West of the Mississippi

When the Potawatomi arrived on the first reservation in present-day Kansas between Sugar Creek and Pottawatomie Creek, the Flint Hills around them varied widely from the Great Lakes terrain they left behind. The Citizen Potawatomi Nation Cultural Heritage Center’s West of the Mississippi gallery tells the Potawatomi story of post-removal endurance, both culturally and physically.

In 1846, the scattered Potawatomi settlements in present-day Kansas and Iowa were consolidated onto one reservation in northeast Kansas as a result of a treaty. A few years later, in 1854, the Kansas-Nebraska Act organized the central plains into two territories and effectively repealed the Missouri Compromise of 1820. The act admitted Nebraska as a free territory and Kansas as a territory that would or would not allow slavery, depending upon their Constitution at the time of their admission as a state. The Cultural Heritage Center highlights this key period of Potawatomi history in the West of the Mississippi gallery.

From 1847 to 1861 the Potawatomi in Kansas managed to survive as a people. Tribal members largely adapted to a sedentary lifestyle, but they did not assimilate to the degree desired by the federal government. Most Potawatomi were resigned to their fate of living on a government-assigned reservation for the rest of their lives and simply wanted to be left in peace and in one place, without the threat of further removal.

On Nov. 15, 1861, eight designated “chiefs” and more than 70 other members of the Potawatomi Nation met with federal agents to sign a treaty that would forever alter their community’s relationship with other Potawatomi and the U.S. government. The 1861 treaty initiated the process for acquiring fee-simple land allotments and U.S. citizenship for almost two-thirds of its members. This group, which became known as the Citizen Potawatomi, was among the first tribes to enter into a treaty agreement that included both conditions. The decade that followed brought both successes and great challenges as the Citizen Potawatomi struggled to navigate their evolving status as Native Americans, U.S. citizens, landowners and dispossessed people.

In 1861, 2,170 Potawatomi lived on the 576,000-acre reservation in Kansas, most having endured two or more removals in the previous 30 years. Of these, 1,400 ultimately chose to take land allotments and the rest chose to continue holding their land communally on a reservation reduced to 11 square miles.

The gallery also highlights the strength and resiliency of Potawatomi women. Men and women have always held specific and balanced roles within the community. This cultural foundation inspired Potawatomi leaders to fight for the women’s rights outlined in the Treaty of 1866, including land ownership and status. This amendment to the Treaty of 1861 extended head of household classification to women and young men.

Motivated by these traditions and the important role of Potawatomi women throughout time, the CHC dedicated an entire exhibit within the West of the Mississippi gallery to influential female Tribal leaders.

While some Potawatomi welcomed the notion of private land ownership, and the legal restrictions titles placed on emigrants and squatters who encroached on their property. A handful of tribal members ran successful businesses and carried out significant improvements to their homes and fields in their 15 years on the reservation. Others on the reservation did not want to further engage in negotiations with the U.S. government. They wanted to be left alone, and see the federal government honor previous agreements.