Low – Pokagon Claims

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The 1895 claim was essentially for annuities and other payments pursuant to land cession treaties that had been completed. In 1833, [and] was the last of the land cession treaties that the Pokagon Potawatomi signed. And there were monies to be paid, other benefits, education and health care, that were to be provided that were essentially never paid. They were paid for a little while, and then they ceased, I think, around the Civil War. And were never reinstated again. Sort of forgotten about. Well, we never forgot about them. We had been denied our ability [to be self-sufficient], our traditional subsistence ways, agriculture, hunting, gathering, our land. We had signed those treaties expecting that these annuity payments would, you know, make up for those depletions of resources.

And so it was devastating to the community when those payments were never made. We still hung together. My community was in a better situation than many American Indian communities in the sense that we were located close to Chicago, were located in an agricultural and industrial area. And so many of the tribal members did find wage labor, both on farms and in factories throughout the 1800s, late 1800s, and so they were able to provide for their families as best they could, but it was always a difficult and hard existence.  And essentially, those treaties are contracts and the United States never lived up to its part of the contract, to make payments. Suits were filed, and so ultimately, you know, a resolution was had. Congress appropriated monies to be paid pursuant to those claims for those lands ceded. And in 1895, those annuity payments were made. That annuity payment, for my community, also forms the basis for its enrollment roll, and so that’s how citizenship is determined for my community.

My grandmother, Sarah White, is on that annuity payment roll, that census. And my grandmother—Sarah is my great-grandmother—my grandmother, Goldie White, had just been born, in 1894. And so she’s an infant, and she’s also on the annuity roll. And so those payments were made and so that was one of the resolutions then for claims that had not been paid. Later on, in the 20th century, claims also for other treaties and for other lands ceded and not paid for, were also made through the Indian Court of Claims. And those ultimately resulted in years and years of legal and administrative and bureaucratic struggles that culminated in finally a final disposition of our claims, essentially for, I think it’s, was it in 1985, I believe, perhaps sooner than that, 1980?—I actually don’t know. Might be 1982. That the final payments were made. Well, it was the principle but this is also, you have to remember, the day when people worked seven days a week, you know. That’s certainly what my oral history is. My grandmother’s husband, he got—July 4th he could come out and watch the parade go by and then he had to go back to work. He worked, and he got Christmas day off, Christmas day was the only day he got off. Worked seven days a week. And it was a bitter pill to swallow in a sense because the monies that were paid for our ceded land were without interest and were based on the value of the land at the time that the treaties were made. And so, for instance, my community was paid, well, I can say that I received, I believe it was, $1200 for my share of the State of Michigan. [The per capita payments were] [h]ugely economically [beneficial], too. It also was a continuing validation because we did not have a reservation, and so people were always looking for these touchstones of, “Yes, we’re still here and we’re still a community, we’re still surviving.” And so, that was very important psychologically.

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 am now 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. I served as that director for about almost two years, the Mitchell Museum of the American Indian, 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:

Last Council of the Potawatomis – courtesy of Chicago History Museum, P&S-1933.0048, http://www.chicagohistory.org
Wabaunsee – courtesy of Tippecanoe County Historical Society
Shabbona – photo courtesy of Wikipedia/IvoShandor
Chicago factories – photo courtesy of Library of Congress
Sarah White – photo courtesy of John Low
Pokagon Sign- courtesy of John Low

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