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Wednesday, Feb. 21, 2024
The Observer

Notre Dame honors Potawatomi land 180 years after Fr. Sorin’s arrival

Nov. 26 marked 180 years since Fr. Sorin’s arrival in 1842 on the land now known as South Bend and as home to the tri-campus community. This land is the ancestral home of the Pokégnek Bodéwadmik, which are the Pokagon Band of Potawatomi, an indigenous nation.

The Potawatomi migrated from north of Lake Huron and Lake Superior to present-day Wisconsin, southern Michigan, northern Indiana and northern Illinois. Their first contact with European settlers was when they came upon the French in the 1600s. 

In the mid-17th century, the Potawatomi entered the fur trade with the French. Catholic French priests, like the Jesuit missionary Claude Allouez, were even invited by the Potawatomi in the late 1670s.

In 1754, the Potawatomi were brought into the French and Indian War, a war between the British colonies and the French in North America where different Native American tribes supported different sides. After the British won the war in 1763, they focused on profits rather than the more mutually beneficial relationship the Potawatomi had with the French. 

Brian Collier is a faculty member and fellow for Education, Schooling and Society at the University, a historian and the senior advisor to the American Indian Catholic Schools Network (AICSN). Talking about this time of upheaval, Collier said, “different Native people sided with the French and some with the British– they were just trying to find the best deal for their families in a time of war and chaos.”

This continued period of changing politics forced the Potawatomi to take sides. In an article in Notre Dame Magazine, Collier writes, “there were Potawatomi who sided with the British during the American Revolution and the War of 1812, both of which led to citizens of the new United States calling for the removal of the Potawatomi from their ancestral homelands throughout the Great Lakes region.”

The Battle of Fort Dearborn in August 1812 also contributed to the new American citizens having ill-will towards the Potawatomi people.

Collier said, that “when the Potawatomi burned down Fort Dearborn — which is located where Chicago’s ‘Miracle Mile’ is today— the newspapers made a big deal of the incident and portrayed the Pokagon band as dangerous.” 

The Indian Removal Act was signed in 1830 by then-President Andrew Jackson. Leopold Pokagon, a tribe leader within the St. Joseph River Valley Potawatomi, asked Fr. Gabriel Richard in Detroit to send them a priest that year. Leopold Pokagon knew that showing the American government that the Potawatomi could integrate into American culture through Christianity would give the nation a greater chance of keeping their land.  

On Leopold’s request, Richard sent Fr. Stephen Badin to minister to the Potawatomi along with two other Catholic missionaries — Fr. Benjamin Petit and Fr. Louis Deseille. Petit was eventually martyred on the Trail of Death as he administered to the Potawatomi during their forced removal. 

Though the Pokagon Potawatomi’s connection to Catholicism aided in them getting to keep their land, it was also the coincidence of geography that led to this fact. Collier explained that another Potawatomi tribe that lived in what is present-day Rochester, Indiana, was forced to vacate their ancestral homelands.

“At the time, what is present-day South Bend and Mishawaka was officially part of Michigan territory which had a lot of French and Catholic influence, which was why Leopold Pokagon was able to make the argument to keep the land,” Collier said.

Collier explained that the other Potawatomi tribe was residing in what was considered to be Indiana territory at the time, which was being influenced by the Ku Klux Klan and Protestant-nation building forces rather than a Catholic one. 

 In the early 1830s, Badin bought the land that would become the University, and then in 1835, Badin donated that property to the Diocese of Vincennes who ended up giving it to Fr. Edward Sorin, on the condition that he establish an educational institution there. When Sorin first arrived, the Potawatomi were the ones who welcomed him in the winter. 

Talking about the current relationship between the Pokagon Potawatomi and the University, Collier said that the University engages in the annual tradition of sending Potawatomi families food baskets during the holiday season. 

On the occasion of Indigenous People’s Day, celebrated Oct. 9, until the weekend of the Stanford game on Oct. 15,  the University flew the flag of the Pokagon Potawatomi above the football stadium.

“The Provost office has been giving out Pokagon flag magnets which have been going like hot cakes among professors,” Collier added.

Collier also said that Jason Ruiz, associate professor of American Studies, received a grant to acquire more flags in a collaboration with Pokagon Potawatomi artist Jason Wesaw. 

Andrew Crowe ’06, a member of the board of the Native American Alumni Association of Notre Dame (NAA of ND), weighed in on how the lack of acknowledgement of the University’s connection to indigenous people can impact the experience of native students.

“[There is] little to no acknowledgement of Chief Leopold Pokagon’s work to ensure that the Potawatomi land that included what would become Notre Dame was already a Catholic stronghold before the University was founded. He remains a forgotten ‘founding father’ of Our Lady’s University,” Crowe said in an email.

He encouraged students to research and gain awareness about the “historical role of the Catholic Church in the creation and running of residential and boarding schools.”

Zada Ballew ‘19, director of student relations in NAA of ND, posed some questions that students can consider as they learn about the history of the land that the tri-campus inhabits.

Examples she gave over email included, “Why are there carvings of Indigenous peoples on South Dining Hall and ‘the Rock’?” and “Why are Potawatomi people buried in [mass graves] in the campus cemetery?” 

Ballew said she appreciates the University leadership’s efforts to “acknowledge failures of the past and recommit to the work of the future.” She points to increasing efforts to recruit Native and Indigenous students, increasing the number of Native and Indigenous staff, faculty and course offerings, even a major or minor, as a way to “raise awareness of overlooked, but no less significant, aspects of our shared history.”

Collier also suggested the revival of the tutoring program Notre Dame students used to run with Potawatami children in Dowagiac, Michigan, a few years ago.

“Some of those Potawatomi kids actually grew up and attended Notre Dame, so that kind of interaction and engagement really makes a difference,” Collier said.

Collier also proposed making the Moreau First-Year course curriculum more inclusive of Native history.

“We could have elders in residence come and share their story with first-year students,” he said.

The Native American Alumni Association of Notre Dame has set up ‘The Native American Alumni Fund,’ a scholarship intended to provide much needed financial support to current Native and Indigenous students. The scholarship is solely funded through donations and private giving. Crowe encouraged all readers, including alumni, staff and friends, to consider donating to the Fund on ND Day.

Contact Angela Mathew at