By: Gisselle Venable
November is Native American Heritage Month. In 1990, Congress passed a joint resolution that designated the month and officially recognized Indigenous people as original inhabitants of the U.S.
The South Bend area has a rich history of Indigenous groups. IU South Bend was built on the homeland and resources of the Potawatomi, Peoria, Myaamia, Kickapoo, Kaskaskia, Mascouten and Meskwaki people. The Miami also inhabited the area.
The region was attractive because of its rich natural resources and proximity to a water source: the St. Joseph River. Present-day South Bend is also the headwaters of the Kankakee River, which allows a portage to the St. Joseph River, which drains into Lake Michigan and presents a number of waterways. The Kankakee River drains into the Illinois River, which flows into the Mississippi River. These river connections presented a number of routes for travel and gathering.
Among the most well known Indigenous groups of the area is the Potawatomi, who have significant existing populations in Indiana, Michigan, Illinois, Wisconsin, Kansas, Oklahoma and Ontario, Canada.
By the 1840s, the majority of the Indigenous people in present-day South Bend were forcibly removed. The Potawatomi, who had established strong ties to the Great Lakes region, were forced to move west when Michigan acquired statehood – this trip, according to the Pokagon Band website, killed one of every 10 Potawatomi people who took it. This, in combination with a subsequent forced removal by the U.S. military, is called the Potawatomi Trail of Death
The Pokagon Band of Potawatomi still inhabit South Bend and other nearby regions. In the 1840s, led in part by Leopold Pokagon, their namesake, they were permitted to stay in the Great Lakes region, “in part because they had demonstrated a strong attachment to Catholicism,” the Pokagon Band website says.
In the modern day, the Pokagon Band continue to put forth their values of wisdom, love, respect, truth, honesty, humility and bravery. They dedicate their time to sustaining the band’s rich history and culture. Their vision statement includes protecting the earth, revitalizing their language and culture, supporting the development of their youth and enhancing economic and educational opportunities for their citizens.
One way the Pokagon Band does this is through Kee Boon Mein Kaa Pow Wow, a yearly celebration that showcases the culture of the Pokagon Band in September. It hosts more than 60 vendors from across the country, offers authentic Native American dishes and hosts traditional dance and singing sessions.
A common misconception about Indigenous bands and tribes is that they are solely ethnic groups and do not have robust governing bodies, instead relying on the U.S. government. However, like other groups across the country, the Pokagon Band is not just an ethnic group with shared history and culture: they have independent court systems, councils and foundational documents that inform infrastructure projects, community programs, education, internal functions and advancement of their mission statement.
Learn more about the Pokagon Band at https://www.pokagonband-nsn.gov/our-culture/. If you’re interested in more ways to observe Native American Heritage Month, you’re off to a good start by learning about the Indigenous land you live and work on. Next, check out the library for recommendations on books about the Indigenous experience, like Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer, who is a Potawatomi citizen. Finally, follow along with us on Instagram @iusbpreface, where we’ll be sharing informative content from Indigenous creators.