Potawatomi Books, Gary E.  Mitchell]


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With the conclusion of the railroad treaties of the 1860s, the Potawatomi settled upon the eleven-mile square reservation, expecting to live in peace.

But as so many times in the past, this expectation was not part of the overall plan of further development.

The Potawatomi were happy with the present state of affairs on the reservation. In fact, in a reversal of past policy, they started to farm, and like all farmers, they experienced good and bad growing years.

A reservation school was established near the southern part of the reservation and was well attended by the tribal children.

One chief stated: "Under the care of the Interior Department, I will receive full protection and encouragement, and where my property will not be squandered, but will be saved to our children and our children's children for all time to come."

These wishes would never come to pass as envisioned because within a few years, the government zeroed in on the rest of the tribal lands.

Despite convincing evidence that earlier allotment experiments had resulted in the exploitation and dispossession of most Indian tribes, the self-styled friends of the Indians urged Congress to enact a similar policy nationwide.

"The reservation must go!" became the cry of eastern reformers determined to fashion Indians in their own image, transforming them into self-reliant citizens. As a result, in 1887 the Dawes Act was passed.

This law was called a virtual necessity by the government. They said they could no longer protect Indian lands from further settlement and the demands of the railroads and other enterprises. This was a questionable topic to the Potawatomi, in light of the circumstances of the railroad treaties of the 1860s.

The basic premise of the act was to give each Indian a private plot of land to become an industrious farmer.

To hasten assimilation, the law provided for the end of tribal relationships, such as land held in common, and stipulated that reservations were to be surrendered and divided into family-sized farms which would be allotted to each Indian. Reservation acreage left over was declared surplus and offered for sale to whites.

The concept hailed as an innovative reform was being promoted by the clergy and others sympathetic to the Indians. They firmly believed the so-called Indian problem (about which some were advocating more violent and extreme measures) could be solved once and for all by turning the Indians into white men. To wit: Indians would be farmers.

As with past government acts and treaties, the Dawes Act was advocated by a coalition of railroaders, land speculators, bankers, and "Christian humanitarians," with the latter still advancing the old arguments of Indian self-development. The supreme aim of the friends of the Indian was to substitute white civilization for tribal culture, and these "Friends" shrewdly sensed that the difference in the concepts of property was fundamental in the contrast between the two ways of life.

It was a consensus by the reformers, that the white man's way was good and the Indian's way was bad. So allotment was counted on to break up tribal life and to enable the Indian to acquire the benefits of civilization.

In 1881, when the Dawes Act was only a bill, Senator Teller voiced his opposition by saying, "When 30 or 40 years have passed and these Indians have parted with their title, they will curse the hand that was raised professedly in their defense to secure this kind of legislation...the real aim of this bill is to get at the Indian lands and open them up to settlement.

If this was done in the name of greed, it would be bad enough; but to do it in the name of humanity, and under the cloak of an ardent desire to promote the Indian's welfare by making him like ourselves whether he will or not, is infinitely worse."

His prophecy was to come true in the coming years.

First published in the Topeka Capital Journal Thursday, May 11, 1995 and later reprinted in the Potawatomi Traveling Times in Crandon, Wisconsin, 1996.
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