Each Indigenous nation has its own creation story. Some stories tell that the Potawatomi have always been here. Other stories tell of migration from the Eastern seaboard with the Ojibwe and Odawa Nations. The three tribes loosely organized as the Three Fires Confederacy, with each serving an important role. The Ojibwe were said to be the Keepers of Tradition. The Odawa were known as the Keepers of the Trade. The Potawatomi were known as the Keepers of the Fire. Later, the Potawatomi migrated from north of Lakes Huron and Superior to the shores of the mshigmé or Great Lake. This location—in what is now Wisconsin, southern Michigan, northern Indiana, and northern Illinois—is where European explorers in the early 17th century first came upon the Potawatomi; they called themselves Neshnabék, meaning the original or true people.
As the United States frontier border moved west, boundary arguments and land cessions became a way of life for Native Americans. In 1830, the U.S. Congress passed the Indian Removal Act and directed that all American Indians be relocated to lands west of the Mississippi River, leaving the Great Lakes region open to further non-Indian development.
The 1833 Treaty of Chicago established the conditions for the removal of the Potawatomi from the Great Lakes area. When Michigan became a state in 1837, more pressure was put on the Potawatomi to move west. The hazardous trip killed one out of every ten people of the approximately 500 Potawatomi involved. As news of the terrible trip spread, some bands, consisting of small groups of families, fled to northern Michigan and Canada. Some also tried to hide in the forests and swamps of southwestern Michigan. The U.S. government sent soldiers to round up the Potawatomi they could find and move them at gunpoint to reservations in the west. This forced removal is now called the Potawatomi Trail of Death, similar to the more familiar Cherokee Trail of Tears.
However, a small group of Neshnabék, with Leopold Pokagon as one of their leaders, earned the right to remain in their homeland, in part because they had demonstrated a strong attachment to Catholicism. It is the descendants of this small group who constitute the Pokagon Band of Potawatomi Indians.
When the American immigrants first came to southwestern Michigan in the early 19th century, they would have found Leopold Pokagon and his village in what is now Bertrand Township in Niles, Michigan. In 1838, Leopold and a small group from the St. Joseph Valley visited the Odawa at L’Arbre Croche to attempt to find a place to settle, for while the Treaty of 1833 allowed them to remain in Michigan, they were supposed to remove to the L’Arbre Croche area with the Odawa within five years. In 1836 the Treaty of Washington was struck between the Odawa and Ojibwe and ceded much of the lands in the north. Essentially, Leopold and his group were told there would be no room for them to move there. Upon returning to southwest Michigan, Leopold purchased land in Silver Creek Township using annuity monies accrued through several previous treaty negotiations, including the Treaty of 1833. It was in this time that Pokagon and several other groups moved collectively to Silver Creek Township, near present day Dowagiac, Michigan. Not long after, Brigadier General Hugh Brady threatened to force Pokagon’s Band out of Michigan. Pokagon, who by then was an old man in failing health, traveled to Detroit to get a written judgment from Epaphroditus Ransom of the Michigan Supreme Court to remain on their land.
Nearly one hundred years later, during the Great Depression, the federal government passed the Wheeler-Howard Act, also known as the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934, which would provide tribes with resources to reestablish tribal governments. Although the Pokagon Band applied for recognition, the Bureau of Indian Affairs had limited funding and personnel to fully implement the Act, so decided to recognize only one Indian tribe in the lower peninsula of Michigan (the Saginaw Chippewa Indian Tribe). It wasn’t until September 21, 1994 that the federally-recognized status of the Pokagon Band of Potawatomi was reaffirmed by an act of Congress. After decades of effort by hundreds of Pokagon Band citizens and other volunteers, the Pokagon Band’s sovereignty was restored on that day in a signing ceremony at the White House with President Bill Clinton. This day is now celebrated as Sovereignty Day by citizens of the Pokagon Band. This Act did not mean that the Pokagon Band suddenly became an Indian tribe, rather that the federal government reaffirmed what the Pokagon Band had always known — they were a tribe.