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Leopold Pokagon: How a band of Potawatomi converted to Catholicism and avoided removal

Nov 15, 2017

When you’re a leader, the decisions you make, for better or for worse, have lasting repercussions that echo into the future. And if you ask the descendants of Leopold Pokagon, they’ll testify he made the right decisions.

With November being Native American History Month, we wanted to discuss the story of Pokagon, a Potawatomi leader in the early 19th century. 

We welcomed to Stateside the director of the Michigan History Center, Sandra Clark, as well as John Low, who earned his Ph.D. in American Culture at the University of Michigan and is an enrolled citizen of the Pokagon Band of Potawatomi Indians. Low is currently an assistant professor in comparative studies at Ohio State University-Newark, where he also teaches history and American Indian studies.

On how Indians reacted to removal policies by white settlers

As white settlers continued to move west in the 1800s and forced Indian bands to move elsewhere, those Native Americans “did not want to leave Michigan,” Clark said. “They did not want to leave the home of their ancestors and the home that they hoped would be the home of their children.” There was no universal reaction — some fought to remain, others moved — but the feeling that southwestern Michigan was home was widespread.

On Leopold Pokagon’s rise and influence

Leopold Pokagon was not born Potawatomi, but he was adopted into the tribe when he was young. When the tribal leader died, Pokagon became the leader of the village because he was “charismatic and competent,” said Low. Pokagon’s band of Potawatomi successfully negotiated with the U.S. government for the Christian Potawatomi to remain in Michigan while other Potawatomi bands were removed by various militias on the Potawatomi Trail of Death.

On how the Pokagon Potawatomi became tied to the Catholic Church

Prior to his negotiation with the U.S. government, Pokagon had traveled to Detroit to request that the Detroit Diocese provide his band with a priest. At the time, appearing as Christian would demonstrate to the government that the Indians were not a threat and that they were citizens, allowing them to stay, said Clark.

But the conversion was real. “It was a spiritual conversion that had significant long-lasting political implications,” said Low. Since Catholics were rather unpopular in America in the early 1800s, the conversion kept the Pokagon Potawatomi very insulated. “People left us alone. One, because we were Indians, and two, because we were Catholic Indians,” said Low.

Listen above for the full conversation.

This segment is produced in partnership with the Michigan History Center.

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