Governing a band in two states

Indian Country Today

Pokagon Band of Potawatomi Chairman Matthew Wesaw talks to us about governing one band in two states. Plus Stuart Huntington uncovers more than just the history of one South Dakota Boarding School.

Indian Country Today


The Pokagon Band of Potawatomi are located in Michigan and Indiana. With nearly 6,000 enrolled citizens, as you might imagine, governing in two states presents some challenges. Chairman Matthew Wesaw joins us to talk about the pandemic, his people, and the tribal enterprises.

And our next story has an incredible turn of events. It's about the Rapid City Indian boarding school, which was open from 1898 to 1933, 35 years. During that time, hundreds of Native American children were taken from their homes and placed there to be assimilated and educated.  

Here are a few comments:

Chairman Matthew Wesaw:

Well, we were fortunate in the sense that we've got some very good people working for our government. We've got an experienced emergency manager who has been through different disaster events before, and came up with a suggestion that we need to put a health task force together right away. So we accomplished that early March. Brought onboard some of our more involved department directors. We had our medical facility, we have our own citizen doctor. Brought on law enforcement, social services, housing facilities, and our gaming commission to help us recognize and understand what was happening day by day. Cause as you know, it changed almost by the hour and they came up with some very solid suggestions on things that we should do to be as proactive as possible.

Well, one of the first things we did was try to lead by example, and we stopped all travel of all of our government and our tribal council officials. We had several trainings that were established and scheduled and we stopped all of that. Again, to lead by example. One of the interesting things, which you mentioned in your introduction is we are involved in two States. So not only was our task force monitoring what was going on in the country, but they were also monitoring what was happening in Michigan, what was happening in Indiana and even looking at what was happening in the state of Illinois. Because we're only 60 miles from downtown Chicago. So as the governors would come out with different recommendations and executive orders, we monitored those. And recognizing that they don't impact us as a sovereign nation we did want to align ourselves very closely with what the rest of the state was doing. So I guess to answer your question specifically, probably within the first two weeks we put travel bans and stay at home orders. And those were extended a couple of times. We actually still are in a position of no face to face meetings right now suggested until the end of the year.

We have very good responses in the current census. The last information I had is we're one of the top responders in the state with the 12 federally recognized tribes. And when you look at the importance of the census, versus we just talked about elections. In the election process, you're electing somebody to represent you for two, four or six years, depending on the election. But the census is the value of that is over a 10 year period. So it is critical that our people get counted in the census because there is so much that is impacted by the number of Pokagon citizens who identify and get counted. So that is, again, we put out a lot of information on that and it's very important.

Stewart Huntington:

About seven years ago, some researchers led by a Lakota, Harvard trained lawyer Heather Dawn Thompson started looking into finding out where the children who died at the boarding school were buried. They found at least 50 children that went undocumented. The families didn't know what happened to the children. And so they started looking through all kinds of records to find out where some of these children were buried. They found some in a municipal graveyard in Rapid City. And some that nobody knew where they were buried until the researchers pinpointed an area on the old Indian school boarding lands, where the children were buried.

Well, when they were going through the records, they also started looking through title records on some of this land. And what they found Patty was that some of this land was illegally transferred into white hands, into municipal and school board, and then to other entities. And for generations, the Indian community in Rapid City has said that some of that Indian boarding land should have gone to the Native community. None of it did until these researchers found what some are calling dirty titles, dirty deeds. They brought the city to the negotiating table and now the city and the urban Indian community in Rapid City is in negotiations to transfer some land from the city to make up for these ill transferred tracks and possibly create for the first time in Rapid City, a Native, Indian, urban community center.

There's some heart wrenching stories that I found in my reporting and in the researchers in their research. One woman, Bev Warren, grew up in part, camping along the Rapid Creek in the urban encampment known as the Oshkosh camp. And that was because the Indians had nowhere else to go. And many of these families would come from the reservations in the summertime to be near their children who were in the school. And then also the school later became a Tuberculosis Sanitarium. And these Indians had nowhere to go other than a camp with no running water along the creek in part because the city fathers kept the Indians from getting any of this land, which was originally 1200 acres from the Indian boarding school.

(Related: Historic settlement inches closer in South Dakota land dispute)

Patty Talahongva, Hopi, is executive producer of Indian Country Today. Follow her on Twitter: @WiteSpider. Based in Phoenix, Arizona. Talahongva enjoys hiking, reading and traveling to new places.

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