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  • Sue Devick

Recognizing Chicago's Native American Heritage

Updated: Dec 13, 2021

Chicago historian Ann Durkin Keating, author of Rising Up From Indian Country: The Battle of Fort Dearborn and the Birth of Chicago has privately stated in regard to our local Native American heritage, "We erase this history, which is unfortunate because it offers a fuller, richer understanding of our past." Dr. Keating is particularly knowledgeable about nineteenth-century people and events that shaped the essence of Chicago, which cannot be accurately comprehended without examining the Native American influence in this area and the significant cultural exchanges that occurred during the Settlement Era.

Dr. Keating's concerns are also felt by tribal members of the Three Fires Confederacy, an alliance of Ottawa (Odawa), Potawatomi, and Ojibwe (Chippewa) also known as the Anishinabek Nation. On August 29, 2021, members commemorated the bicentennial of the 1821 Treaty of Chicago, which ceded the rights to millions of acres of land to the United States. At that time, about 3,000 Anishinaabe people and their leaders met in Chicago with the Michigan Territorial Governor and federal officials, and an "agreement" was reached to turn over the land in exchange for approximately $6,500 in coins, $10,000 in trade goods, and annual payments for two decades to those who had lived on the land, which equaled about $150,000. The Native Americans who signed the treaty placed an "X" by their name as spelled phonetically on the document.

The recent bicentennial observance was not a celebration, but an acknowledgement of a painful episode in Great Lakes Native American history. Ron Yob, the current tribal chairman of the Grand River Bands of Ottawa Indians (in central western Michigan), states that the land that was lost to his ancestors was their Garden of Eden, and that it provided everything that they needed for shelter, food, and water. Yob hopes that his tribe is soon recognized by the federal government, which would allow the health services and educational programs available to other indigenous people, including several tribes in the state of Michigan.

Although Chicago is home to the third largest Native American urban population in the U.S. and over 100 tribal nations are represented in the area, Illinois has no federally recognized Indian tribes or reservations. The early settlers of Fullersburg (west of Chicago) would have supported the recognition the local Potawatomi who inhabited this area; village founder Ben Fuller and his wife had a friendly relationship with their indigenous neighbors. Ben built a cabin next to a Potawatomi village around 1835 and taught the Potawatomi how to shoe horses. In reciprocation, Ben's young son John was given a pony named Ninoldi, and in his adulthood, John showed sympathy toward Native Americans who had been forcefully relocated by the U.S. government.

There are other examples of mutual friendship between the local Potawatomi and the settlers of Fullersburg; the children of the settlers played with the children of Potawatomi, and the Graue family shared biscuits and maple syrup with indigenous families who lived in wigwams on the east side of York Road. The Fullersburg Historic Foundation supports the recognition of this important cultural and historic connection between people of different backgrounds and agrees with Dr. Keating that this rich history should be acknowledged and understood as fully as possible.

Sue Devick, M.A.

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