Cartographic map with Potawatomi place names by Kyle Malott. Used with permission.
"Each Indigenous nation has its own creation story. Some stories tell that the Potawatomi have always been here. Other stories tell of migration from the Eastern seaboard with the Ojibwe and Odawa Nations. The three tribes loosely organized as the Three Fires Confederacy, with each serving an important role. The Ojibwe were said to be the Keepers of Tradition. The Odawa were known as the Keepers of the Trade. The Potawatomi were known as the Keepers of the Fire.
Later, the Potawatomi migrated from north of Lakes Huron and Superior to the shores of the Mitchigami or Great Lake. This location—in what is now Wisconsin, southern Michigan, northern Indiana, and northern Illinois—is where European explorers in the early 17th century first came upon the Potawatomi; they called themselves Neshnabek, meaning the original or true people.
As the United States frontier border moved west, boundary arguments and land cessions became a way of life for Native Americans. In 1830, the U.S. Congress passed the Indian Removal Act and directed that all American Indians be relocated to lands west of the Mississippi River, leaving the Great Lakes region open to further non-Indian development.
The 1833 Treaty of Chicago established the conditions for the removal of the Potawatomi from the Great Lakes area. When Michigan became a state in 1837, more pressure was put on the Potawatomi to move west.
The hazardous trip killed one out of every ten people of the approximately 500 Potawatomi involved. As news of the terrible trip spread, some bands, consisting of small groups of families, fled to northern Michigan and Canada. Some also tried to hide in the forests and swamps of southwestern Michigan. The U.S. government sent soldiers to round up the Potawatomi they could find and move them at gunpoint to reservations in the west. This forced removal is now called the Potawatomi Trail of Death, similar to the more familiar Cherokee Trail of Tears.
However, a small group of Neshnabek, with Leopold Pokagon as one of their leaders, earned the right to remain in their homeland, in part because they had demonstrated a strong attachment to Catholicism. It is the descendants of this small group who constitute the Pokagon Band of Potawatomi Indians."
Excerpt from Pokagon Band of Potawatomi website http://www.pokagonband-nsn.gov/our-culture/history
Current Presence in Chicago
In his book Imprints: The Pokagon Band of Potawatomi Indians and the City of Chicago (2016), John Low, a member of the Pokagon Band of Potawatomi Indians, chronicles the ongoing presence of his tribe in the city of Chicago, and how “the Pokagon Potawatomi and the city have affected, influenced, and shaped each other” (Low, x). As he says:
"The Chicago urban Indian experience did not begin with the post World War II federal programs of relocation of Indians from reservations to urban areas. Rather, the Potawatomi (more specifically the Pokagon Potawatomi) have been a part of Chicago since its beginnings."
The Potawatomi presence in Chicago’s early history – including Leopold Pokagon at the 1833 Treaty of Chicago.
Simon Pokagon and his attendance at the World's Columbian Exposition in 1893.
Land claims by the Pokagon Potawatomi to the Chicago lakefront 1914-1917.
Encampments of Potawatomi in Lincoln Park in the early 20th century.
Leroy Wesaw, a Pokagon Potawatomi tribal member who was an early member of the Chicago American Indian Center, and founded the Chicago Canoe Club.
The battle over the naming of “Fort Dearborn Park” beginning in 2009.
Pokagon Band of Potawatomi Indians website
Imprints: The Pokagon Band of Potawatomi Indians and the City of Chicago, by John Low
Pokégnek Bodéwadmik, The Pokagon Band of Potawatomi Indians: Keepers of the Fire, by John Low