Citizen Potawatomie Nation—Tribal History

Bozho Nikan (Hello Friends),
     Our stop in Shawnee, Oklahoma was graciously hosted by the Citizen Potawatomi Nation (CPN).  Dominick has been an enrolled member of CPN since childhood on his father’s side of the family however it was only until we laid over in Shawnee that he had a chance to learn about his tribes history and culture.  Located on the CPN reservation, the Citizen Potawatomi Nation (CPN) Cultural Heritage Center has a walk-through timeline that uses pictures and artifacts to tell the history of the CPN people that covers the past 400 years and the story of how they ended up in Shawnee, OK.  We have included a brief write up of what we learned about the CPN people…..

In the beginning
     The Potawatomi along with the Ojibwa and Ottawa were once one people, called the Nishnabe (the Original People), and originally lived along the Eastern Seaboard—occupying the area stretching from Maine to New Brunswick , Canada.  Each group carried out a specific role to serve the good of the Nishnabe as a whole.  The Ojibwa were the traders, the Ottawa were the keepers of medicine, and the Potawatomi were the keepers of the council fire.  The word Potawatomi means “people of the place of the fire” role is reflected in sacred fire at the center of the CPN tribal seal.  Encounters with successive waves of Europeans colonists, significantly impacted where the Potawatomi lived and their quality of life.  Each group (i.e. French, British, Americans) had different relationships with the Potawatomi—some loved the Potawatomi and intermarried with them, others hated them.  However, all wanted to get something from the Potawatomi.  What made each group different was what they wanted from the Potawatomi.

     The French were the first Europeans to interact with the Potawatomi, who by this time had migrated from the Eastern Seaboard and occupied the region covering southern Michigan, Northern Indiana and Illinois, and the land bordering the southern and western coast of Lake Michigan (including land that is now the city Chicago and the University of Notre Dame).   The French wanted to trade with the Potawatomi, exchanging cloth and metal tools for fur pelts.  This exchange benefited the Potawatomi and intermarriage between the French and Potawatomi was not uncommon and is why many Potawatomi have French last names.  This relationship with the French, also exposed the Potawatomi to diseases they had not encountered before (measles, smallpox) as well as to Christianity via the Jesuits, who built missions around which some Potawatomi chose to settle (these became known as Mission Potawatomi).  In general, the Potawatomi and French co-existed well.

     British territorial expansion westward from their established East-coast colonies threatened to encroach on the lucrative French fur trade and resulted in conflict between French fur traders and British settlers, which eventually erupted into the French and Indian Wars (1754 – 1763).  The Potawatomi supported the French, who relied heavily upon brave Potawatomi warriors during skirmishes and battles.  The French and Indian Wars was much more than a land conflict (French vs. British) but also a cultural battle (Western/European vs. Native peoples).  The British defeat of the French during the French and Indian Wars signaled the acceleration of attempts to assimilate or even eliminate the native peoples of the Great Lakes region and North America.  British attempts to eradicate or push the native peoples West, included the intentional dissemination of smallpox among the Potawatomi and other native peoples via contaminated blankets--the first recorded instance of biological warfare in North America.  Some Great Lakes tribes and chiefs fought back against British aggression and were led by Chief Pontiac, an Odawa chief, via a series of skirmishes known as Pontiac’s War (1763-1766).

     The signing of the Treaty of Fort Ontario in 1766 ended Pontiac’s War but marked the start of a constant cycle of treaty-making (1766-1838) between native peoples and the British and then American governments that almost always ended in the native people giving up their land or relocating.  In most cases, the native people signed treaties with the US government to give away their land just to preserve their lives.  These exchanges were never equal.  In fact, the Potawatomi signed more treaties with the US government than any other tribe.  This is an indication of their willingness to co-exist and non-aggressive temperament.  In 1838 a group of 875 Potawatomi living in Northern Indiana refused to move off their land and were forcibly removed and marched to Oswatomie, Kansas by General Tipton under armed guard.  The group-- men, women, children and a Catholic priest Fr. Benjamin Petit--was forced to walk to Kansas across all kinds of terrain and in harsh weather.  Many died along this “Trail of Death”.

     In the 1870’s, this group of Potawatomi started decided to move south into Oklahoma.  However, they chose to make the trek gradually and one family at a time, because they had learned from experience that the white man appeared to feel threatened by large groups of natives on the move.  The US government allowed the Potawatomi to make the move to OK but required that they become US citizens.  From then on, this group of Potawatomi became known as the “Citizen Potawatomi” people (hence Citizen Potawatomi Nation).  There were other tribes of native people from other states who were also living in Oklahoma at that time who didn’t like the Potawatomi moving in.  However the Potawatomi stayed, settled down and tried to adjust to and adapt the white-man’s ways.

1900’s and 21st Century
      After many years of trying to adapt the white man’s ways, the Potawatomi realized that their lives had not gotten any better.  Many Potawatomi were stuck in poverty without any good job opportunities or an education.  This realization led to a resurgent interest in doing things the Indian way and re-kindling Potawatomi pride.

Present day . .
     Today, the CPN appear to be thriving at its headquarters in Shawnee, OK.  Many new buildings have been built and programs started since 2000. There is much ongoing activity to preserve and keep alive the traditions of the past (via a Cultural Heritage Center and annual Pow-Wow in June), ensure a healthy present and future for the young and old (via a Children’s Development Center, Wellness Center, scholarships for college and graduate students), and create sustainable opportunities for economic growth (bank, gas station, grocery store, truck stop casino, sod farm, concrete batch plant, golf course, bowling alley).

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