The removal period, which nationally spanned the years 1785-1840, posed new environmental challenges to the Potawatomi. They were forced to respond to everything from shrinking landholdings, to changing subsistence patterns, to a domineering U.S. presence. These dynamics touched off a complicated intra-tribal debate over how best to manage the risk and survive.
A band-level split occurred during the 1820s-1830s in the area encompassing southwestern Michigan and northern Indiana. Two Potawatomi bands emerged, one located throughout the Tippecanoe Valley and the other located along the Michigan Road, whose leaders opposed one another over the issue of whether or not to engage the U.S. “civilization” policy and adapt to life in an American context. The Tippecanoe Valley leadership rejected the idea of adaptation and acceded to the federal government’s subsequent removal policy. The Michigan Road leadership embraced “civilization,” but manipulated it in such a way so as to preserve their lives, rights, and identity, and avoid forced removal.
This study focuses on the origins of the “civilization” policy and how some Potawatomi leaders used it to their advantage. A combination of documentary and archaeological evidence is used to demonstrate how members of the Michigan Road band developed syncretized life ways. These life ways allowed band members to survive amid a rapidly changing environment. They functionally acculturated to the predominant American society, while retaining core elements of their traditional identity. The resultant strategy of adaptive resistance ultimately allowed a significant number of Potawatomi to thwart forced removal and survive in their eastern homelands.