Potawatomi Books, Gary E.  Mitchell]


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Potawatomi strategy to avoid termination of the tribe included a grass roots campaign.

It included signing and sending petitions of protest to the government and sending delegation after delegation to Washington, D.C., to testify in front of congressional committees and to generally be a thorn in the side of the policy-makers.

What made this so unique was that the tribal people were generally poor, but they would take up collections of money and some would sell their livestock and other possessions to send their elected leaders to Washington, D.C. by train to fight for their rights.

Often as many as 200 people would gather at the home of Minnie Evans to debate the issues facing them. A consensus existed to maintain the tribal unity - one way or the other.

Thankfully, for the tribe and the following generations, the message came across strong and clear. The Prairie Band of Potawatomi tribe wanted to remain Indian--a message spoken from time immortal - and Congress withdrew the name of the tribe from the termination bill.

In a rare victory for the tribe, the efforts of the Potawatomi leadership prevented the total elimination of the tribal unit and the tribal status.

It was the most important event in the history of the tribe.

This occurred at the same time the Supreme Court was deciding the famous Brown v. Topeka Board of Education, a landmark case overruling the separate but equal arrangement being practiced between the white and black races in America.

As a result, America became the first multiracial nation to resolve a major inequality by constitutional means, but the American Indian, in contrast, faced termination and continued inequality within the political spectrum.

While America professed to open its doors to the black race, it was still common for American Indians to go into the city of Topeka and see signs like "No Indians Allowed" hanging in the windows of many restaurants. Larene Thomas, a tribal member, can recall as a young girl buying food "to go" at the back door of these restaurants in the 1960s.

In addition, until 1953, it was against the law to sell beer or liquor to Indians.

Ironically, Indians could go to war, fight and die, but could not buy a beer in the local tavern. Granted, buying that beer wasn't in the best interest of the American Indian, but it was another glaring example of the government deciding what was best for their "wards."

Sadly, many Indians were accustomed to this type of treatment and had to endure it from the government and the surrounding communities. It was a definite possibility that the tribe would have ceased to exist if it weren't for the sheer determination on the part of people like Minnie Evans. She did what was necessary for the tribe to stay intact, and for that she should go down as one of the greatest leaders in Potawatomi history.

But recognition rarely comes in a political leader's lifetime, and this was the case with Minnie Evans. Her spirit may have been best articulated by an anonymous writer who said, "Leaders are like eagles, they don't flock...you find them one at a time."

The latest assault on the tribe was averted because of this stubborn woman who believed in her people and thought they were worth fighting for. Congress agreed by removing the tribe from the elimination list. She won this battle and continued on with the claims fight for the next 23 years.

The 1950s and 1960s were a time of fighting for a cause the Potawatomi believed in, and that was survival and getting a fair settlement on the past land claims.

After all this fighting for the rights of the tribe, Minnie Evans was eased out of the political scene when the time came for getting the first "per-capita" payment, a cash distribution to each enrolled tribal member from the land settlement. She was eased out by a group who wanted to be in charge and reap the benefits of her hard work.

This is something common in all politics, whether black, white or red.

A misconception started from this time when Indians finally did get a payment of $490 for each tribal member and that was "the government gave this type of payment to Indians all the time," but this was the result of 23 years of legal warfare with the government over all the gross injustices of the past, especially in the area of land.

Minnie Evans faded slowly from tribal politics, a victim of the cruel political mentality of "what have you done for me lately," and her familiar presence at committee hearings, council meetings, and social functions was to be no more.

She died in 1971.

Gone, but not forgotten in the history of the Potawatomi.

First published in the Topeka Capital Journal, Thursday, July 13, 1995 and later reprinted in News From Indian Country.
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