Brian S. Collier | August 24, 2017
Notre Dame is a Potawatomi place.
When Father Edward Sorin, CSC, arrived in 1842, he found not a landscape devoid of civilization but a civilized place in flux. As the Potawatomi culture fought to maintain its place in the region and European settlers began to establish a foothold on the land, the area was on the precipice of change.
The Potawatomi, who had largely controlled the land since the 1600s, were wealthy and powerful in their own right. Not in the contemporary Western sense, but in the sense that the people’s lifestyle satisfied their needs before European encroachment into their lands. They grew corn, beans, squash, peas, melons and tobacco, and harvested wild rice, berries, nuts and maple syrup, preserving their goods in birch-bark containers.
When French explorers and trappers began regularly traversing the Great Lakes region in the 18th century, tribal leaders met with these European envoys but did not defer to them. As historian and tribal member John N. Low says, they made deals that “operated on Potawatomi terms.”
The arrival of more European groups and the British victory in the French and Indian War, which was waged from 1754 to 1763, meant the Potawatomi had more interactions with the British and their profit-driven economies. This brought greater competition for the region’s resources. Animal furs and agriculture products took on increased value, reshaping some farming, hunting and social practices, and increasing the prevalence of a cash economy. And despite the Royal Proclamation of 1763, which supposedly protected the original inhabitants’ rights to the lands, colonists continued to settle west of the Appalachians.
In the ensuing years the Potawatomi, like all native peoples in the era, worked to negotiate the best deals for their people in light of the changing political circumstances. In so doing, 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. For the Potawatomi this happened in large part because of the August of 1812 Chicago-area Battle of Fort Dearborn, where the native people were triumphant but paid a steep price in the public mind for their military victory.