The forgotten first nations
Letter to the Editor | Thursday, April 19, 2018
President Trump’s use of the term “Pocahontas” in reference to Senator Elizabeth Warren sparked outrage across the nation, particularly among American Indian communities. But just as soon as this controversy arrived in the news, it departed from the public eye as the latest scandal of the Trump administration replaced it. The controversy surrounding the name of the Washington Redskins escalated to new levels a few years ago, but it has since returned to the category of “Things That Upset Us An Acceptable Amount.” Columbus Day and Thanksgiving come and go, and we hear protests and read Buzzfeed articles about America’s unjust treatment of indigenous people through the month of November, but as soon as we hit December 1st, the protests are over and Buzzfeed is focused on your 20 favorite Beyoncé moments of 2017.
Here in South Bend, the opening of the Four Winds Casino on January 16th has sparked debate about its costs and benefits for South Bend and the ethics of gambling. But apart from one exceptionally well-researched article in the South Bend Tribune from January 10, I found no articles that mentioned the history of the Pokagon Band of Potawatomi Indians, the group that owns this casino. This casino is the first in Indiana to be owned by an American Indian tribe. It seems ironic that this casino is characterized as an unwelcome arrival of competition from a Michigan-based group into the local casino market — as one nearby casino owner dramatically stated, “We’ll be prepared to fight it out and see what happens.” Yet it was the local Potawatomi tribe, led by Chief Leopold Pokagon, that was residing at this southern bend of the St. Joseph River when the first Europeans arrived unwelcomed in the seventeenth century.
It is disheartening to see how my school and my country continuously fail to recognize American Indian culture and history. As a 2014 editorial in The Observer points out, it is a sad reality that the most prominent memorial of the relationship between the University and American Indian tribes is the series of Christopher Columbus paintings lining our Main Building. Any mention of Fr. Badin’s relationship with Chief Pokagon is tucked away in historical records, only rarely emerging to remind us of the contributions of the Potawatomi tribe in founding Notre Dame. Never have I seen a memorial to Chief Pokagon, attended a Notre Dame-sponsored event about Potawatomi culture or learned from professors about the role of Chief Pokagon in Notre Dame’s history. There are no native professors and no courses in the History department about American Indians, and just two American Studies professors who teach a total of four classes about America’s first nations.
The first step to recognizing American Indian contributions to America is to talk about them. Will we limit our recognition of the continued systemic oppression of American Indians to the Thanksgiving holiday? Will we save our disgust with marginalization for those moments when a political leader uses an offensive term to describe First Nations people? Or will we actively engage ourselves in learning about their culture, history and presence today, in order to celebrate the ongoing contributions of America’s first residents?
Today, in this moment, try to learn something new about an American Indian culture — watch a video about Chief Pokagon, or share a Potawatomi phrase with a friend — “Mno waben!” — or learn about Potawatomi language revitalization efforts at the Hannahville Indian School. In simply recognizing that American Indians are more than a group to bring up during times of controversy, we can learn to understand the story of American Indian tribes as the story of America.
The views expressed in this Letter to the Editor are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.