Kalamazoo pays tribute to Pottawatomi and the land they belonged to

These were people who lived on the Kalamazoo River for centuries before the Europeans came. 

Then they lived on a small Indian reservation granted to them by the United States government in 1821.

In 1827 the reservation was taken back -- land speculators were keenly interested in the area, and in 1830 settler Titus Bronson built his cabin where what would become the city of Kalamazoo. The original people were told to leave, to go west with other tribes to lands known as Kansas and Oklahoma.

The people refused. 

They, the Pottawatomi band of Chief Match-E-Be-Nash-She-Wish, did what they could to stay in southwest Michigan.

'They're still here'

If one talks about the people who used to live here, historian David Brose is quick to correct, "They're still here."

Brose is co-chair of the Kalamazoo Reservation Public Education Committee. The committee -- which includes the Match-E-Be-Nash-She-Wish, or Gun Lake Tribe, and representatives of the City of Kalamazoo, Kalamazoo Community Foundation, Arts Council of Greater Kalamazoo, and community volunteers -- is working to make sure residents know the complex history of the band of Pottawatomi who refused to leave their Great Lakes home.

"We're letting people know that this land had occupants before Titus Bronson. And the people who lived here had a long history. Only the last few years of that history is when they were told they could only have a little piece of this land, and then they were told they couldn't even have that. They resisted that," Brose says.

"It's our way of showing our honor toward them, for the people who they were, and still are," he says.

This effort to educate the public -- which grew out of the removal of the Iannelli fountain in Bronson Park -- is leading to the erecting of at least 24 street signs at the boundaries of the 1821-1827 reservation. Funds are being raised for further informational activities. And the committee is also behind a non-invasive study of the mound in Bronson Park, thought to be created by Pottawatomi. Work on the mound will begin June 17. 

After workers put up the sign marking the north-west reservation corner at Patterson Street and Riverview Drive April 22, tribe council member Jeff Martin held a short ceremony, tossed sacred tobacco onto the land at the corner. Large semis in the busy noon traffic drowned out his words. 

It's hard to picture what the area was like when it was Pottawatomi land. Before the reservation, the spot was a place of trading, located at what was considered the head of the Kalamazoo River, where shallow rapids blocked all boats traveling from Lake Michigan, Brose says. 

There was a trading post and a translator's cabin of Chief Match-E-Be-Nash-She-Wish's village on the hill overlooking the river, where Riverside Cemetery is now. A trail, fordable over the river rocks when the water was low, went across the Kalamazoo where the Kalamazoo River Valley Trail bridge is now.

Parchment resident and Gun Lake tribal citizen Holly Henderson was at the sign-raising. She often bikes the KRVT and has been noting that the return of wildflowers, raptors, and other life along the river makes it easier to picture what it was like for her ancestors. "This is part of a nature trail that my family and my community utilizes all the time. So it would be wonderful to see that significance here," she says of the new signs. "This is a very beautiful, significant area."

"Before Western civilization came in, our creation story says we were lowered to this part of the Earth," Martin says. "But why our particular tribe settled on this particular area -- this is where they found food, wild rice, the menomen, hunting, fishing, medicine. Just like today, people viewed water as life, and that's how it was viewed by us a long time ago. It's not just life for the human race, but animals, birds, everyone depends on it." 

It was the Pottawatomi's land -- not that they possessed it, but that they belonged to it as one belongs to a family. "We were here, but we didn't own it -- our typical way of thinking for natives back in those days was, we don't own the land, we belong to the land," Martin says. 

19th Century gentrification

Brose holds a University of Michigan doctorate in anthropology and prehistoric anthropology, and worked as various museums' curator and director until he retired. 

He goes way back in describing what life used to be like in our area. 
"There have been people here for about 12,500 years. Native American ancestors came into the region just as the ice was moving out. They lived an outdoor life in an environment that's quite different than what we see today." 

Those ancestors hunted mastodons and caribou in spruce pine forests, surrounded by vast wetlands fresh from the melting of ice age glaciers. 

The people who became known as the Pottawatomi lived in the northern Great Lakes area, and adapted with the warming climate. Around 4,000 years ago they learned agriculture, first growing squash and amaranth, then corn, beans, and tobacco, moved south and eventually settled along the Kalamazoo River.

The Match-E-Be-Nash-She-Wish reservation was a millisecond of their history. "It was only a federally-recognized reservation for six years," Brose says. "The Pottawatomi had been here for hundreds of years before that. It was only as the new federal government -- at that point it was the Northwest Territory -- came into this area after the Revolution, that they began taking the land that had been Native Americans' for thousands of years." 

The Treaty of Chicago, 1821 took "about 4,000,000 acres of southern Michigan land from the Pottawatomi, the Odawa, and the Ojibwe, and basically paid them nothing. They left them little reservations, each of the chiefs who signed that treaty got a little bit of land.”

After six years, "the territorial government decided (the Match-E-Be-Nash-She-Wish reservation) was a little too close to the road that ran between Detroit and Chicago, and in 1827 they basically said we're taking back that land."

The process of taking the natives’ land "was relatively peaceful here," Brose says. "The land around here was taken by --" he pauses for a sardonic chuckle -- "real estate development means, not by violence." 

Some of the land was sold even while the reservation was still in place -- that's why Whites Road is a bit north of Cork and Parkview. The two roads run along the old Federal survey section line. Land Agent C.C. White bought the rights to land right up to the southern side of the reservation, Brose says.

"It's more a question of what you'd call today 'gentrification' rather than 'conquest.' Although the Indians were not given any choice." 

After 1827, they were directed to go to "scattered little homesteads" at what's now the Indiana-Michigan border, Brose says. 

In 1830, Andrew Jackson signed the Indian Removal Act, leading to the forced migration of most Native Americans east of the Mississippi to the west.

Many in Michigan headed west, "many who started on that trip died, many who started turned back and came up to live with the Match-E-Be-Nash-She-Wish band," Brose says. 

Match-E-Be-Nash-She-Wish's people refused to go to Indiana or the Indian Territories. They moved north into the land they were familiar with. In 1838 they settled at the Bradley Indian Mission, about 25 miles north of Kalamazoo, near Gun Lake.

Sacrifice and resurgence of culture

"The connection to land is something inherent. For indigenous people, they call that 'blood memory,' the true connection to their original habitat," says Phyllis Davis, Gun Lake tribal council member.

"Going away from that is, in essence, stripping you of yourself. We knew that where we were being taken -- Kansas, Oklahoma -- that wasn't our home. Our chief had decided this is where we're going to stay."

Their new home wouldn't be like the Pottawatomi villages of their past, however. They were under the protection of Episcopalian missionaries, sent to Christianize the Pottawatomi. "There were sacrifices that were made by those people who came to stay," Davis says. "That meant adapting to the times, to religious practices and beliefs, and trying to find a way to fit into the community at large that was foreign, but they were willing to do that."

Cultural practices and language were almost lost.  "Language is the hardest to re-acquire," she says. 

But the band stayed together and kept their tribal government functioning, though efforts to be federally recognized as sovereign weren't successful until 1999. 

They are still devoted to the land. The Match-E-Be-Nash-She-Wish table at Bronson Park's Earth Day celebration April 20 was notable for a large sturgeon model -- the tribe is working to re-introduce the large native fish to the Kalamazoo River -- and furs from animals harvested in southwest Michigan woods.

Michigan's nature is intertwined in their culture. Davis says there has been a resurgence in their tribe of bringing it all back. "Our young people are seeking to know teachings about fire, teachings about water, about funeral practices, understanding songs, feasts and what the sturgeon means in the life of our water and rivers and lakes."

Has Kalamazoo done enough to recognize the people who lived here first?

"I think cultural awareness and acknowledgment for people who have existed before statehood, is really important to understand," she says. "I think putting that into context for the tribe is really important for our young people to understand. In climates like today, those things have become politicized, those issues."

Davis continues, "we're not making demands to have that recognition or acknowledgment, but we feel it is our role to help everyone in the state, in the nation, understand our people who have been here before the states. My ancestors were here, and as a human, I think it's really important for everyone to understand their ancestry, their own history, and their own story, so they know who they are and where they come from, and to be proud of that."

All should learn about their families' past, to "understand the sacrifices that happened through the evolution of time," she says.

"The city of Kalamazoo, I believe, has been very gracious and willing to do those things, and I think we will continue to encourage a way to discover more of what we can do together. 

"I don't want to put people on the spot and say, we require that, because we can't demand that and we're not going to take an adversarial role and say, this is our land, you took our land. We know how those things work."

The Match-E-Be-Nash-She-Wish and the Kalamazoo Reservation Public Education Committee are going beyond the reservation signs. They are raising funds for public sculptures at the old reservation boundaries and at Bronson Park. 

With an eye towards engaging youth, they have partnered with the Next Exit History app, developed and run by a national team of historians. Users can see historical markers relative to their location around the United States.

Tapping the pins on the map of Kalamazoo sends one to videos of Gun Lake elders talking about their history. "Times are changing!" Davis says.
The youth of the Gun Lake Tribe are "very engaged," she says, and understand how important it is to "remember a story that your grandma told you about her grandma, and their past and their journey" 

Read more articles by Mark Wedel.

Mark Wedel has been a freelance journalist in southwest Michigan since 1992, covering a bewildering variety of subjects. He also writes on his epic bike rides across the country. He's written a book on one ride, "Mule Skinner Blues." For more information, see www.markswedel.com.