Potawatomi Books, Gary E.  Mitchell]


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The tribe was under the illusion that life would remain the same even after the initial contacts with the French. But slowly, it all changed.

The Potawatomi were drawn into the materialistic culture of the fur trade and war eventually started between the European countries competing for control of the New World.

Potawatomi and the other tribes were to see a lifestyle changed forever and almost destroyed and they never understood why this took place on their lands. Why was this great power struggle being waged on Indian lands?

In part, the Europeans, in essence, viewed themselves as forerunners of the new civilization, destined to win the New World for their emperors and churches. At no time in history have men been driven by such fanatical ambition.

Theoretically, the Age of discovery came from a medieval, Anglo-Saxon, legal concept called the "Norman Yoke," articulated by John Locke in his philosophy of Natural Law and incorporated into the Doctrine of Discovery and Rights of Conquest, by which all European governments justified their actions on the North American continent.

This doctrine stated that any Christian - which means European - happening upon waste lands (most particularly land that was vacant of human habitation) had not only a natural right, but an obligation to put such land to productive use.

Having thus performed God's will by cultivating and thereby conquering the former wilderness, its discoverer can be said to own it. Eventually, this laid the groundwork for the Manifest Destiny concept.

Basically the Potawatomi, over the years, were a warrior society by necessity. It was a case of fight or perish in many conflicts as evidenced by wars with the Iroquois, Sioux and then the European powers.

As a result, the Potawatomi warriors were to provide secondary forces for the French in their colonial wars with the British. They were spurred into battle by personal glory and public renown.

This was in sharp contrast to early efforts of having to defend their homelands. Nonetheless, the tribe pledged its allegiance to the French in this conflict with the English. The French were to utilize their Indian allies, such as the Potawatomi, throughout the war.

Back and forth victories continued until Quebec fell to the British in September, 1759, ending the French and Indian War.

It came to a formal ending in 1763 with the treaty between the French and the British.

With the defeat and withdrawal of the French in the New World, the Potawatomi turned to the British for the needed trade goods they had become accustomed to for the previous 90 years.

It thus can be said that the Potawatomi political alliance shifted with the circumstances of the day. More importantly, however the Potawatomi expected the same treatment accorded them by the French --- to be treated as equals.

The French had lavished gifts upon the tribal leaders, entertaining them as honored guests worthy of great respect and deference (called Frontier Politics).

But the British were to fall short of these expectations. Trade goods, ammunition and other needed supplies were withheld because of tight-fisted policies and a shortage of trade goods. As a result, the Potawatomi began to doubt the wisdom of their new allegiance.

Possibly, this disenchantment led the Potawatomi to band with the supreme war chief, Pontiac, a chief of the Ottawa, who challenged the expansion of the English colonies beyond the Alleghenies. He shared the same sentiments as the Potawatomi in that they had pledged their hearts to the expelled French.

Pontiac believed if he could only defeat the English, the French would return.

Like so many chiefs, Pontiac was a man of his word. He raised a hellish rebellion on the frontier; he captured British forts, wiped out white settlements and eliminated as many farmsteads as his braves and allies, such as the Potawatomi, could reach.

This rebellion was the most significant attempt by the Indian nations to throw off the approaching white civilization.

This effort was reduced with the introduction of a smallpox virus into stacks of trade blankets during an attempted peace parlay. As a result, a smallpox epidemic swept through the tribes in 1763 and 1764. Historian Francis Parkman called this the first recorded act of germ warfare committed in America. It led to the defeat of the confederacy.

Despite the defeat of the confederacy, life did go on for the tribes, but not for the great leader Pontiac who was killed by a group of Illini Indians. According to Indian legend, all of Illinois was inhabited by a band of six tribes who called themselves the "Illini."

In revenge, the Ottawa and Potawatomi tribes fought and killed the northern tribes, the last of them perishing on Starved Rock in about 1768. The Potawatomi held Pontiac in high esteem as a leader and were generally brutal in the elimination of the Illini. And that story is reserved for tribal oral tradition.

When the American Revolution started in 1775, it did not bring immediate reaction in the Indian country because Indian leaders viewed the conflict as a father and a son quarrel in which they had no part.

Furthermore, both British and American authorities at first urged the Indians to remain neutral. By 1777, however, officers on both sides were urging the Indians to become active partisans. The Potawatomi eventually sided with the British, and of course, they lost that particular fight.

In the early 1800s, the Potawatomi made one last-ditch effort at their own revolution and independence. This one was under the great Shawnee Chief Tecumseh and his half-brother, the Prophet.

Tecumseh advocated a great Indian confederation to defend what territory they had left. He dedicated his life to this cause, but over time this became futile. Tecumseh vowed to leave his body on the battlefield, and he did die with the dream of a united Indian nation going with him.

Even with British help, this attempt to resist American encroachment also failed, and the final defeat of the confederacy of northwest Indians, which included the Potawatomi, became only an incident in the War of 1812.

It was later the tribe paid for this decision because the federal government believed that part of the Potawatomis would remain hostile after the War of 1812, so they were particularly eager for their removal - the groundwork and some reasoning for the larger removal policy of the coming years.

One reason the colonies rebelled against England was the taxation without representation issue and they resented England's forbidding them the opportunity to move beyond the boundaries of the 13 colonies. The colonies wanted to open up the new lands for new homes, crops or a new chance at life. The Indians were viewed as obstacles to this objective, and they had to go one way or the other.

The many displacements of all tribes signified the start of Manifest Destiny. Although this term didn't become a household word until the James K. Polk presidency in the 1840s, it had its roots in the early days of the formation of this country.

Manifest Destiny considered it God's will for the white population to own all of the North American continent. Indians didn't understand this reasoning, but they were to learn the true meaning of this concept first hand in the coming years.

As history so well states, the ideas of the on-coming white civilization prevailed, and the Indian tribes such as the Potawatomi were to lose a way of life in the name of progress.

The tribes could not escape the westward expansion and American Nationalism and all the other rationalizing principles to take the land.

The Potawatomi didn't realize when they extended their friendship and support to the French on that day in 1634 that it would eventually mean this fate.

First published in the Topeka Capital Journal, Thursday, March 1, 1995 and later reprinted in the March Potawatomi Traveling Times in Crandon, Wisconsin, 1996.
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