tells the truth. Scenes like this really did take place across the Midwest. Where settlers looked on as military officers forced out the area’s original people. But the author does not mention the many ways those communities resisted removal. And to say that everyone had lived in harmony…
“Well, that to me sounds like it could be part of a Disney script.”
Raphael Wahwassuck is a historic preservation officer with the Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation. We reached him in northeast Kansas, where the band is now based. Wahwassuck, who’s also a Prairie Band Council Member, said he found the account our question-asker Chris Chopp shared disappointing, but not surprising.
“To me the paragraph is written in a manner that would promote the agenda of the government at the time,” he said.
Which was to take native land and turn it into towns and farms, and to justify the taking by framing removals as wistful, but inevitable events.
“Never mind the fact that there are already aboriginal inhabitants in these land areas that you are, you know, basically committing genocide against, by furthering your propaganda and your agenda to expand and overtake this country,” Wahwassuck said.
Long before the removals of the 19th century, the Potawatomi experienced displacement from the eastern part of country.
“In the early to mid-1600s, as this continent began becoming more and more populated with colonizers, our people then migrated towards the Great Lakes area,” Wahwassuck explained.
But the passage’s version of history has persisted in America. It’s relevant to the raging debate over history education. And legislative attempts to restrict what teachers can say about race and colonialism. We’ll come back to that. First we hear more about how removal affected the Prairie Band.
A series of removals
Even before Congress passed the Indian Removal Act, in the late 1820s the government sought to move the Band. Wahwassuck says at the time members lived in eastern Wisconsin, “and kind of wrapped all the way around the Lake there down through what is now the Chicago area.”
Wahwassuck said powerful politicians in the region wanted the Potawatomi gone. Between that and living on land settlers wanted for Chicago, “for our people that kind of meant that we were going to be removed one way or another.”
In fact, the Prairie Band was removed more than once. Members were sent first to Missouri, then to Iowa, and finally to Kansas around 1846. Wahwassuck says some people in the final group weren’t even Potawatomi.
“While we were being forced around, there were some Kickapoo, there were some Mascoutens, and there were some what is now known as Sac and Fox that, if they just happened to be in the path that we were being walked through, they were kind of thrown in the mix with us,” he said.
The Great Lakes region had provided the Prairie Band with abundant natural resources. But at the time the band arrived in Kansas, people thought of it as a desert.
“Dustbowl, wide open plains, prairie, there wasn’t the resources from the lakes that we were used to,” Wahwassuck said.
He added that despite this, the band has endured, and has even kept some of their communal ways of life despite outside efforts to impose individualism. And he said this is true of many communities beyond the Prairie Band.
“I believe it’s a testament to all of our native people that are still here on both of these continents, North and South America, and throughout the rest of the world for that matter that they still survive.”
Whitewashing, then and now
Wahwassuck said it matters whether Americans learn what really happened in the past. He said, a few years ago, he thought things were moving that way. Now he’s not sure.
“We have folks that are on very different sides of science right now. I mean science is one of those things that, it’s pretty accurate. That’s why it’s called science, right?”
If Americans can’t agree on facts about climate change or COVID, he wondered how far we’ll get with history. Wahwassuck said he’s not crazy about the term now used, persistently if not always accurately: Critical race theory.
“I would rather just have it be referred to as what it should be, an accurate historical accounting of what happened,” he said.
In the spring of 2019, the City of Kalamazoo took a step toward an accurate accounting, together with the Match-E-Be-Nash-She-Wish Band of Pottawatomi Indians. The city posted special street signs at the boundaries of the tribe’s former reservation.
A ceremonial unveiling took place at the northeast corner, at present-day Paterson Street and Riverview Drive.
“All right, let’s do it!” then-Mayor Bobby Hopewell called to a worker in a bucket truck, who unveiled the signs. The city and tribal leaders gathered below cheered.
In 1821 the government reserved nine square miles for the tribe in what’s now the City of Kalamazoo. The Match-E-Be-Nash-She-Wish Band gave up its much larger traditional lands in exchange. But six years later, the government broke the treaty. The Band had to flee to escape removal. It’s now based in Shelbyville. Tribal council member Jodie Palmer attended the 2019 ceremony.
“I do think of it as a memorial, plus the fact that it’s recognition that there were people here before that originally inhabited this land. So to me it’s a great day,” she said.
This story began with listener Chris Chopp questioning an account of forced removal.
“The reason I asked was because this doesn’t feel right, it feels so whitewashed and not true. I feel like there’s more to this story that I can’t tell by reading more from a white colonist perspective,” Chris said.
He said that for him, talking with tribal historians and leaders confirms the importance of seeking out other viewpoints. And listening to members of the tribes tell their history.
“It’s richer and more present and living than it was when I didn’t know as much, or I didn’t know people who took the time to share their stories with you and with me and learn more,” he said.