Indigenous diasporas and making ‘home’ in the Rust Belt

By Kasey Keeler

I vividly remember my first explorations of family history and genealogy. I was a graduate student, spending the summer in Chicago at the Newberry Library. As a participant in the Newberry Consortium for American Indian Studies (NCAIS) summer seminar, I had a whole new treasure trove of resources at my fingertips. Sitting in my study carrel with my laptop in front of me, I was drawn to my family’s records in the easily accessible and searchable online database. And down the rabbit hole I went.

I have always known who I am. I have always known I am both Tuolumne Me-Wuk and Citizen Potawatomi, despite growing up a suburban Indian, living away from both of my tribal communities. Graduate school prompts one to think about identity, place, and belonging in new ways, and I had never spent much time in the archives with so much information mere buttons and call slips away.

For an increasing number of younger Native people, we live in diaspora. A diaspora that was both forced upon us, often a century or more prior, and one of our own circumstances. For many of today’s tribal citizens, we are not able to live within our homelands. And genealogy work can suck anyone in—perhaps even more so for Native folks, eager to piece together fragmented family stories, stories not always openly shared and celebrated. Histories rife with pain and memories. And so our stories become tools of connection to the people, places, and spaces that make us.

In this instance, and with remarkable ease, I was able to connect the historical dots and literally pinpoint where my family was, decade by decade, Indian census by Indian census. Born in Konawa, Oklahoma on the very last day of 1928, my grandma was an “Indian.” (I use the term ‘Indian’ here because this is how she and her family were identified in census records.) An enrolled member of the Citizen Band of Potawatomi during her life, she was born ten years before the tribe’s constitution was adopted, and nearly a century after the Potawatomi removals from what we recognize today as Indiana. With her passing in 2004, family stories have been lost, stories that surely would not have been easy to remember, and nearly impossible to piece back together. This is what removal, diaspora, and the reservation system do. They separate.


Kinney - Tuolumne Meadows

Tuolumne Meadows in northern California. Photo by Patrick Kinney (creative commons).

Though my grandma was a Potawatomi Indian and lived much of her life in Oklahoma, my grandfather, her husband, was Tuolumne Me-Wuk. Born in 1925 in Tuolumne County, California, he would marry my grandmother in California in 1947. Together they had three children, including my mother. They grew up on our homelands, the Tuolumne Me-Wuk Rancheria, nestled in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada Mountains—land that was at the center of the gold rush. It wasn’t until my mother—an enrolled Tuolumne Me-Wuk tribal citizen—was in her early twenties that she left the community where she was born and raised, the first in her family to do so.

I was born 130 miles west of my grandma, in Talihina, Oklahoma, a small town whose population has hovered at just over a thousand residents since the 1930s. Talihina, in southeastern Oklahoma, sits on land the Choctaw Nation was removed to in the early 1830s, though certainly not Choctaw homelands. I spent the first several years of my life in Hugo, Oklahoma, just north of the Red River and one town over from Fort Towson, both located in Choctaw County. Despite the county name, this land was traversed by tribal nations like the Osage, the Wichita, the Kiowa, and the Caddo, doled out to new tribes arriving from the east during the height of the Removal era. Much like my grandma, though we were Indians living in what once was “Indian Territory,” we certainly were not living within our homelands.

By the time I started kindergarten, my family had moved north to Minnesota. When we arrived in suburban Minneapolis, to a community nestled along the Mississippi River, we occupied Dakota homelands. Growing up in this geography, I became much more familiar with Dakota and Ojibwe histories than the history of my own tribal communities. Their histories became ingrained in my memory. I was fluent in the treaties and subsequent dispossession of land, the U.S.-Dakota War, the Dakota place names that held knowledge in the places that had surrounded me, the Dakota and Ojibwe reservations that dotted the state. I knew the family names and the community members. I had become a steward of Dakota homelands. After a brief time as a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Virginia, living on Monacan homelands, in 2018 I arrived in Madison, Wisconsin: Ho-Chunk homelands.


Through each of these moves, I have never lived within my own homelands or my own reservation community. Yet, as a Native woman, I have become increasingly aware of my responsibility to the land I live on and call home, and to the tribal nations whose homelands I occupy as an uninvited visitor. Perhaps because of my own work on federal Indian policy and access to homeownership and (sub)urbanization, I have begun to untangle and reconcile what it means to be an American Indian person and live on someone else’s homelands in the context of the United States, a place built on American Indian land through processes of dispossession and settler colonialism. Lands of which Native community members and tribal citizens have been dispossessed, and to which they may not have access today. I am a survivor of dispossession and settler colonialism, yet I am also now a modern-day participant in the same capitalist system of land ownership.

I have been searching for the answer to a question that might not have one: as a Native person, how can I “own” land that is not mine? For me, this question is particularly salient as so many of my family members have spent their whole lives living within our homelands. This makes me the first generation to not live within our tribal homelands in California, lands that spread wide across the Yosemite Valley. A homeland that is over two thousand miles away from the Great Lakes region that I call home today, and have for almost my whole life.

More: Why Indigenous Place Names Matter

It is here that I return to my family history. Just three generations before my grandma’s birth, census records captured our family in what we recognize today as the southern Michigan/northern Indian region, before Potawatomi removal. Dr. Kelli Mosteller, Director of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation Cultural Heritage Center, has documented the history of removal, what has become known as the Trail of Death. Though my grandma was born in Oklahoma, a place that still prides itself as “Indian Country,” it was not her homelands. Though I was born in Oklahoma six decades after my grandma, in Choctaw County, it was not my homelands.

A house and land do not equate to homelands—nor even necessarily to “home.” Rather, for many Native people, including myself, our homelands exist as spaces and places we may not have access to. For an increasing number of a younger generation of Native people, these are also often places we have never lived. Rather, they have been held sacred by others, by our community members and our families. For me, my homelands are the scenic vistas of the rolling foothills that surround Tuolumne, California, and the southern shores of Lake Michigan, land my Potawatomi ancestors were removed from.

When a band of more than 850 Potawatomi were forcibly removed from northern Indiana on September 4, 1838, it set in motion a cycle of displacement, of violent separation from homeland for my family. To ensure Potawatomi would not return to their homelands, the tribal histories explain, “militia members burned both fields and houses.” During the forced move west, more than forty individuals, including many children, died, succumbing to heat, exhaustion, and thirst. Unlike other removals, “the military rarely coordinated Potawatomi removals,” writes the historian Kelli Mosteller. “…The Potawatomi endured dozens of removals, each predicated by circumstance unique to each village or geographic area.”

The removal of Indian people from the eastern half of the U.S.—from the Rust Belt, a geography hit hard by Removal policy—was motivated by land. The greed for land. Land for white settlement. And the thirst for land rippled west, across present-day Wisconsin and Minnesota, culminating in the U.S.-Dakota War, in 1862, and then the unrelenting Indian wars of the Plains that marked the remainder of the nineteenth century. Homelands usurped by white settlement. These homelands changed hands, but never lost their special place for the Native people who were pushed from them.

Shaull - Wild Rice

Canoeing among wild rice in Minnesota. Photo by Lorie Shaull (creative commons).

I often sit with this history of removal, of violent separation from homelands for one part of my family. The Potawatomi, part of the larger Three Fires Confederacy, or council is bound together with the Odawa and the Ojibwe. Together we are the Anishinaabe. Oral tradition passed down for generations has told us that the Anishinaabe would find their homelands when they arrived at a place where the food grows on the water. In the Great Lakes, we know this food as mnomen, or wild rice.

For Native people, treaty making, dispossession, the creation of the reservation system, and later, allotment witnessed the transfer of Indian land to non-Native hands, land became property. Only in recent years have tribal nations, once removed from the Rust Belt, been able to formally access their homelands. In 2016 the Pokagon Band of Potawatomi successfully acquired 166 acres of land in South Bend, Indiana.


Today, and for most of my life, I have lived in the Great Lakes, in places where mnomen has grown—or at least did grow before climate change and widespread pollution. I live in closer proximity to Lake Michigan today than at any point prior. I live among many Anishinaabe, much as I always have. I have made a home with my small family and participated in the capitalist land-accumulation practice of purchasing physical property, in a place that may not be my homelands, but has become my home. Yet I still wonder: what does it mean to make a home away from family, away from community, away from homelands?

Today, most of my closest kin live in Tuolumne, on my community’s reservation. Though I have never lived there, and likely never will, I still consider it my home. It is a place I think of lovingly, a place I care for deeply, a place I know will welcome me home. It is a place I am inherently connected to, even if I do not live there. The land has nourished my family for generations and continues to do so. It is where members of my family’s remains are scattered and a place that holds history and memory. It is a place that informs my identity.

More: Ohio’s Indigenous Landscapes

While it is certainly possible to make a home—a physical structure, a place to build and grow for years and years—away from your homelands, it is not possible to recreate the feeling of being enveloped by the comfort one feels in their homelands. While I have not experienced a loss of identity, I have missed a rich opportunity for a sense of rootedness in place, of belonging in place, and of intimately knowing my homelands.

More and more Native people are buying homes and land outside of reservation communities and away from their homelands. There are many complicated reasons for this, but often it has to do with access. Though I could enter the free-market exchange for land in what is present-day northern Indiana, my ability to access land in Tuolumne is much more limited. The Tuolumne Band of Me-Wuk, like other California tribal nations, has a smaller geographical “footprint” than many of the Plains tribal nations that are more familiar to most Americans. One of the lasting legacies of Indigenous dispossession, including the devastating effects of the gold rush in this region, unratified treaties with California Indians, the reservation system, and allotment, is the extreme reduction in land, homelands, many tribal nations and tribal members have access to.

Within the Tuolumne Me-Wuk geography, or homelands, the tribal reservation, as it exists today, is even smaller, with less than a thousand acres held in trust and home to about half of the tribal nation’s approximately four hundred enrolled citizens. In fact, many of today’s reservations have quite literally run out of land and homes. There is simply not enough room for all who want to live on-reservation. It is not uncommon for there to be a years-long waiting list to access on-reservation housing for tribal members who want to establish an on-reservation home.

Restricted access to homelands continues to be fueled by non-Native demand and greed for land. For many of us, we are content with a small parcel of land, even shared land, community held land. Just enough for a home and family. For others—for developers, for vacationers, for second-home owners, for investors—it seems their thirst for land cannot be quenched, not even today. So we continue to reconcile the greed for land by some and the denial of access to homelands for others. We are left with the idea of home, of homelands we can dream of but cannot grasp. Instead, we make temporary homes on others’ homelands. We learn their history. We build community with them. We steward their land. We persist. ■



This story is part of the Indigenous Rust Belt project, supported by Ohio Humanities.

Kasey Keeler, an enrolled member of the Tuolumne Band of Me-Wuk Indians and a direct descendant of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation, is an Assistant Professor at the University of Wisconsin. Her first book, American Indians and the American Dream: Policies, Place, and Property in Minnesota, will be published with the University of Minnesota Press in early 2023. 

Cover art by Chris Harvey, featuring an acorn cache on the Tuolumne reservation in northern California, circa 1930s.

Belt Magazine is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization. To support more independent writing and journalism made by and for the Rust Belt and greater Midwest, make a donation to Belt Magazine, or become a member starting at just $5 a month