On a day in early November of 1811, American Indians fighting for their independence in the young Indiana Territory were dealt a crushing defeat on this land just north and a bit east of what is now Lafayette. Many Shawnee had settled in the area, which made white settlers nervous, and tensions began to mount. Territorial Governor William Henry Harrison brought his army nearby; Tecumseh and his brother the Prophet led Shawnee forces in an ill-fated attack against them. Both sides suffered many casualties, but ultimately Harrison’s army drove the Shawnee out of the region.
On a day in early April of 2007, my sons and I stopped at the battle site, which is now a park with this 1908 monument as its centerpiece. My youngest son lingered here, solemnly reading the plaques on each side which counted the American dead and noted the number of Indian dead simply as “unknown.”
My sons and I also like to visit my alma mater for its annual homecoming bonfire. It’s a monster! Check out photos from this year and last year.
I’ve known for most of my life that I have Potawatomi and Cherokee Indian ancestors. I’ve always felt more connected to my German roots, but I’ve been curious about my Indian side just the same. So when the opportunity came up to see a Potawatomi pow wow, I took it.
The Pokagon band of Potawatomi Indians (or, as they say, Pokégnek Bodéwadmik), has this 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. Of course we checked out the booths, and I even bought a colorful piece of pottery. But the dancing was where it was at.
This young lady’s feet barely left the ground as she danced. It is supposed to symbolize her connection to mother Earth.
In contrast, this flamboyant fellow really twisted and twirled, his fringe always flying.
Wait, what? A blonde-haired Potawatomi dancer?
I soon figured out that the more elaborate the regalia, the more active the dancing.
I’ve always thought my Potawatomi ancestors came from my mother’s mother’s family, but I’ve been mistaken. Talking about it in the car on the way home, Mom said that her mother’s family had Cherokee ancestors, but Grandpa’s grandmother was full Potawatomi. That made Grandpa a quarter Potawatomi, but you never would have guessed it as he looked like he came straight off the boat from Germany. Even though I’m just one sixteenth Potawatomi (and probably an equal measure Cherokee), I look far more Indian than my grandfather ever did.
Last year about this time I attended the rededication of a monument to Potawatomi chief Menominee. Check it out.
A band of Potawatomi Indians had made their home near Twin Lakes in Marshall County, Indiana, a bit south of Plymouth. 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. Menominee refused. So 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 leave their land. They marched from Twin Lakes to the nearby Michigan Road, and then south along the Michigan Road to Logansport. From there, they were marched west to Osawatomie, Kansas, where they arrived on November 4. More than 40 died of illnesses contracted along the way, 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. On September 18, 100 years later, the statue was rededicated, and many Potawatomi came to take part. Several spoke, telling the history of the Trail of Death.
I have Potawatomi ancestry. My great great grandmother – my mother’s mother’s mother’s mother – is said to have been full Potawatomi. I had never explored this part of my heritage before, had never thought much about it. But when my cohort on the Michigan Road byway project, who was involved with the rededication, invited me, I knew I had to go.
I found the ceremony to be unexpectedly saddening as I heard the story of these people, with whom I share blood, being forced off their land. Yet I felt no immediate kinship to the many Potawatomi who traveled from all over for the event. I recognized that I have traveled the path of a white man; that my German ancestry has been more vital to me and has shaped me in concrete ways. Yet I feel as though I’ve missed something important all these years, a connection to a people who wanted to live peaceably and, by the time of the forced migration, sought to follow the same God I serve. I realize that I feel connected to these Potawatomi because they were fellow believers, and it is through this connection that the story of the gross injustice they suffered moves me.