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Commemorating, but not celebrating, the bicentennial of the treaty that ceded West Michigan

The boundary lines for multiple land treaties cross the state of Michigan.

On Sunday, people gathered along the banks of the river in Grand Rapids, to mark the bicentennial of the treaty that made the city possible.

Representatives from the Grand River Bands of Ottawa Indians, along with other tribes, sang, gave speeches, dedicated a new historic marker and performed a Blessing of the Waters ceremony on the river.

“We’re not doing a celebration, we’re doing a commemoration,” says Ron Yob, tribal chairman of the Grand River Bands. “And you got to remember that.”

The Grand River Bands of Ottawa Indians will commemorate the bicentennial of the 1821 Treaty of Chicago at 1p.m. Sunday at Ah-Nab-Awen park in Grand Rapids.

The treaty signed by leaders from the Ottawa, Pottawatomi and Chippewa tribes in Chicago on August 29, 1821 ceded much of the land of present-day West Michigan, running west from the city of Jackson to the Lake Michigan shore, and stretching north to the banks of the Grand River. Within the treaty, tribal leaders maintained their rights to hunting and fishing on the land – a right tribal members still hold today on all public lands. They also secured reservations, including a reservation where downtown Kalamazoo sits today. And they established a legal relationship with the United States government, which served as a basis for a wide range of rights that tribal governments, and their members, continue to hold.

"That treaty is a big deal, because we were recognized at that point as a sovereign nation," says John Shagonaby, governmental relations officer for the Gun Lake Tribe.

“By entering into treaties, you are in a government-to-government binding document,” says John Shagonaby, governmental officer for the Gun Lake Tribe, who was a guest Friday on Stateside. “That treaty is a big deal, because we were recognized at that point as a sovereign nation.”

The Gun Lake Tribe, also known as the Match-E-Be-Nash-She-Wish Band of Pottawatomi Indians, later lost that federal recognition as a tribe, along with many other tribes in the U.S. Its leaders fought to regain recognition, and were officially recognized by the federal government in 1999.

Members of the Grand River Bands of Ottawa Indians are still fighting for their recognition. Chairman Ron Yob says it’s a fight that’s been in the works for decades.

And the 1821 treaty, Yob says, plays a role in establishing the Bands’ claims. It shows the Bands are a sovereign nation of people, the Indigenous people of the Grand Valley.

“It established a path to determine our members are who they are,” Yob says of the Treaty.

“But, of course,” he says, “it took the land away too, you know.”

An “illegal” treaty

The people of the Grand River valley had no intention of ceding the land.

In the view of the United States government, they already had. It was right there in black and white in the treaty signed by tribal leaders in Chicago, on August 29, 1821, exactly 200 years ago.  

But even after the signing of the treaty, there were few white settlers and almost no true legal authority over the lands that had supposedly been ceded in the treaty. It wasn’t until 1823 - nearly two full years after the treaty was signed - before a white settler even made it to the Grand River to begin the work of implementing a key treaty obligation. In the treaty, the U.S. had promised to build and pay for two missions – one at the mouth of the St. Joseph River, and one along the Grand River, near present-day Grand Rapids.

The man put in charge of building these missions was a Baptist minister named Isaac McCoy. When he finally made it to the Grand River to meet the Ottawa people living there at the time, they basically ignored him.  

“While among the Ottawas, I ascertained that their backwardness to meet me in council, on the subject of a mission among them, grew out of their dissatisfaction with the proceedings at the treaty of Chicago,” McCoy wrote. “The tribe, as a people, considered the sale of their country illegal, because, as they said, it had not been authorized by them. They intended to insist upon its illegality, and hoped to retain possession …”

Other settlers would later note that the Keewaycooshcum, the Grand River Ottawa chief who signed the 1821 treaty, was exiled and, according to at least one account, murdered for agreeing to cede the land.

Keewaycooshcum didn’t cede all of the land in what is now Grand Rapids. The treaty he signed ceded only the land south of the Grand River. Because of the bend in the river at Grand Rapids, that means only the east side of the current city was thought by the Americans to be ceded. The city’s west side remained Indian Country through 1836.

But even on the parts that were ceded in 1821, American control over the land was more of an idea than a reality. The Ottawas rejected the treaty, and McCoy was in no position to force them to accept it. The mission wasn't built until years later, when another Ottawa chief, Noaquageshik, sought out McCoy to invite him to build it, along with a blacksmith shop on the west bank of the Grand River, as the 1821 Treaty had called for.

From the perspective of settlers like McCoy, the delays were signs of the Indians’ "backwardness." But as the University of Michigan historian Michael Witgen has pointed out, the Ottawa, along with all the Great Lakes tribes, had more than a century of practice dealing with Europeans on their lands. They were sophisticated negotiators who managed to maintain sovereignty against an array of threats, not all of them from the Europeans.

"In spite of signing treaties that granted a 'controlling power' and recognized the 'authority' and 'jurisdiction' of the United States in their territory, the Anishinaabeg remained politically autonomous," Witgen writes in his book An Infinity of Nations: How the Native New World Shaped Early North America

Simply put, the Americans didn't have the power to enforce the treaties at the time of their signature. And the native people of the Grand River valley seemed to know it. 

According to the settler histories, the Ottawa people of the Grand River valley had fought alongside Chief Pontiac in the Siege of Fort Detroit. And, in the War of 1812, they allied with the British against the Americans.

The people McCoy met on the banks of the Grand River in 1823 were not far removed from those battles. They were not yet ready to accept the American claim to the land. 

As the historian Michelle K. Cassidy writes, these Ottawa weren’t naïve about how to deal with missionaries like McCoy. They were testing him. The new Americans had to adjust to Indigenous realities, not the other way around. 

The mission and blacksmith shop on the Grand River was built only when, and only where, the Ottawa people allowed it to be built.

“Noaquageshik had more influence than Keewaycooshcum, and these dynamics forced McCoy to establish the mission at Grand Rapids rather than at Keewaycooshcum’s village near the Flat River,” Cassidy writes. “In order to establish an Odawa mission station, McCoy had to acknowledge Odawa autonomy.”

“They know who they are”

Eventually, the mission was built.

"Like it or not, that treaty was signed 200 years ago," says Ron Yob.

It was on the west side of the river, just south of what is today known as Bridge Street, on land where now sits the Gerald R. Ford Museum, the Grand Rapids Public Museum and the downtown campus of Grand Valley State University. Also in that space is Ah Nab Awen Park, where on Sunday, members of the Grand River Bands of Ottawas will gather to mark the bicentennial of an “illegal” treaty their ancestors rejected.

It is not a celebration. It is a commemoration.

“Like it or not, that treaty was signed 200 years ago,” says Yob, the current leader of the Grand River Bands of Ottawas.

The 1821 Treaty was signed. Then the 1836 Treaty. Then the 1855 Treaty. The land became the land of the United States. It became the land of Michigan.

But today, the descendants of those who signed the treaties persist. The rights, enshrined in treaty, persist.

“I bet you not many people have studied this issue, or really know what the significance is to where you live today,” says John Shagonaby, governmental affairs officer for the Gun Lake Tribe.

Shagonaby, who spoke on Stateside, says none of the cities that exist in West Michigan today would be there without the 1821 treaty. And for the Pottawatomi peoples, it had cascading effects.

Following subsequent treaties, others were forced to leave Michigan. Some were sent west in what’s known as the Potawatomi Trail of Death. Those who survived the move had to establish roots far from their tribes’ ancestral homes.

“A lot of our relatives got relocated,” Shagonaby said on Stateside. “You got Pottawatomies in Wisconsin, Ontario, Kansas, Oklahoma. There’s some in Mexico.”

But many others, like Shagonaby, remain in Michigan, carrying on their traditions and building a future for the generations to come.

In 2020, the Gun Lake Tribe’s investment company, along with the Waseyabek Development Company, which manages non-gaming economic development projects for the Nottawaseppi Huron Band of the Potawatomi, purchased McKay Tower in downtown Grand Rapids. The tower is a landmark building in the heart of the city’s downtown, and it’s a landmark investment for both tribes, establishing them as major players in regional economic development, well beyond the casino industry.

Shagonaby says the Gun Lake Tribe is also investing in the legacy of the 1821 Treaty by working with the city of Kalamazoo to create more awareness about its traditional reservation in the city's downtown. He says the Tribe is working to preserve a burial mound inside Bronson Park in the city, and is commissioning art works to mark the four corners of the reservation’s boundaries.

On the bicentennial of the treaty that set those boundaries, each tribe and its members are marking the occasion in their own ways.

“It is important and crucial to acknowledge the historical events that directly contribute to who we are today,” said Marcus Winchester, director of the Pokagon Band of Potawatomi’s History & Cultural Center. “This commemoration should be seen as an act of ownership, where the Neshnabe nations take control of their narrative not only from a historical perspective, but also from the perspective of who we are today, and most importantly we are taking control of how those stories will shape our future generations.”

More information on the Pokagon Band’s culture and history is available on the Band’s website here.

For Ron Yob, chairman of the Grand River Bands of Ottawa Indians, the bicentennial of the treaty also offers an opportunity to look to the future. He says the treaty leaves a paper trail, codified and acknowledged by the federal government, that the members of his tribe are the Indigenous people of Grand Rapids. The U.S. government knew it in 1821, Yob says, even if the federal government of today hasn’t officially granted its recognition.

And the 500 or so people who he counts as the descendants of the Grand River Ottawa have a bright future, he says.

“We’re not just going to get up and go away,” Yob says. “We’ve got a lot of youngsters and kids and grand kids and great grand kids and they know who they are.”

Yob says those youngsters and kids will be out at the bicentennial event at Ah-Nab-Awen park on Sunday.

“You’re going to see a lot of little kids there. And these kids are being taught in a better way than I was taught … and they’re going to teach their kids,” Yob says. “I think if anything, we’ll be a stronger nation in 200 years than we are now.”

Dustin Dwyer reports enterprise and long-form stories from Michigan Public’s West Michigan bureau. He was a fellow in the class of 2018 at the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard. He’s been with Michigan Public since 2004, when he started as an intern in the newsroom.