Potawatomi Books, Gary E.  Mitchell]


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The Potawatomi still persistently refused to recognize their allotments of land or the right of the government to make such disposition.

Persuasion consisted of withholding federal payments due the Prairie Band and giving double allotments of their land to whites, Indians from other tribes and the residing agent's relatives.

Fearing the total loss of their reservation, the Prairie Band finally accepted allotments and became "private entrepreneurs." With the loss of communal property came the demise of traditional communal government.

Ironically, this course of action affected the Potawatomi as much as, or more than, the railroad fiasco. In the railroad treaties, the land base was taken away from the tribe, but now with the passage of the new law, the opportunity for huge losses of land by individual members of the tribe were created.

Prior to the Dawes Act, it took an act of Congress to take Indian land away from the tribe as a whole, but with land held by individuals it became easier. The Prairie Band opposed this measure, but as so often in the past, the law of the land prevailed. Once again the tribe had to endure more land loss.

Coincidentally, this happened to Indians all over the country after the Dawes Act passed with one source stating 90 million acres of tribal lands transferred to white ownership.

Theodore Roosevelt said that the Dawes Act would serve as "a mighty pulverizing machine to break up the tribal mass."

His remarks were tragically prophetic, as an enormous loss of Indian land followed, with total Indian holdings falling 63% from 138 million acres in 1887 to 52 million acres in 1934. The Potawatomi alone were to lose almost 50,000 acres in this same time span.

The Allotment Act failed to recognize that many Indians, particularly those who traditionally had been nomadic hunters and gatherers, could not or would not become farmers overnight. They had neither the cultural background for the new way of life nor the necessary training.

Furthermore, much of the land allotted to them was too poor to farm, and they received no financial credit and little help of any other kind. Many Indians, such as the Potawatomi, totally estranged from non-Indian economic motivations and customs, leased or sold their lands to whites at bargain prices, usually obtaining the land for a fraction of its value; others were swindled out of their holdings.

Under the Dawes Act, and later legislation designed to accelerate the sale and lease of the Indians' allotments to whites, conditions on reservations became scandalous. Indians received little or no education and were treated as wards, incapable of self-government or self-determination.

Whatever revenues the tribes received from land sales were dissipated, with virtually nothing remaining for the Indians to create sound foundations for the development of the human and economic resources of the reservation. In general, Indian life was marked by poverty, disease, neglect, and hopelessness.

Another problem encountered by the Prairie Band occurred when the land was taken into allotment. The practice of leasing started, and that brought unprincipled white men into business relations and daily contact with the tribe. They were described as vicious men who would manipulate the tribal members in these dealings. Leasing was the only option open to many Potawatomi since they lacked the resources to make a real attempt at farming.

To compound the problem, many of the Citizen Band members refused to move to the new reservation in Oklahoma. They had given up their rights on the reservation but somehow still found their way to influence among the Prairie Band and serve on later business committees of the tribe.

Some changed their names to get the second allotment, and some used their mother's Indian name for a given last name. This was the standard operating procedure when it came to Potawatomi land issues.

Additionally, there was a marked surge in land sales between 1918 and 1921 when young men home from military service during World War I decided there were brighter prospects elsewhere than in reservation life. Their reasoning wasn't too far from the truth since there were few jobs available on the reservations, a problem that continued for years.

Lack of transportation compounded the search for work, which also led the Potawatomi to move to the cities.

The Bureau of Indian Affairs was set up and designed to protect the interests of the tribal members, but this grand plan worked against the tribe and its members.

At the same time the Indian people were also their own worst enemy. The loss of so much Potawatomi land in the coming years forced many to go off to work in the cities. Life on the reservation was fairly simple then, and the people learned to live with all the surrounding turmoil. Maybe they had grown accustomed to exploitation and decided to make the best of a sad situation.

While the Prairie Band did what was necessary to survive this traumatic period of land loss, they were never the same powerful tribe again. The policies and the conduct of the United States and its citizens were to tear apart the social fabric of the tribe.

One observer coming from the East, after meeting members of the tribe for the first time, remarked how their eyes reflected the defeat of the years. Without the traditions handed down for generations, then the Potawatomi wouldn't have survived and retained a tough historical fiber, a necessary ingredient for the years ahead.

First published in the Topeka Capital Journal Thursday, May 18, 1995.
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