Potawatomi suffering recognized at last

By Bryan Richardson

Eastern Kansas has a rich Native American tradition, and Saturday the area officially began honoring some of that proud history.

Jon Boursaw, a member of Citizen Potawatomi Nation, spoke at the Flint Hills Discovery Center as the start of its celebration of Native American Heritage Month.

Saturday was also National Bison Day.

The Potawatomi, which means “People of the Place of the Fire,” are the 10th-largest Native American tribe with more than 30,000 members, including about 2,600 in Kansas and nearly 9,000 in Oklahoma.

Kansas has a rich Native American history with many areas owing its name to the Potawatomi, Boursaw explained.

Pottawatomie County is basically the area where the tribe members lived on the Potawatomi Reservation, west of present-day Topeka —although settlers took upon themselves to change the spelling when naming the county.

Wamego is named after a Potawatomi tribe member who donated the land for the railroads that led to the town’s foundation.

Wabaunsee County, Wabaunsee Township, Wabaunsee Creek and Lake Wabaunsee are all named for Chief Wabunsee, a leader of the tribe.

This all occurred despite the fact that Wabunsee never set foot in Kansas, Boursaw said.

The Bodewadmi (Potawatomi) once existed on the Eastern Seaboard with the Chippewa and Ottawa as one people, the Nishnabe.

Boursaw said the Potawatomi had first contact with “the white man” in 1634 when meeting the French.

He said the tribe quickly became partners with the French.

“To ensure the lasting alliance, the tribal leaders encouraged the French to marry Potawatomi women, thus explaining the vast number of French names that exist even today within the tribe,” he said.

This included Boursaw’s ancestor, Joseph Napoleon Bourassa, an attorney and interpreter who was a part of the first Potawatomi Business Committee established in 1862.

The fur trading relationship eventually switched to the British after that nation defeated the French.

The Potawatomi fought during the American Revolution with the British to protect the fur trade.

Boursaw pointed to this as a turning point.

“Many believe this was the beginning of the hatred of the Indian by the federal government,” he said.

This eventually manifested itself with the Indian Removal Act, signed into law by President Andrew Jackson on May 28, 1830.

More than 850 Potawatomi eventually were moved forcefully from tribal land in Twin Lakes, Ind., by the government on Sept. 4, 1838.

The two-month, 660-mile “Potawatomi Trail of Death” resulted in more than 50 fatalities during the trek to present-day Osawatomie.

Sugar Creek Reservation was the first Kansas home of the Potawatomi from 1838 to 1846.

“The original relocation treaty contained a provision that said houses would be available upon their arrival,” Boursaw said. “None were available, making the first winter at Sugar Creek extremely difficult.”

An observance of 175th anniversary of the forced removal from Indiana to Kansas took place in September at Sugar Creek.

Gov. Sam Brownback attended the ceremony, issued a proclamation and formally apologized for the hardships that the tribe experienced.

“That day in Sugar Creek made a proud people even prouder,” Boursaw said.

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