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The Potawatomi (Nishnabec or True People) indirectly encountered the French in 1616 and quickly became known as the Gens de Feu or Fire People. According to the Potawatomi, they are known as the Fire Nation because they maintain the council fire once shared by the Potawatomi, Ojibwa, and Odawa, a cultural group living together north of the Great Lakes before the arrival of Europeans. The Citizen Potawatomi are considered part of the Central Algonquian language family and continue to speak a southern dialect of the Potawatomi language. Relying on canoes instead of horses, the Potawatomi primarily fished, gathered wild rice, hunted deer and elk, and cultivated corn, squash, beans, and tobacco. Inspired by their Great Lakes environment, the Potawatomi are known for their distinctive mat and basket weaving, quillwork, and ribbonwork techniques. Potawatomi designs are generally elaborate, abstract flowers and scrolls.

Known as the Trail of Death, the forced removal of the Potawatomi from the Great Lakes occurred between September and November 1838. Over 756 Potawatomi were rounded up by Gen. John L. Tipton in Twin Lakes, Indiana, and marched to the Osage River in Kansas. While in Kansas, the Citizen Potawatomi people were referred to as the "Mission Band" for their agrarian lifestyle and devotion to the Catholic Church. Later, the Citizen Potawatomi became a distinct, separate group from the Kansas Potawatomi once they took U.S. citizenship, signed the Treaty of 1867, and relocated south to the Indian Territory to escape non-Indian land depredation in 1870-71.

The Oklahoma reservation, granted to the Citizen Potawatomi Nation exclusively, included almost all of Pottawatomie [sic] County, half of Cleveland County, and a portion of Oklahoma County. In 1876 the Citizen Potawatomi, through a land grant, invited the Catholic Order of St. Benedict to build a church and school, under the direction of Father Isodore Robot, for their children on the new reserve. Twenty-five years later Sacred Heart Mission was destroyed by fire, and the educational institute relocated to Shawnee, where it became St. Gregory's University. Allotment to individual Potawatomi in 1890 placed 275,000 acres into the federal domain, and the area was opened to non-Indian settlement in 1891.

With more than twenty-five thousand tribal members, the Citizen Potawatomi Nation is the ninth-largest American Indian tribe in the United States. Federal recognition came in 1948. A democracy, the Citizen Potawatomi Nation has an executive branch with a tribal chairperson and a business committee, a legislative branch with a general council, and a judicial branch with a supreme court. Annual elections and a Heritage Festival are held every year on the last Saturday in June. In order to communicate more effectively with its members, the business committee established regional council offices in 1983 in Oregon, Washington, California, the Southwest, Colorado, Texas, and the Midwest.

From the 1980s forward, Tribal Chair John A. Barrett, Jr., governed the Citizen Potawatomi Nation and nurtured tribal assets from five hundred dollars to more than $111 million. The nation owns and operates First National Bank and Trust of Shawnee, KGFF radio station, and CPN-Net Internet Services. Other tribal assets include FireLake Discount Foods, Entertainment Center, Golf Course, and Farm. All enterprises bear the name FireLake in reference to the original council fire, and specifically, Lake Michigan.

At the end of the twentieth century the Citizen Potawatomi Nation, with an enrollment of approximately eighteen thousand, continued to focus on preserving Potawatomi language and culture, providing health, social, and education services, building its economic base, and protecting its tribal sovereignty.


BIBLIOGRAPHY: James A. Clifton, The Prairie People: Continuity and Change in Potawatomi Indian Culture, 1665-1965 (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1998). R. David Edmunds, Kinsmen through Time: An Annotated Bibliography of Potawatomi History (Metuchen, N. J.: The Scarecrow Press, Inc., 1987). R. David Edmunds, The Potawatomis: Keepers of the Fire (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1978). Joseph Murphy, Potawatomi of the West: Origins of the Citizen Band (Shawnee, Okla.: Citizen Band Potawatomi Tribe, 1994).

Lisa A. Kraft

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