'We're Still Here'

Recognition of Kalamazoo’s indigenous roots has been ‘a long time coming’
Members of the Match-E-Be-Nash-She-Wish Band of the Pottawatomi Indians, also known as the Gun Lake Tribe, pictured here at the tribe's annual pow wow, are descendants of the original indigenous people who lived in Southwest Michigan. Courtesy photo.

Traveling west on Whites Road past the Kalamazoo Country Club, the road veers left, splitting into a triangular intersection. Whites Road continues straight ahead, ending at Oakland Drive, while back at the intersection the main road becomes Parkview Avenue, which straightens out after the curve and continues in a neat line to Oshtemo Township.

Those unfamiliar with historic documents may think little of this switch in roads, but there’s a story behind the concrete. Parkview Avenue follows Kalamazoo’s original boundary line, while Whites Road was once the boundary line of a reservation that belonged to the Match-E-Be-Nash-She-Wish Band of Pottawatomi Indians, otherwise known as the Gun Lake Tribe, which is now located less than 30 miles away.

If few people know that some indigenous people never left the area, even fewer realize that a reservation predates the city of Kalamazoo. But that situation is beginning to change as efforts are being made to recognize and respect the area’s indigenous roots.

“Recognition of the peoples indigenous to the area has been a long time coming,” says Jodie Palmer, a retired Western Michigan University professor and Gun Lake Tribal Council member. “There are three federally recognized Pottawatomi tribes in the area, and all have made substantial economic strides over this past decade, which have made us more visible to the dominant culture.”

Making a mark

In April of this year, signs designed by the Kalamazoo Reservation Public Education Committee went up around the city, marking the boundaries of the land that was owned from 1821-1827 by the Match-E-Be-Nash-She-Wish (MATCH-ee-bin-ASH-ee-wish) Band.

The committee, co-chaired by retired archeologist David S. Brose and John Shagonaby, senior director of governmental affairs for the Gun Lake Tribe, grew out of an earlier Issues Resolution Committee, put together in 2004 by former Kalamazoo city manager Ken Collard to address the controversial Fountain of the Pioneers in downtown Kalamazoo’s Bronson Park. (Public outcry ultimately resulted in the fountain’s removal in 2018.)

The education committee, made up of representatives of the Gun Lake Tribal Council, city of Kalamazoo, Kalamazoo Community Foundation, Arts Council of Greater Kalamazoo, Kalamazoo Valley Museum and community volunteers, aims to build comprehensive community awareness of the Match-E-Be-Nash-She-Wish Tribe’s past and present.

“It seems that our history is remembered only by the wars and our removal, but we’re thriving and have our own form of government,” Shagonaby says. “I just want people to know that we’re still here.”

The controversy over the fountain, which came to a head last year, has helped in those efforts.

The modernist sculpture, built in 1940 by Italian American Alfonso Iannelli, depicted a white settler standing over a Native American man in a headdress. Iannelli, who worked with the famed architect Frank Lloyd Wright in Chicago, was also a student of American sculptor Gutzon

Borglum, who later became famous as the creator of the Mount Rushmore National Memorial, another controversial work of art built on historically indigenous land.

In a statement sent to the Kalamazoo Public Library in 1940, Iannelli called the pioneer a “tower-symbol” and said the Indian is “absorbed as the white man advances.”

The sculpture was deemed racist by many people as early as 1970, according to Brose, but both he and Shagonaby cite two incidents that they say brought the issue to a head in Kalamazoo: the removal of Confederate monuments around the country and the car attack that killed a woman during a peaceful protest against a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017. On March 5, 2018, the Kalamazoo City Commission voted 5 to 1 to remove the fountain.

It was a moral victory for the those who saw the sculpture as a celebration of the forced removal of Native Americans from their homeland. Larry “Pun” Plamondon, a member of the Grand River Bands of Ottawa Indians, Turtle Clan, and a former member of its tribal council, says, “I'm glad the statue is gone. It's been an eyesore for decades.”

Plamondon, a storyteller who lives in Barry County, says that the fountain was inappropriate, since its placement in a “gateway park” implied that it was endorsed by the city. Speaking for himself rather than his tribe, Plamondon explains, “A statue depicting a ‘pioneer’ with an upraised weapon standing over a native man on his knees is degrading to most natives and a constant reminder of the genocide, land theft and ruthless destruction on the part of the dominant culture.”

A petition to remove the fountain, circulated on Change.org in 2018 by activist Monica Washington Padula, of Ojibwe descent, echoed Plamondon’s objection, stating that the statue reminded Native Americans of their years of fighting to merely survive. “Native-Americans have the right to equal access of enjoyment to the public park without re-experiencing historical trauma,” Padula wrote.

But not everyone felt that removing the sculpture was the best way to address the true — and awful — events of U.S. history. Brose believes that taking down statues such as Ianelli’s will not solve problems of racism in our country. “That will bury our problems even deeper than they were a hundred years ago,” he says.

Shagonaby, a WMU graduate and chair of the board at Gun Lake Investments, recalls that his tribe felt similarly as far back as the mid-2000s, when it got involved because its former reservation encompassed Kalamazoo.

At the time, Shagonaby asked someone on the city’s Historic Preservation Committee whether the fountain was considered a historical piece or an art piece. When that person answered that it was an art piece, it changed things for Shagonaby.

“If it’s art, there can be an interpretation,” he says. “Historically, it may be uncomfortable, and maybe we have a problem with it, but the tribe’s position, then and now, is that works of art shouldn’t be censored.

“But get the historical facts right,” he adds.

The actual history

Pottawatomi Indians didn’t wear headdresses, Shagonaby says. They also weren’t all driven westward. The state of Michigan itself is home to 10 federally recognized Indian bands, three of which are Pottawatomi and whose descendants remain in the region.

According to the Gun Lake Tribe’s website, there are 10 bands of Pottawatomi Indians, also spelled Potawatomi and called Bodewadmi or Bodewéwadmik in their original languages. Some of the Pottawatomi bands were moved west of the Mississippi River after the 1830 Indian Removal Act was passed under U.S. President Andrew Jackson. Some migrated north to Canada, but many remained and live in the area today.

Members of the Nottawaseppi Huron Band of the Pottawatomi live on the Pine Creek Indian Reservation, in Fulton, Michigan. This band has been a federally recognized tribe since 1995. The members are the descendants of people moved west on what the Pottawatomi call the Trail of Death, on which many of their ancestors died. Some snuck back to their northern homelands, however, and their descendants make up this tribe.

The Pokagon Band of Pottawatomi Indians, under the leadership of Leopold Pokagon, successfully resisted removal by the U.S. government after Michigan became a state in 1837. They settled near present-day Dowagiac and have been a federally recognized sovereign nation since 1994.

The Pokagon Band website notes that the Pottawatomi — or Neshnabek, as in “original people” — have always been in the region. It also refers to a migration from the East Coast with Ojibwe (anglicized as Chippewa) and Odawa (Ottawa) Nations, two indigenous nations with whom the Bodewadmi (Pottawatomi) share a similar language and a loose alliance known as the Council of the Three Fires, or the Three Fires Confederacy.

Within this alliance, the Bodewadmi became known as Keepers of the Fire, the Ojibwe as Keepers of Tradition, and the Odawa as Keepers of the Trade.

In 1821, Chief Match-E-Be-Nash-She-Wish and the Three Fires war chiefs signed the Treaty of Chicago, which the Match-E-Be-Nash-She-Wish website calls “the first treaty that directly affected our ancestors.” Under the treaty, four million acres were ceded to the U.S. government, including land that encompassed modern-day Grand Rapids, Kalamazoo, Jackson, Albion, Battle Creek, Niles, Three Rivers, Hillsdale, Adrian, Coldwater, Allegan, St. Joseph and Benton Harbor, plus two Indiana cities — Elkhart and South Bend.

A three-square-mile reservation in what is now Kalamazoo was all that was left to the tribes. In 1827, the Pottawatomi tribes signed the Treaty of St. Joseph, which ceded the Kalamazoo reservation to the U.S. government, a deal for which the tribes never received compensation.

The Match-E-Be-Nash-She-Wish tribe then began a period of constant northern migration to avoid being moved west. They eventually settled in Bradley, near Gun Lake, around 1838 and resisted efforts by the Episcopal Church to make them Christians. They held on to their traditions and set up a tribal government that persists to this day. After a prolonged application process, in 1999 the tribe gained federal recognition. It currently has 550 enrolled members and on Aug. 23 celebrated 20 years of sovereignty.

A book put out by the National Museum of the American Indian in collaboration with the Smithsonian Institution in 2007 is titled Do All Indians Live In Tipis? Those familiar with indigenous people in the U.S. might find the title laughable, but, as Elspeth Inglis, assistant director for programs at the Kalamazoo Valley Museum and a member of the Kalamazoo Reservation Public Education Committee, says, she used to overhear adults telling children that Indians lived in huts and tipis and that they were no longer here.

“Of course, Native Americans live in modern homes and wear modern clothing just like the rest of us,” Inglis says.

Also rarely covered in discussions of Native Americans were the brutalities indigenous children suffered in Christian boarding schools, where boys had their long hair cut and children were beaten for using their own language.

“There is much about the presence of Native Americans everywhere that has been overlooked — or willfully ignored, actually — in the telling of American history,” Inglis says. “There are elders around now who were subjected to this treatment, so we're not talking about the distant past.”

That’s why committee members are trying to get more factual indigenous history into Kalamazoo Public Schools classrooms, in the form of simple lesson plans that don’t overwhelm teachers who already have a lot on their plates.

‘Forward strides’

Committee member Palmer, the retired WMU professor and Gun Lake Tribal Council member, says she’s been informally working on this educational effort for decades but remains optimistic that changes are on the horizon.

“There have been forward strides and changes in the community,” Palmer says, citing the city of Kalamazoo’s official recognition of the past with the placement of the street signs.

There are further plans to mark the four corners of the historic reservation with works of art, an initiative on which all of the property owners have signed off.

In the meantime, Palmer says, the committee’s entry on Next Exit History, a mobile app that uses GPS to explore local historic sites, gives an overview of the Gun Lake Tribe and addresses the significant inaccuracies surrounding the Fountain of the Pioneers. The entry lays the foundation for a school curriculum still in the works.

On Sept. 11, WMU’s Board of Trustees acknowledged that the university is located on historically indigenous land by approving a public statement inviting people to recognize the Ojibwe, Odawa and Bodewadmi nations that once resided there. (Kalamazoo College has also acknowledged that it is located on historically indigenous land.)

“Please take a moment to acknowledge and honor this ancestral land of the Three Fires Confederacy,” the WMU statement reads, noting “the sacred lands of all indigenous peoples and their continued presence.”

Reporting that the Michigan History Center recently installed trilingual plant markers in Latin, English, and the Pottawatomi language on the Kal-Haven Trail, Palmer says, “I believe there is growing recognition and acknowledgment of the original inhabitants of the area.”

In 2017, the City of Kalamazoo changed Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples’ Day, a decision that came about during debates about Ianelli’s fountain and signaled a shift in perspective.

The associate curator of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian, Paul Chaat-Smith, has something to say about what is needed to fully contemplate the histories of indigenous people in our country. In his book Everything You Know About Indians Is Wrong, he writes about the opening of the museum, which celebrated its 15th year in September. Worried that it could not possibly live up to its assignment to be a meditative space and a channel between public and Native cultures, both present and past, Chaat-Smith writes, “The museum should be a place where the evidence is presented in a thousand voices and in a thousand ways, a place where visitors make up their own minds; and a place where the most important exhibit comes after everyone leaves, as visitors, for the very first time, look closely at the ground beneath their feet.”

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Becoming a Sovereign Nation

Such recognition is key to a tribe’s future, say tribal leaders

The Match-E-Be-Nash-She-Wish Band of Pottawatomi, also known as the Gun Lake Tribe, is a federally recognized Indian tribe and therefore a sovereign nation with powers of self-government. This federal recognition became effective on Aug. 23, 1999, and the tribe’s constitution was adopted the next year.

According to John Shagonaby, senior director of governmental affairs for the Gun Lake Tribe, sovereignty establishes government-to-government relationsbetween nations and is essential to a tribe’s economic development. The Indian Reorganization Act of 1834 granted some tribes this relationship with the U.S. government, while others, including the Gun Lake Tribe, were left aside.

Obtaining federal recognition is a lengthy process but, when achieved, allows tribes access to essential programs and services, Shagonaby says. It also allows them to negotiate gaming contracts. Under the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act of 1988, federally recognized tribes can establish casinos if they negotiate a compact with the state in which they’re located and that compact is then approved by the federal government, specifically the Secretary of the Interior.

“Tribes don’t have a taxable base to fund programs,” Shagonaby says, so gaming has been a crucial part of the developing economies of Michigan tribes, providing jobs, housing, education and environmental programs to members.

“You name it, we’re able to do it now,” he says, although he notes that federally recognized bands are held to a lot of rules and regulations.

“For the most part, tribes are looked after very carefully,” he says, laughing softly.

The first U.S. governmental agency to oversee indigenous peoples was the Department of War. Eventually, jurisdiction was shifted to the Department of the Interior, which oversees land and natural resources.

Shagonaby says he thinks that U.S. government relations with Indian tribes should be handled by Congress and the White House, and he finds it odd that tribes are under the Department of the Interior.

“It shows you the mindset,” he says. “’To deal with the Indians, let’s put them in the Interior.’

“But that’s just the way it is.” He pauses, then quips, “Well, it’s better than the Department of War.”