My mother’s father’s grandmother was Potawatomi, a tribe mostly found around the Great Lakes of Michigan. Mom believed her mother’s family had some Cherokee ancestry, and my father believed that he had Cherokee ancestry as well.
Much more, my mother’s family is German and my father’s family is Scotch-Irish. Yet here I am named Grey, which does not reveal any of that heritage. When I look in the mirror I don’t see any physical traits that bind me to any of my European or native American ancestors. I’m anyman, from anywhere.
I guess I feel German, as my personality lines up with stereotypes of the German temperament — disciplined, practical, efficient, punctual, direct. But feelings aren’t facts, and the fact is I am not connected meaningfully to any of my ancestry.
For a time, I explored my ancestors’ nations looking for a fit. Who was I, really, according to my heritage? I was most curious about the American Indian in me, so I started there.
The Pokagon band of Potawatomi (or, as they say, Pokégnek Bodéwadmik), has a pow wow every Labor Day weekend on its land near Dowagiac, Michigan. Potawatomi from all over gather to dance and sing and celebrate their heritage. It’s also an opportunity for many tribes, not just Potawatomi, to sell handmade goods. It was at one year’s pow wow where I made this photograph, of a Potawatomi dancing in traditional dress.
Two centuries ago, a band of Potawatomi Indians had made their home near Twin Lakes, a bit southwest of what is now Plymouth, Indiana. In 1838, 100 wigwams and cabins dotted the land in their village. They had converted to Catholicism; they were learning to farm the land; they wanted to coexist with the white settlers who had come. But the government wanted the Potawatomi lands, and had pressured other Potawatomi chiefs to sign treaties giving their lands away. This band’s chief, Menominee, refused.
In late August of 1838, the government began rounding up Potawatomi as prisoners and bringing them to Twin Lakes, 858 in all. On September 4, 1838, the collected Potawatomi were forced to march from Twin Lakes west to Osawatomie, Kansas. More than 40 died of illnesses contracted along their two-month march, which led to the journey being named the Trail of Death.
In 1909, a statue of Chief Menominee was placed near the Potawatomi village at about the place where the Trail of Death began. It was unveiled by Menominee’s granddaughter to serve as a memorial of what had happened. In 2009 the statue was rededicated, and many Potawatomi came to take part. Several spoke, telling the history of the Trail of Death.
This happened during the time I was curious about my Potawatomi ancestry, so I went to the ceremony. The story of these people being forced off their land infuriated and saddened me. Yet it felt to me like something that happened to somebody else, and I felt no kinship to the many Potawatomi who traveled to the event. I did feel as though I had missed something important all my life — a connection to a people who wanted to live peaceably and, by the time of the forced migration, followed the same God I follow. But that time for me had passed, like the leaves that fell last year and had already broken down to become the soil I walked on.
I recognized that I have traveled the path of a white man, one who looks like any other American. I am shaped by the values I learned growing up in America’s Midwest in concrete ways.
When people ask me about my heritage, I say “German and Scotch-Irish with a little American Indian thrown in.” But in truth I don’t have a heritage, not one that provides any meaningful foundation for my life. So I get to make that for myself and for the generations that will hopefully follow me.