Potawatomi Books, Gary E.  Mitchell]


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Self-government isn't and cannot be the same as self-determination so long as it exists at the whim of the controlling federal government.

No matter how John Collier of the Bureau of Indian Affairs might tidy up the facade of tribal government, and regardless of how many trinkets might be made available to the reservation people, the traditionals didn't want a decision-making process in which their ideas were subject to approval by the Secretary of the Interior or the Commissioner of Indian Affairs.

They wanted independence, and partnership wasn't independence.

But, this particular bureaucratic mechanism was installed against the wishes of the Potawatomi, as well as the other tribes and has remained a problem to this day.

A tribe cannot embark on any business venture, handle its own trust money, or pass any major change in its government without first seeking bureau approval.

In 1832, U.S. Chief Justice John Marshall called Indian tribes "domestic dependent nations" (Cherokee Nation vs. Georgia). The label was just as accurate in the 1930s.

Vine Deloria, Jr., a noted Indian author, said that by the beginning of the twentieth century Indian cultural groups varied widely. The old tribal cohesion was only a shadow of its former strength, and factionalism was widespread on many reservations, including the Potawatomi reservation. Religious controversy flared between Christian Indians and the traditional people - a long time conflict among Potawatomis.

Additionally, as with so many times in the past, full-bloods and mixed-bloods quarreled over both the form of government and the role it should play in their lives. New divisions distinguished by economic status appeared, and the old struggle continued between those Indians who wished to assimilate into American society and those who preferred to remain separate from it.

The tribe was saddled with all of these problems from the early days of white contact and throughout Potawatomi history, and these problems continued into the 1930s.

In fact, the tribe voted down the new form of government by a vote of 158-11 in October 1937. A newspaper article said the Potawatomi "did not care for the complicated proposition the white man offers."

Maybe the best illustration of how many Indians felt about the new law can best be seen in a story about an old Potawatomi neighbor in the Great Lakes - the Menominee. The story went like this:

After a treaty was concluded with the Menominee in which they ceded 3 million acres of land, the government of Wisconsin gave a chief a top hat and a formal dress coat. The chief graciously accepted these gifts, a custom of the time, and used the clothes as a visual device to communicate with his people.

Donning the clothes, the chief would often parade around town on moccasined feet. This undaunted little man of five feet would call out to his friends as he strode by. "Don't I look awful? This is how the white man's law fits the Indian."

This story typified the historical and political legacy that came out of the 1930s for the Potawatomi tribe.

All future dissent of the tribe can be directly traced to a form of government never really accepted by the tribe. A ruling body was never part of the Potawatomi story, and though changing times dictated this concept, it was never accepted nor were the leaders that became part of the new body politic of the tribe.

First published in the Topeka Capital Journal Thursday, June 8, 1995.
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