Why Don't We
Tell the Beginning of the Story?
Native Americans Were Here First
by Rich Meyer
A story has a beginning, a middle, and an end. However, it is
the storyteller who decides where the narrative begins.
I worked with Mennonite Central Committee in southern Africa
in the early 1980s. At that time, the official version of South
African history began in the 17th century, and it began with
an unpopulated land, belonging to no one. This beginning then
set the stage for the story of the settling of the land by European
More recently, I have been studying the history of Israel/Palestine.
As a member of Christian Peacemaker Teams I work with Israelis
and Palestinians to protect the homes of West Bank Palestinians
from demolition by the Israeli government. These demolitions
are in part an attempt to bring the facts into line with the
Zionist movement story of this land, which begins like this:
"A land of no people for a people with no land." Over
400 Palestinian villages were obliterated and more today are
"unrecognized" in an attempt to tell the story in a
particular way. 2
Where do we begin our stories? Consider these two quotes
from different articles in one recent Mennonite Historical
Bulletin: "Kuntz owned the farm for 50 years, renting
it to various tenants. He had bought it from Peter Gfeller, and
in 1856 Gfeller had bought it from the original owner, John B.
Early accounts describe
Potawatomi people as...
Or this: "The migration of the Amish and Amish-Mennonites
to this northern part of Michigan occurred at the turn of this
century. The land had been cleared of timber by the lumber companies
in the latter part of the 19th century, and the companies were
encouraging people to buy and settle the land. First, Amish migrants
from Indiana . . ."4
Where we choose to begin telling our story creates a version
of the story, in these cases a version that rather abruptly cuts
out earlier actors, ignoring their story.
In the first case above, Peter Gfeller bought the land in
question from John Neuenschwander less than a decade after the
United States government created the title deed at a land sale
in Des Moines. The land sale was held a few years after the Army
took possession from the Sauk and Fox Indians. This in turn was
only two years after the United States Army built Fort Des Moines
for the express purpose of protecting the Indians from encroaching
white settlement, in an attempt to minimize conflict. 5
What Have We Lost?
A quick survey of articles in the Mennonite Historical Bulletin
reveals that about one-third touch on the origins of Amish-Mennonite
(or related) settlements in the Americas. What does it do to
our story to omit mention of the displaced Indian tribes, the
treaties by which they were dispossessed, or where their descendants
might be found today? 6
First, we are often not aware of the proximity in time between
the dispossession of the Indians and the establishment of Mennonite
communities. How often were we the immediate beneficiaries? How
often did we discreetly enter the story of the land a few years
later? Perhaps in most cases, speculators bought the land from
the government, and Mennonites bought the land a few transactions
later. To become aware, we will have to tell the stories from
an earlier point of view.
This is not an attempt to determine "original" ownership.
The concept does not seem helpful to me. It is about understanding
the relationships of our forbears and our communities' founders
to the dramatic cultural conquest taking place around them at
the time. 7
In the second article quoted above, the Amish and Mennonites
entered at the turn of the century, onto land that the Chippewa
ceded at the Treaty of Isabella in 1864. But John Neuenschwander
of Polk County, Iowa clearly arrived there before the dust had
settled from the retreating Indians. 8
James Juhnke (9)
notes that hundreds of Mennonites joined the invading boomers
when the Indian Territory was opened in 1889 and after. Enough
arrived so that by the time Oklahoma became a state in 1907 there
were 37 white Mennonite congregations there. He cites two cases
where early Mennonite missionaries to the Indians staked private
claims in the land rush, and subsequently resigned from direct
mission work. 10
We were in many places unquestionably such a part of the
encroaching white settlement that the Indians and, on occasion,
the federal government saw us as a threat to the Indians. 11
Unless we, the storytellers, make this vital connection, our
readers will not consider how our possession was tied to the
Indians' dispossession. It is only when we see this connection
that the next questions come to mind: How did our forbears relate
to the Indians? How did they think of land rights and land tenure?
Did they perceive an injustice in what was happening to the Indians?
Second, omitting all mention of our Indian predecessors contributes
to the ongoing denial of their existence and claims. In the same
way that white South Africans and Zionists did not want to acknowledge
the existence of prior inhabitants and their claims to the land,
the United States government is at best inconsistent in recognizing
the claims of Indian nations.
In the young United States, commissioners dealing with Indians
prior to 1787 operated under the theory that the United States
had conquered the Indians in the Revolutionary War and therefore
already held title to the land. Stiff resistance by an intertribal
confederacy convinced Congress that reliance on a claim of conquest
would result in a long, bloody and expensive war.
Backing away from that claim in the Northwest Ordinance
of 1787, Congress declared that Indian "land and property
shall never be taken from them without their consent." The
Treaty of Fort Harmar in 1789 confirmed that the United States
now explicitly recognized the principle that the Indians had
a right to their land. 12
Jackson's message to Congress
December 6, 1830
However, a succession of broken treaties and acts of Congress
abrogating treaties demonstrated ambivalence about how to relate
to Indian nations that continues to this day. The fundamental
confusion has been over whether Indian tribes are nations, with
collective rights and a measure of sovereignty, or simply protected
classes of citizens. The most basic conflict was about different
understandings of land tenure. Congress finally insisted with
the Dawes Severalty Act (1887) that the Indians accept private
individual ownership of land. Juhnke called this "a strategy
for tribal destruction." 13
Passage of the Dawes Act indicated the sense of Congress that
the Indians were not a nation apart, but rather, were subjects
for whom Congress could legislate. More recently, in "settling"
treaty claims in Alaska (1971), Maine (1980), South Dakota (1980),
and Massachusetts (1987), Congress and the courts have imposed
monetary settlements. In these acts there is both an assertion
of jurisdiction and an abrogation of treaty rights.
Menominee's refusal to "enroll
Third, leaving the Indians out of our stories leads to
leaving them out of our lives. If we recognize their story, and
our connection with their story, then perhaps we will recognize
them when we meet them in our newspapers, on our streets, and
in our churches.
Our relations with Indians are a present possibility, not
just an historical footnote. After we acknowledge that the Potawatomi
once lived in Elkhart County, maybe we can acknowledge that they
are still alive today, on reservations from northern Wisconsin
to Oklahoma. When we open ourselves to the present reality of
Indians, learn to know them and their concerns, we may discover
shared agenda, new agenda, or conflict. 14
We need to address the problem of beginning our reports on
our settlements without making the connection to the loss of
the previous inhabitants. To do this, we may need to become familiar
with some different resources or research in some new places.
Learning to Tell More of the Story
Imagine that the Historical Committee would adopt a policy that
all Mennonite Historical Bulletin articles touching on
the origins of Amish-Mennonite communities must include mention
of the tribes displaced, the articles of cession by which they
were dispossessed, and where their descendants might be found
today. (Editor's note: Short of making it a policy, the Historical
Committee directed the editor to include such data whenever possible.)
Where would you learn this? Would this send you to unfamiliar
sources? How would you as a church historian research this part
of the story?
Let me list some of the resources available to you which are
useful in this research:
1. Any local title deed abstract will give you some important
dates. Here is the first item on the abstract for the farm where
I live: "United States of America, to Seymour Moses. . .
By Certificate of Entry, May 21, 1833, No. 2101." The second
item continues, "In consideration of full payment under
Certificate No. 2101, Give and Grant the Northeast Quarter .
. . of lands subject to sale at Fort Wayne, Indiana . . ."
2. Your county historical society may have most of the information
you need. The Elkhart County Historical Society has a significant
collection, maps, and a five-page paper on Native American
Culture in Elkhart County, Indiana. Knowledgeable museum
staffs are available to guide groups to local Indian sites. At
the very least, you should be able to ascertain the names of
the tribes that lived in your area. 15
3. Your local library may have reference books, books in circulation,
or specific collections relevant to Indian inhabitants of your
area. The Goshen Public Library provided useful materials in
all of these categories. From the reference shelves I was shown
a Handbook of American Indians (16)
that listed 37 treaties with the Potawatomi by date and place
of signing. On the shelves I found a book that included a map
of thirteen major Potawatomi land cessions by date and location,
(17) and in
the "Indiana" room I found the Journal of an Emigrating
Party of Pottawattomie Indians, 1838. 18
4. Kappler's Indian Treaties contains the full text
of every United States Indian treaty. Every treaty of cession
includes a description of the land being ceded. From these descriptions
I am able to locate all of Goshen, Indiana, (and my home) in
the land ceded by the Treaty of Carey Mission, September 20,
5. If you are unable to locate Kappler's Indian Treaties
you know what treaty you want, the Avalon Project of Yale University
will put the text of any treaty on their website. Go to www.yale.edu/lawweb/avalon/avalon.htm
or search for "Avalon" in the "Education"
category. From the home page of the Avalon Project there is a
link to "Major Collections," and then in an alphabetical
listing to "Treaties Between the United States and Native
Americans." The treaties on-line are listed by date. If
the treaty you want is not available, linking to "E-mail
comments" from the home page will let you send your request
to firstname.lastname@example.org. In my experience, only two days elapsed
until the answer to my request was available on-line.
6. Indiana roadside historical markers are all on a searchable
database. This means you can search for any word, and find the
locations and complete text of all roadside historical markers
containing that word. A search for "Potawatomi" turns
up seven roadside markers in seven different counties. Go to
or search for "Indiana Historical Marker." I have not
found equally useful sites for any other states, although Ohio
is working on providing this information. 20
7. The Bureau of Indian Affairs (www.doi.gov/bureau-indian-affairs.html)
maintains eleven area offices. Contact the area office for your
region, or search their website for addresses of tribal leaders.
Here I found addresses and phone numbers for leaders of the Pokagon
Band of Potawatomi (Dowagiac, Mich.) and of the Sac & Fox
Tribe of the Mississippi in Iowa. To do this, you will need to
know the official name of a tribe; with 558 federally recognized
and, this is not simple. Russell Publications sells United States
maps showing federally-recognized and state-recognized tribes
with lands. Contact them at www.indiandata.com,
or 9027 North Cobra Drive, Phoenix AZ 85028.
8. Internet search engines are a powerful tool. Searching with
a keyword 'Potawatomi' led me to websites for the Citizens Band
and Prarie Band (descendants of the Trail of Death and links
led to the 'Potawatomi Web' (www.ukans.edu/~kansite/pbp/homepage.html),
a rich site with history, language, culture, and contact information
for eight related bands and first nations in the U.S. and Canada.
A message or two later I had some helpful corrections (now incorporated
in to this artical from a Potawatomi woman in Seattle.
The Story Continues
There is certainly room for more research and reporting on the
relationship of Mennonites and Native Americans. Mennonite interaction
with Native Americans has gone through many phases since the
days of frontier conflict (e.g. the "Hochstetler
massacre" of September 1757) and displacement. Mission
schools, hospitals, and churches were established, and MCCers
have entered native communities on a variety of assignments.
Some of these stories have been well-documented, some have not.
At the time of this writing, representation of Native American
Mennonites in the leadership structures of the new Mennonite
Church is still under discussion.
I have dealt here only with the United States experience.
In Canada there is a growing awareness, reflected in increasing
use of the term "first nations," and in the recognition
that native land claims represent the rights of a prior nation
that suffered an uncompensated loss. The United States, in both
official policy and public opinion, is less willing to recognize
native claims. South Dakota Governor William Janklow recently
dismissed the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868 on the grounds that
all of the people who signed the treaty are now dead! 21
Today there are Mennonites serving with a Christian Peacemaker
Team in Pierre, South Dakota. They are monitoring the city, state
and federal government responses to an encampment of Lakota on
Sioux treaty land. The CPTers are living with the Lakota who
are protesting an attempted land grab by Governor Janklow and
South Dakota Senator Tom Daschle. South Dakota is trying to get
100,000 acres of Sioux treaty land that has been in the control
of the United States Army Corps of Engineers for the last 50
years. Daschle has put legislation to transfer the land to South
Dakota in two bills to date. The House of Representatives voted
to repeal Sen. Daschle's first attempt, but the conference committee
did not adopt the repeal language in the final version. 22
In assigning a team to work with the Lakota, Christian Peacemaker
Teams has in effect suggested that Mennonites view the injustice
of United States disregard for Indian treaties in the same category
as Israeli demolition of Palestinian homes and Mexican government
support of paramilitaries in Chiapas. 23
CPT asked supporters to call on Congress to repeal the land
grab legislation, and raised the issue in a vigil under the Arch
of Westward Expansion during the Mennonite General Assembly in
St. Louis. 24
Where do our stories begin? As storytellers, North American
church historians must answer this question. Let us see how our
stories change, and how our stories change us, when we consider
how we have entered the story of the Indians. 25
Rich H. Meyer, Goshen, Indiana, is a farmer and mechanic who
works half-time for Christian Peacemaker Teams. Since researching
the forced removal of the Potawatomi from northern Indiana he
has led educational field trips and given elementary school programs
1. Tsotsi, W.M.,
From Chattel to Wage Slavery, Lesotho Printing and Publishing
Co., Maseru, Lesotho 1981, p. 15, citing the State Dept. of Information,
Multi-national Development in South Africa, the Reality, Pretoria
1974, p. 22.
Donald E., Anxious for Armageddon, Herald Press, Scottdale, Pa.
1995, p. 92. This phrase credited to Theodor Herzl and Israel
Zangwell. The population of Palestine was about 500,000 (94%
Arab) when they introduced this phrase at the First Zionist Congress,
Roxana, "Log Cabin Captures a Moment in History," Mennonite
Historical Bulletin, Vol. LVII No. 4, October 1996, p. 8.
Dennis, "Ora Troyer: Steward of His Community's History,"
Mennonite Historical Bulletin, Vol. LVII No. 4, October 1996,
5. World Book,
Vol. 5, World Book, Chicago 1991, p. 165.
6. It is also
true that some Mennonite Historical Bulletin articles have included
relevant information on relations with Indians. For example,
see the article by Greg Hartzler-Miller in the October 1997 MHB,
Vol. LVIII No. 4, p. 5.
James C., "General Conference Mennonite Missions to the
American Indians in the Late Nineteenth Century," Mennonite
Quarterly Review, Vol. 54, April 1980, p. 118-119.
8. These tribes
may have been displaced by settlers (including Amish/Mennonite?)
more than once. The Sauk and Fox Indians were forced out of Wisconsin
by the French in the 18th century, then out of Illinois in the
early 19th century by the federal government to make room for
white settlers there.
to Juhnke, the mission board's objection was not that the missionaries
had compromised themselves by taking land which originally belonged
to Indians, but that land interests and speculation kept them
from devoting their full attention to genuine mission work. In
other words, the mission board was more concerned with its own
loss than with the Indians' loss. In support, Juhnke cites The
Mennonite, January 1897, p. 31.
11. Some treaties
included specific commitments by the United States to restrain
white settlement. From Article 5 of the Treaty of Greenville
(1795): "The United States will protect all the said Indian
tribes in the quiet enjoyment of their lands against all citizens
of the United States, and against all other white persons who
intrude upon the same." Article 6: "If any citizen
of the United States, or any other white person or persons, shall
presume to settle upon the lands now relinquished by the United
States, such citizen or other person shall be out of the protection
of the United States; and the Indian tribe, on who land the settlement
shall be made, may drive off the settler, or punish him in such
manner as they shall think fit . . ." The Indian land to
be so protected in this treaty included from what is now Wayne
and Holmes counties in Ohio to the Great Lakes and the Mississippi
Anthony F.C., The Long Bitter Trail, Hill and Wang, New York
1993, p. 32.
agenda: I met and worked alongside Anishinabe trying to close
the United States Navy ELF (Extremely Low Frequency) transmitter
in Wisconsin. For me, ELF represents our nation's sinful commitment
to nuclear first-strike capability. For the Indians, the environmental
damage of the ELF antenna situated between their reservations
is a crime against the earth. (I imagine there were similar political
forces at work in placing the ELF facility between Indiana reservations
as in locating landfills predominately in minority communities.)
New agenda: an anti-racism team at Assembly Mennonite Church
in Goshen, Indiana, is raising questions about the use of "Redskins"
as the name of the Goshen High School sports teams.
Conflict: church leaders in Indiana have led the opposition to
plans by tribal groups for gambling facilities. But have there
been face-to-face contacts between the church leaders and the
15. In this
regard I acknowledge with gratitude the invaluable service of
Cliff Pequet, a volunteer with the Elkhart County Historical
Frederick Webb, Smithsonian Institution Bureau of American Ethnology,
Bulletin 30, Handbook of American Indians, Part 2 (North of Mexico),
Government Printing Office, Washington, DC 1910.
R. David, Potawatomis: Keeper of the Fire, Norman: University
of Oklahoma Press 1978.
Magazine of History, Vol. 21 No. 4, Department of History of
Indiana University, with the cooperation of the Indiana Historical
Society and the Indiana State Library, Bloomington, Ind., December
1925, p. 315.
Charles J., LL.M., ed., Indian Affairs: Laws and Treaties, Vol.
II (Treaties), Government Printing Office, Washington, DC 1904.
Andrew J., Historical Agency Consultant, Local History Office,
Ohio Historical Society, e-mail message of September 9, 1999:
"As of yet, the texts of Ohio's historical markers are not
on OHS's web site, but we have plans to put them up before Ohio's
Bicentennial in 2003 (sooner rather than later)."
Ron, Loveland, Colorado, e-mail report of Wednesday, July 14,
1999, Ron Friesen, CPT: ". . . Governor Janklow has said
that since neither he nor anyone living today signed that treaty
that it was null and void.. . . ." Janklow's quote of March
22, 1999, as reported to CPT by Lakota youth present: "I
didn't sign any treaty, you didn't sign any treaty, none of us
here signed any treaty."
22. A wealth
of information on current and recent legislation is available
23. In both
of these international contexts in which CPT is working, United
States support is seen as an important factor in the persistence
of the injustice being addressed.
24. July 24,
25. I have
used varied vocabulary---Indians, Native Americans, members of
first nations---because I have heard the people I am identifying
ask for all of these in different contexts. It is my assumption
that preferred terminology will vary from place to place and
over time, as it has in the past. I attempt to allow individuals
and groups to name themselves, and if the labels I have used
offend, I apologize.
Early accounts describe Potawatomi people
- liked practical jokes
- women modest
- most activities (games) had spiritual significance
- wore hair long except during war when they shaved their head
except for a small
- women, single braid down their back; considered tribal historians
- both made jewelry, excelled in beadwork
- polygamous, single male marrying two or more sisters
- cross-cousin marriage encouraged
- domed wigwams (woven brush); winter more tightly constructed
- farmed wild rice, maple syrup, corn
- men expected to develop close relationship with sisters' sons
- grave a hollowed out tree or four foot grave (illus. low lying
- believed departed soul traveled to the west, assisted by Chibiabos
- entrance of French: dependence on trade goods enriched and
(Notes from "Trail of Death: The story of the forced removal
of Potawatomi Indians from Indiana to Kansas in 1838" Video,
1992, 27 Minutes, Color. Available from Wayne Harvey Video Publications,
South Bend, Indiana, 219-234-5670.
(return to article)
President Andrew Jackson, second annual
message to Congress, Dec 6, 1830: "It gives me great pleasure
to announce to congress that the benevolent policy of the government
steadily pursued for nearly thirty years in relation to the removal
of the Indians beyond the white settlements is approaching to
a happy consummation. Two important tribes have accepted to provisions
made for the removal at the last session of congress and it is
believed their example will induce the remaining tribes also
to seek the same obvious advantages. Doubtless, it will be painful
to leave the graves of their fathers. But what do they do more
than our ancestors did or their children are now doing."
(Notes from "Trail of Death: The story of the forced removal
of Potawatomi Indians from Indiana to Kansas in 1838" Video).
(return to article)
When a government agent demanded that Menominee and his people
leave their homelands, the chief refused, saying: "The President
(Martin Van Buren had become president in 1837, following Andrew
Jackson) does not know that your treaty is a lie, that I never
signed it. He does not know that you made my young chiefs drunk
and got their consent and pretended to get mine. He does not
know that I refuse to sell my lands, and still refuse. He would
not by force drive me from my home, the graves of my tribes and
my children who have gone to the great spirit, nor allow you
to tell me your braves will take me, tied like a dog, if he knew
the truth. My brother the president is just, but he listens to
the words of the young chiefs who have lied, and when he knows
the truth he will leave me to my own. I have not sold my lands;
I will not sell them. I have not signed any treaty and will not
sign any. I am not going to leave my lands and I don't want to
hear anything more about it."
On Aug 30, 1838 General John Tipton arrived with a band of
100 armed volunteers. They surrounded the village (south of present-day
Plymouth, Indiana), took Menominee captive and forced the remaining
Potowatomis to "enroll for removal." On September 4,
more than 850 Natives were marched at gunpoint toward Kansas.
Memonimee was locked in a caged wagon. "What becomes of
him, no one knows." (Notes from "Trail of Death: The
story of the forced removal of Potawatomi Indians from Indiana
to Kansas in 1838" Video, and Edmunds, R. David, The Potawatomis,
Keepers of the Fire, University of Oklahoma Press, 1978, p. 267.)
(return to article)
Mennonite Historical Bulletin, July, 1999