Tribal Leader Reflects on Holistic Continuum of Potawatomi Presence in Saline


Robert Willians, Environmental Technician/Tribal Pastor – Methodist Church (L) and John Rodwan, Environmental Director for the NHBP. Photo by Ed Nesvig

Editor’s Note: In the following article, Carleen Nelson-Nesvig examines the connection of the Potawatomi tribe with the land, particularly within the River Raisin Watershed in Saline. Environmental Director John Rodwan of the Nottawaseppi Huron Band of the Potawatomi emphasizes a holistic view of the tribe's history, which intertwines with the natural environment, rather than pinpointing a specific location or time period. Historical accounts confirm that the Potawatomi did inhabit Saline and other areas within the watershed, having a continuous presence in Michigan despite forced removals and land cessions. The article underscores the Potawatomi's resilience and the importance of understanding their journey as part of a larger, interconnected cultural and environmental narrative.

Tribal Leader Reflects on Holistic Continuum of Potawatomi Presence in Saline

By Carleen Nelson-Nesvig

In a recent interview with John Rodwan, Environmental Director and Robert Williams, Environmental Technician with the Nottawaseppi Huron Band of the Potawatomi tribe, this reporter explored the tribe's origins and its deep connection to the natural landscape. This in-depth conversation with John Rodwan sheds light on the Potawatomi tribe's unique perspective, challenging preconceived notions and advocating for a more comprehensive understanding of their history and connection to the environment as opposed to a specific site.

Rodwan emphasized the importance of viewing the Potawatomi history through a holistic, indigenous perspective, challenging the linear narrative often presented in western viewpoints. What Rodwan means by this is "We have beliefs and teachings that don't have a beginning or an end but rather form a holistic continuum," stated Rodwan, urging readers to understand the tribe's journey beyond a fixed time frame.

The Potawatomi's roots are intricately woven into the environment, particularly within the  River Raisin Watershed. Saline, a part of this watershed, holds significance for the tribe. Rodwan expressed his preference for thinking about tribal occupations through a watershed basis, highlighting the inherent connection between the people and their environment.

Used by permission from “A People in Progress” by John Rodwan and Virginia Anewishki.

"The Nottawaseppi Huron Band of the Potawatomi, with 'Huron' memorialized in their name, signifies the tribe's historical presence in this watershed. We migrated to that watershed from another watershed," Rodwan explained, emphasizing the interconnectedness of their journey, particularly with water.

Rodwan provided insight into the lifeway model adopted by the tribe, focusing on optimizing living location and lifeway choices. Contrary to the western perspective that often compartmentalizes indigenous presence into specific villages, Rodwan continued to encourage thinking in terms of a cultural landscape and these watersheds.

The Potawatomi's removal from the River Raisin Watershed to West Michigan, although often overshadowed by the 1840 removal to West of the Mississippi, was highlighted by Rodwan. He stressed the importance of understanding their journey as a continuum, not limited to a specific time or event. Discussing the sophistication of tribal transportation networks, Rodwan debunked misconceptions and underscored the tribe's ability to navigate extensive routes for trade, such as copper mined at Lake Superior reaching Louisiana for smelting.

Touching on possible burial sites and artifacts associated with those sites, Rodwan referenced the Native American Graves Repatriation Act (NAGPRA), emphasizing the need for repatriation and respecting the remains of ancestors.

As the conversation delved into environmental adaptation, Rodwan highlighted the tribe's semi-nomadic culture, evolving with the landscape. He preferred the term "indigenous earthworks" over traditional designations like "mounds," or burial mounds” signaling a shift away from western terminology.

Rodwan also spoke about the tribe's role in climate adaptation, asserting that tribal people are accustomed to environmental stresses and change. The interview included the tribe's commitment to preserving the tribe's cultural landscapes and a symbolic act of taking tobacco ties when visiting them.

Wall Panoramic of NHBP History at appears at Fire Keepers Casino. Courtesy of Amber Ballard, PR for NHBP.

The historical account of the Huron Potawatomi people further reinforces the conclusion that yes, the tribe did inhabit Saline and other locations within the watershed. From about 1600 to the 1630s, the Potawatomi occupied the lower one-third of the Lower Peninsula of Michigan. In about 1641, they moved to Northern Wisconsin, responding to pressures from neighboring tribes allied with the French. They later settled in the area roughly between Chicago to Detroit, up to Milwaukee and as far south as Northern Indiana and Northeastern Illinois.

In 1817, the Saline area was one of six sections of land conveyed to the University of Michigan, still in Detroit, by Chippewa, Ottawa, and Potawatomi Indians as a potential site for educational benefits for Native American children. The Saline site was eventually rejected, and a salt spring along the Rouge River chosen instead.

Salt reserves have been documented on two known area sites: 8784 Saline-Macon Road, once the Ruckman-Finch farm, and 550 S. Ann Arbor, once the home of A.W. Barr. Mr. Barr found Native American artifacts on his property, however the location of burial grounds or a village has never been found.

Land cessions became a significant part of Native American history through the 1821 treaty of Chicago, leading to the establishment of the Nottawaseppi Reservation. The reservation, situated on the banks of the St. Joseph River in what is now St. Joseph County's Mendon area, was a choice tract of wilderness containing fine, deep-soiled prairies, excellent timber, and the navigable waters of the St. Joseph.

According to the Nottawaseppi, their new homeland faced challenges from land-hungry settlers and crafty government agents. Despite efforts to relocate and consolidate the dispersed Huron Potawatomi onto a central reservation, the Nottawaseppi Reservation was extinguished by the 1833 treaty of Chicago. The tribe faced a forcible removal to Kansas by 1838, with the Nottawaseppi Huron Band proving to be the most reluctant to relocate.

After several years of inaction, in 1840 the federal government became serious in its efforts to enforce the Treaty of Chicago. General Hugh Brady was sent to Detroit to oversee the removal of the Potawatomi from Michigan and Indiana using whatever means necessary. His agents rounded up perhaps 500 Potawatomi to be removed west.

It is critical to note that the removal was unsuccessful to the degree that a number of Huron Potawatomi eluded removal, some migrated north of the Grand River, while others fled to Canada or hid deep in the woods. Still others returned from the removal process or the lands west of the Mississippi.

This historical account, combined with John Rodwan's insights, invites readers to reflect on the dynamic and interconnected nature of the Potawatomi tribe's presence in Michigan. The tribe's story unfolds as a continuum, deeply rooted in the landscape and resilient in the face of adversity.

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