Low – Pokagon Recognition

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The Pokagon Potawatomi Indians, I think, are a typical example of tribes that were historically recognized by the United States government and subsequently disenfranchised and denied their sovereign status. And that can be a very disastrous experience for a community because that tribal identity can be a cohesiveness and a glue that holds the community together. And when that’s denied, it’s really a very heavy-handed effort at assimilation. And Indian people, many Indian people, do not want to participate in an American dream where they’re assimilated into some kind of melting pot. They want to have equal opportunities. They want to have the rights and responsibilities of citizenship, but they also want to maintain their tribal identities.

Specifically, with the Pokagon Band of Potawatomi, of which I’m a member, the Potawatomi, my community, the Pokagon Potawatomi, were a historically recognized tribe that signed treaties throughout the 1700s and 1800s and up until 1934 were recognized by the federal government. Historic tribe[s] are the multitude of tribes that have had a historic relationship with the United States government or any of its European predecessors. Primarily that was through treaties, is how that’s defined or designated. And the Potawatomi in whatever variations of nation or identity, Potawatomi entered into more than 100 treaties with the United States government. And so we had a long history of being a historic tribe. And in fact in 1895 had had annuity payments that had been paid pursuant to treaties that recognized the Pokagon Potawatomi as a historic tribe and in fact in 1917 the Pokagon Potawatomi had sued the City of Chicago for the Chicago lakefront all the way up to the United States Supreme Court and nobody averred, nobody even thought of arguing that we aren’t a sovereign Indian tribe. That was not even argued at that point.

During the New Deal and the Great Depression, the Pokagon Potawatomi wrote to Washington D.C., to the Bureau of Indian Affairs, requesting the opportunity to reorganize their tribal government from a business committee into an Indian Reorganization Act, or IRA government. When the Indian Reorganization Act was passed, tribes were requested to respond to whether or not they wanted to participate in what we call the IRA. And our tribe, we were governed by a business committee at that point. Our business committee drafted correspondence, passed a motion, drafted correspondence, and conferred with Washington D.C., advised them that we wanted to participate in the IRA and we wanted to reorganize our business committee into a constitutional democracy with all the rights and responsibilities of the Indian Reorganization Act. The response from the bureaucrats in Washington D.C. was essentially that, “Well, we don’t have enough money because of the Great Depression to fund all these tribes that are asking to participate in the IRA. And so we’re going to unilaterally and not particularly fairly cut off many of them.” And so, in Michigan, for instance, all the tribes south of that magic line drawn across the state, 100 miles north of Lansing, Michigan, all the tribes south of that were disenfranchised. They were just told that, “No, you cannot, despite your request, you cannot participate in the Indian Reorganization Act, and in fact, we don’t consider you a sovereign government anymore. And you’ll just have to make it. Good luck, don’t write us again.” That was the response from the federal government.

As an IRA tribe, they would have provided us with funding, which the Indian Reorganization Act provided for. Low cost loans and other funding. There were also [the] treaty rights; by becoming an IRA government [it] would have confirmed our access to those previous treaties. They owed us health care, they owed us education. And by denying us our continued existence they were absolving themselves of those obligations as well. They knew that we were the poorest of the poor and that what are we going to do about it? Very little. We lobbied, we wrote letters, we tried to get publicity on our behalf. But it was difficult times, and then of course certainly right after 1934 was the passage of this Act and then World War II came and then after World War II was a process of terminating tribes. And so it was not a process then that was an Indian sovereignty friendly era. And so it was, as the decades rolled on, nobody was willing to listen to us. They didn’t respond to our letters, they didn’t really much care.

And so we became sort of hiding in plain sight. And we made do as best we could, which we did. We continued to have a business committee, we continued to have a community, we continued to gather both for social reasons, ceremonial reasons, for governmental reasons. We just didn’t have a relationship—we did not have a government-to-government relationship with the United States government. And we missed out on the economic opportunities of the Indian Reorganization Act and then as other laws were passed, particularly beginning in the 1970s, we began missing out on those economic development laws, and those laws that were protecting Indian rights, because we were not a federally recognized tribe. Well, the elders of the community weren’t willing to take that. And so they fought, and that fight went on for sixty years, from 1934 until 1994.

There was a process beginning in the 1960s [1978], I believe, when the Bureau of Indian Affairs developed a branch called the Branch of Acknowledgment and Recognition, which was an administrative process for tribes that had been disenfranchised, were never historically recognized, to petition for federal recognition. And I returned to my community after law school in 1981 and participated with other members of the community in trying to satisfy the extensive requirements of that Branch of Acknowledgment and Recognition. Essentially, you had to show that you were a historic tribe or that you should have been a historic tribe, that you’d been an ongoing tribal government, that you were an ongoing community, that you had an ongoing relationship with the federal government, and a series of very specific requirements to then petition this branch for reestablishment of your sovereignty and your federal recognition. The difficulty was that this was a sinkhole essentially, that it always seemed we began working, you know. We had been working for many years prior to 1981, but when I came home in 1981 we were continuing to file petitions and the system wasn’t working. Whenever we filed petitions and we thought the file was complete we always got a response back from Washington D.C. that, “No, you’re missing something more.” Members of the community were fortunate enough that we contacted local academics. Sharon O’Brien, who is at Notre Dame University and is a very important non-Native scholar on American Indian affairs, and her husband, Donald Fixico, at the time who was at Western Michigan agreed to help us, guide us through this process. And so we continued for several more years to try to go this administrative path.

Finally, we saw the writing on the wall and concluded that this system isn’t set up to be fair to Indian people. This system is not set up for success. It’s a system set up for failure. It’s a system for justifying denying us our sovereign rights. And so there was another alternative. We also had the right to ask for legislative approval of our federal recognition. And so members of the community contacted our local representatives in Congress, specifically, Congressman Fred Upton and Congressman Tim Roemer to promote a bill in Congress reestablishing our federal recognition. That was the process that we circumvented this Branch of Acknowledgment and Recognition and went the legislative path to restoration of our sovereign rights and ultimately that process was successful in 1994. In September of 1994, President Clinton signed the bill that had been passed by Congress restoring to us, after sixty years, our federal recognition.

My name is John Low and I’m an enrolled member of the Pokagon Band of Potawatomi Indian Nation. I was born in Niles, Michigan, near the tribal headquarters in Dowagiac. And I grew up in that community, I [was] raised by my grandmother and my mother, who were Potawatomi. I am a lawyer. Graduated from University of Michigan Law School in 1981. I returned home at the request of my elders and also because of my own sense of responsibility and desire to return home and work in a small town practice and also work as a tribal attorney on behalf of the community and did so. And worked on the process along with many, many, many others who did more work than me on the federal recognition process, which was finally successful in 1994. Since 1994, I’m a co-author of our tribal constitution. Since 1994, I’ve served on tribal council, I’ve served on several committees for the tribe, including the Traditions and Repatriation Committee and the Economic Development Committee as a coauthor of the tribal constitution.

I also subsequently took a leave of absence from practicing law and returned to school. First to get a second B.A. in American Indian Studies at the University of Minnesota and then a Master’s Degree from the University of Chicago in the Social Sciences and now am completing a PhD in Cultural Studies at the University of Michigan in American culture. Currently, I’m employed as a visiting professor [in the American [Indian] Studies program] at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. I live in Chicago and visit often with my relatives and my friends and with my community in Michigan. While I was at the University of Michigan, I also earned a graduate certificate in Museum Studies, which worked well with my subjects that I’m studying for my dissertation, but it also led to employment. I became the Executive Director at the Mitchell Museum of the American Indian, which I served as that director for about almost two years, the Mitchell Museum being located in Evanston, Illinois, and had the opportunity to work with a lot of Native and non-Native people in both curatorial and exhibition and preservation issues.

Production credits:
Executive Producer, Loretta Fowler
Assistant Producer, Brian Mornar
Production by Mike Media Group,

Photo credits:
Treaty of Greenville – courtesy of Chicago History Museum, Collection Number: SC 404, Image Number: AL00235, www.chicagohistory.org.
News article – courtesy of John Low/Los Angeles Times
Department of the Interior – photo courtesy of Wikipedia Commons/Matthew G. Bisanz
IRA Letter – courtesy of James A Clifton Papers, Special Collections, Western Michigan University, Kalamazoo, Michigan
Rush Lake Mission Potawatomi Gathering, September 4, 1906- photo courtesy of Library of Congress (LC-USZ62-132033)
Department of the Interior – photo courtesy of Wikipedia Commons/Matthew G. Bisanz
Notre Dame, IN campus – photo courtesy of Flickr/Kevin Chodzinski
U.S. Capitol – photo courtesy of Flickr/Jonathan Colman
Congressman Upton – courtesy of CSPAN
Congressman Roemer – courtesy of CSPAN
President Clinton signing – photo courtesy of William J. Clinton Presidential Library

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