Tracing the path of the tribes who call Evanston home


Photo Courtesy of the Wilmette Public Library

A drawing of Archange Ouilmette, a Potawatomi woman that married a French fur trader. Ouilmette received a parcel of land in present day Wilmette and Evanston through an 1829 treaty. Ouilmette had to move shortly thereafter, however, when an 1833 treaty ordered the removal of all Native people from Illinois.

Jack Austin, Senior Staffer

Before Evanston was founded in 1863, tribal nations including the Potawatomi, Peoria, Kaskaskia, Myaamia (or Miami), Wea, Kiikaapoi (or Kickapoo) and Mascouten called the land home. 

When settlers arrived, they forced conflict, removal and assimilation on tribal nations while government policy stripped them of their lands. 

Years later, urban relocation in the mid-20th century brought Native Americans from across the country to the area.

According to The Ohio State University’s American Indian studies Prof. John Low, who is an enrolled citizen of the Pokagon band of Potawatomi Indians, many Potawatomi villages existed in the Chicago area before contact with white settlers. 

Low added that historically, scholars have asserted that the Council of the Three Fires, composed of the Potawatomi, Ojibwe and Odawa, considered Chicago its homeland. His research concluded, however, that based on origin stories and town names, Potawatomi have the strongest claim to Chicago as their homeland. The error comes from a conflation of the three distinct nations as one group of people, Low said. 

Low published an article in the magazine Chicago History this year with this finding, and he said it has not yet been challenged.

“None of the other tribes in Northern Illinois place themselves at the mouth of the Chicago River like the Potawatomi origin stories do,” Low said. 

The Potawatomi maintained close connections, and at times intermarried with the two other tribes of the Council of the Three Fires, the Ojibwe and the Odawa. All three existed as distinct nations with their own languages and cultures. 

Rose Miron, director of the Newberry Library’s Center for American Indian and Indigenous Studies, said the first recorded contact between white settlers and Native people in Chicago occurred in the 1670s, when Jesuit missionary explorers Jacques Marquette and Louis Joliet traveled through the area. 

“Throughout the 18th century, Chicago was an important site of transit and trade,” Miron said. “Native people had long used the portage between the Chicago and Des Plaines rivers to move between the Great Lakes and into the Mississippi River Valley, and they continued to do so after white settlers entered the region.” 

As American settlers pushed westward, politicians forcefully displaced the Potawatomi and other tribes from their lands, Low said. According to Miron, Natives first ceded land in Chicago and Evanston in 1795 with the Treaty of Greenville, which ended hostilities in the Great Lakes region between the U.S. and a large Indigenous confederation. 

The treaty ceded much of Ohio and substantial portions of Illinois (as well as Indiana and Michigan). More followed, including treaties in 1816, 1829, 1832 and 1833, Miron said. 

Miron said what is now the city of Evanston was included in the 1829 cession. This treaty gave a parcel of land in present-day Wilmette and Evanston to Archange Ouilmette, a Potawatomi woman married to a French fur trader. Ouilmette’s family could not stay, however; the 1833 treaty ordered the removal of all Native people from Illinois. 

“In spite of removal, Native people never relinquished their claims to that land that we now call Chicago (and Evanston),” Miron said. “They continue to consider this land part of their ancestral homelands and have maintained reciprocal relationships with it.” 

According to Low, the Indian Removal Act of 1830 displaced almost all the Potawatomi people from their ancestral homelands with “cruel efficiency,” forcing them to flee to Canada, Wisconsin and Mexico. Native displacements like the Trail of Tears — a mass displacement of Cherokees that resulted in the deaths of at least 4,000— were widespread. While some tribes willingly left their lands to relocate, others resisted, and were forcibly moved by the U.S. military. 

Low said while the Potawatomi still have connections to the area, few people actually live in the city today as a result of these removals. 

Eventually, the Potawatomi moved to Kansas, Oklahoma, Michigan and Northwest Indiana. The Pokagon Potawatomi of Indiana were the only band to remain on its ancestral lands, Low said. 

According to Les Begay, founder of the Indigenous Peoples Day Coalition in Illinois and an enrolled citizen of the Diné Nation, no tribes in Illinois are federally recognized as a lingering consequence of forced removal. Without recognition of a tribe, Begay said, important legislation to Native people is difficult to pass.

For the more than 65,000 Indigenous people living in Chicago and Evanston, a lack of affordable housing remains one of their most pressing concerns, Begay said, in addition to lack of federal support. 

“A big issue is that, first of all, (about) 75% of enrolled Native citizens live off reservations. So only 25% live on reservation, but that’s where all the federal money goes,” Begay said. “We need to have a seat at the table to talk about the issues that we have. We’re still around.” 

Two federal policies in the 20th century developed much of the current Indigenous population in Chicago, Medill Prof. Reynaldo Morales said. 

Morales, who was born in Peru and is of Quechua descent, said the urban relocation program brought large numbers of Native people to Chicago between 1952 and the 1970s. He added that the policy of termination worked in tandem with relocation, stripping recognition and federal support from tribes in an effort to assimilate them. 

The federal government refused to view some tribes as sovereign nations, terminating their protected status and converting tribe members into ordinary tax-paying citizens. The government terminated more than 100 tribes under this policy, stripping them of acres of land. Relocation helped facilitate this process with the larger policy goal of assimilating Native Americans into American urban society. 

According to Low, the government claimed relocation could grant Native people a new life. But, Low said, the government had an ulterior motive: With fewer people living on reservations, it was easier for the government to argue Natives had “disappeared” and break treaty obligations. 

“That urban relocation program was really one of the last attempts to dismember the tribal government structure and completely deprive the tribes from members who can carry on the structure of the tribal life,” Morales said. 

Low said relocatees were promised housing, jobs and support, but upon arrival in Evanston and elsewhere, they faced employment discrimination and little support. Many of the families that came to Chicago in the 1950s ultimately went back to reservations. Others stayed, and their descendants continue to live in the city today. 

“In the end, they have to take the hardest jobs,” Morales said. “Jobs didn’t provide the sufficient sustenance that they wanted. The urban life didn’t fulfill all the different needs that they had. And so this expectation turned into a very bitter reality.”

According to Morales, “truths” about Native people have been distorted, omitted and completely overwritten. 

Morales said a space of reconciliation can be created through teaching Indigenous history. 

“As people who live in the United States today, we have a responsibility to attend to past harms and work to repair the damage that was done to Indigenous communities,” Miron said. “But this kind of repair and healing cannot happen without first understanding the past.” 

Indigenous activists have called on Evanston and NU to reflect on their own histories in recent years. The city and the University continue to honor John Evans, who helped found both institutions. A 2014 University report examined Evans’ key role in the Sand Creek Massacre as a government agent, finding him “deeply culpable” for supervising the killing of about 150 Cheyenne and Arapaho people in total, including women, children and elders.

Begay said Evanston should consider changing its name and, at the very least, recognize what Evans did when he was governor of Colorado. Under his leadership, the state’s policy called for the “eradication” and removal of Native people. 

In 2019, after the University failed to remove Evans’ name from campus buildings among protests, activists painted “F–K John Evans” and “THIS LAND IS COLONIZED” on The Rock. In 2020, the Board of Trustees announced it will not consider removing Evans’ name from buildings, claiming his conduct during his life was largely “exemplary.” 

“Every day you’re on campus, you’re reminded that this is a campus that was formed by a man that went out and his mission was to kill (Native people). And they honored him,” Begay said. 

According to Miron, several Potawatomi communities across the country maintain close ties with Chicago. The Prairie Band of Potawatomi of Kansas, the Forest County Potawatomi of Northern Wisconsin and the Pokagon Band of Potawatomi of Northern Indiana and Southern Michigan remain connected to Chicago, their ancestral homeland. 

The Newberry Library’s Center for American Indian and Indigenous Studies aims to complete a project on the Indigenous history of Chicago by 2024, which is already three years in the making, Miron said. She added that the library will feature an exhibit, digital website, map, a curriculum for 10th-grade students, new oral histories with community members and public programming around Indigenous issues. 

“What I think a lot of people don’t realize is that almost the entire lake shore of Chicago is unceded territory,” Miron said. “(Many tribes) maintain their ties and reciprocal relationships with (and claims to) the land that is now Chicago.”

Correction: A previous version of this story did not adequately acknowledge the conclusions Low drew in his research. The Daily regrets the error.

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