Potawatomi Books, Gary E.  Mitchell]


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Amidst the chaos of World War II, life went on for the people on the Potawatomi reservation.

Some economical improvements came with the creation of war-time jobs, but the war was not far from the minds of the people who had loved ones off in other countries. Family members routinely gathered to pray for their safety and well-being, a tribal custom from time immortal.

Apart from these concerns, political life escalated and intensified.

The debate and dissent over the new form of government, brought on by the Indian Reorganization Act of the 1930s, heightened. On many a night, tribal members talked over the merits and shortcomings of the new body politic.

The false promises of past treaties were hot topics, and for a people who had suffered silently for years, the time for change was near. It was a culmination of factors that brought about this needed change in the life of the Potawatomi.

A large part of this equation occurred after the war. Once the soldiers returned from World War II, they expected life to be better for them and their fellow tribal people. After all, they, along with numerous others, fought in the war with the belief that all of their freedoms were to be forever secure.

But the horizon darkened quite rapidly, and those expectations were soon shattered. White society, or at least that part in charge of government policy, thought that the Indian should undergo another attempt at assimilation. The prevailing reason was that since the Indian fought so valiantly in the great war, surely he was ready to be on his own two feet, no longer needing government services (what few there were).

A concerted effort began to eliminate tribal groups as federally recognized tribes. Of course, this type of maneuver wasn't anything new when it came to white-Indian relations.

In 1946, Congress created the Indian Claims Commission in order to adjudicate various claims made by Indian tribes against the United States. In large part the establishment of the Commission was a genuine attempt at justice for American Indians who had suffered at the hands of the government. On the other hand, the commission was also designed to take care of the suits to clear the way for an eventual withdrawal of the government from "Indian business."

Since the pre-Civil War era, Indian tribes had not been given standing to sue the federal government for violation of treaties and agreements. If a tribe desired to go to court, usually the Court of Claims, it had to seek Congressional authorization in the form of special legislation.

This legislation spelled out precisely what procedures the tribe might have once a decision was rendered. This tedious procedure, while it protected the United States against its Indians who were regarded as mere wards of the state, meant that each session of Congress had to consider numerous Indian bills giving the tribes access to the Court of Claims.

Once the Claims Commission was set up, all tribes were allowed to file their claims against the United States in special court. The tribes soon filed 800 claims.

A conservative group on the reservation had long advocated a resolution to past wrongs. The group believed the treaties were solemn promises, and they only asked government live up to its obligations.

Over the years, old men like Joe Simon had continually talked about these broken promises, and finally a venue was created in 1946. Luckily for the Potawatomi, a strong leader emerged in the war years.

A woman named Minnie Evans, a long-time member of the conservative group, was to make a difference for the Potawatomi because of her strong leadership, perseverance, and a determination that would pay off for future generations. She was the granddaughter of the old chief Wabsai and at some point came to identify her life's meaning with the cause of the Potawatomi.

Her political career started in 1933 with an appointment to an advisory board. She was elected to a life-time term on a board of concillators. This group was composed of tribal elders upon whose council and wisdom the rest of the tribe could draw.

A general council of the tribe, on September 16, 1947, elected as counselors for life Minnie Evans, chairman, William Hale, James Kegg, James Wahbnosah, Curtis Pequano, John Wahwassuck, and Dora Gokey.

One of their first duties was to select attorneys for the presentation of claims of the tribe, and they were authorized to contract these services on behalf of the tribe.

First published in the Topeka Capital Journal Thursday, June 22, 1995
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