‘Whose Lakefront’ marks the Indigenous history of the Lake Michigan coast
By Kerry Cardoza
For many Chicagoans, the lakefront is the city’s crown jewel. It features an eighteen-mile pedestrian trail and more than two dozen public beaches, not to mention scenic and recreational sites like Promontory Point, Navy Pier, the Museum Campus, and Grant Park. Other than being points of civic pride, these places all have another thing in common: they sit on unceded Native land. The area was originally inhabited by the Council of the Three Fires—the Ojibwe, Odawa, and Potawatomi—as well as the Menominee, Meskwaki, Sauk, Miami, Wea, Piankashaw, Kickapoo, Illinois, Winnebago/Ho’Chunk, Otoe, Missouria, and Iowas.
Chicago-based artist JeeYeun Lee sought to draw attention to the history of this land with her public art project Whose Lakefront. A central component was an October 2 procession led by Native people, who drew a line of red sand along Michigan Avenue in downtown Chicago. The street demarcates where the original border of the Chicago lakefront used to be, before city leaders began expanding the city’s footprint by adding in lakefill, much of it debris from the Great Chicago Fire of 1871.
Lee was inspired to make work about the unceded land after reading Imprints: The Pokagon Band of Potawatomi Indians & the City of Chicago, a book by Ohio State University professor John Low (Pokagon Band of Potawatomi). She said one of the most striking stories in the book was about a 1914 lawsuit filed by the Pokagon Band of Potawatomi Indians against the City of Chicago and other landowners. In the suit, the Pokagon asserted that they were legally entitled to the shorefront. In a series of treaties signed between 1795 and 1833, the Potawatomi and other neighboring tribes, such as the Ottawa and the Chippewa, had been forced to sign away much of the land that makes up Illinois and other areas in the Midwest. But since 1833, the lakefront had been expanded. As the heavily-researched Whose Lakefront website points out, none of these treaties deal explicitly with the bed of Lake Michigan.
The website excerpts Chicago Tribune articles on the Potawatomi’s land reclamation efforts, dating back to 1900. Low points out that Simon Pokagon, the son of Leopold Pokagon, who founded the Pokagon Band of Potawatomi, fought to claim this land in the 1890’s. This history shows that the calls for land back span well over a century. “This land back thing, and the activism about Native rights, is not a new phenomenon,” Low said. “My elders were doing it back in 1914 when they were suing for the Chicago lakefront. We’ve always been active. We’ve always resisted as much as we could. And we took that case to the U.S. Supreme Court, so that’s about as resistant as you can get within the parameters of the law.”
Low notes that most Pokagon tribal members were also included in the suit, including his great-grandmother. The judge dismissed the claim, which was appealed and eventually came before the U.S. Supreme Court. In 1917, the court ruled against the Potawatomi, stating they had “abandoned” the land. The ruling did not seem to take into account laws like the Indian Removal Act of 1830, which forced Indians to cede their land east of the Mississippi River and instead move west. Nor did it consider the 1838 forcible removal of Potawatomi from areas throughout the Midwest to present-day Kansas, a journey of more than six hundred miles. The brutal removal, now referred to as the Potawatomi Trail of Death, led to the deaths of dozens of Potawatomi.
“It was very illuminating, to learn all of these stories that I had never been exposed to. Chicago has one of the largest urban Indian communities in the country, but if you’re not connected to it, there’s really no visibility at all,” Lee said. “This idea of the lawsuit about this very concrete piece of land, really caught my imagination.”
Lee had incorporated walking into her art practice before, as an MFA student in Detroit and then later in Chicago, with a project that included five walks of twenty miles each, investigating and witnessing “the histories of settler colonialism, racial segregation, and class exploitation that shape the Chicago region.” “I like both the literal and the figurative pace of walking as a way to be in a place, but that isn’t completely still,” Lee told me. “So there’s still time to notice what’s in a place and try to both feel and see what’s there.” She has also long been interested in using her artwork to understand her “position as an immigrant from a formerly colonized country, here now because of U.S. imperialism.” (Lee is from Korea, and moved to the U.S. as a child.)
With Whose Lakefront, Lee said, the idea was about marking the land. Lee worked with a committee, made up primarily of local Native people, to plan the project over more than two years. She attended different Native-led events around the city, talking about the project and making connections, and eventually putting together a planning committee. “I had a really good feeling about this project,” says Debra Yepa-Pappan (Jemez Pueblo/Korean), who joined the planning committee early on. “This was around the time where a lot of other non-Native businesses and organizations were trying to craft their own land acknowledgments. This felt like a really great opportunity to take that land acknowledgement further.”
Madolyn Wesaw (Pokagon Band of Potawatomi), who was also on the planning committee, appreciated how Lee made “sure that it was Potawatomi people whose voices were being centered throughout the entire thing.” Fellow committee member Aaron Golding (Seneca Nation, Beaver clan) commends Lee for the participatory planning process. “For a non-Native person to want to do work with Natives about Native issues and with community, JeeYeun just did it in this really genuine way that invited everyone into the conversation and let the scope and scale and vision of her initial idea shift and shape based on the ideas and participation of the people in the committee,” he said.
The long planning process was due to the pandemic—the procession was originally supposed to happen in 2020.. But the delay allowed more time to notify all the businesses along the 1.5-mile route, which was required, and to build relationships. (Despite the extra time, the city didn’t provide the necessary permit until the day before the event.)
On the day of the event–October 2–participants gathered in a plaza downtown starting at around 11:30 a.m. People attended from across the Midwest and, in some instances, across the country; though the lawsuit was filed by the Potawatomi, the question of land ownership is one that affects all Native people. Small groups of people made their way to the site, many dressed in ribbon skirts, ribbon shirts, and other traditional dress. For Wesaw, that public display was itself profoundly meaningful. “My mother’s generation, my grandmother’s generation, they would have been sent to jail for that,” she told me. “It was really empowering to be able to do that so boldly, and so unapologetically, for the ancestors who couldn’t do those things.”
About fifty of the participants were Native students in town for the annual Big 10 Native Student Gathering, which was taking place at Northwestern University. Kadin Mills (Ojibwe), a Northwestern student who was part of the contingent, noted that though several people seemed visibly uncomfortable to see so many Native youth together, the experience was powerful. “The visibility was really nice,” he told me. “It was amazing to be able to participate in something much bigger than myself, much bigger…than everyone else that was there, because it’s been something that our ancestors have been fighting for. And now we’re fighting for it too.”
The procession took close to two hours to complete. Lee says she was glad it was a durational performance, because it gave her time to realize that the project was finally happening. “I really enjoyed the process of disrupting the comfort and status quo way of thinking about what downtown Chicago is and who it’s for,” she said.
Lois Biggs (White Earth Ojibwe/Oklahoma Cherokee) was present at the procession, and also appreciated the slow pace, which was so different from the way you typically move through downtown Chicago. “When you’re walking with hundreds of people and putting down these lines of sand and talking to people who are asking questions about it, and kind of moving together, getting to know each other, stopping for traffic, you’re moving at this really slow pace,” she said. “You just notice so much more, and you’re able to really feel in your body and feel as a group. Just to be present on the land and to really feel the history of it all. And feel the sadness there. But then also that shared joy that comes from this moment of reclamation.”
The procession came to a close at Pioneer Court, so-called because it is believed to be the site of the former homestead of Jean-Baptiste Point du Sable, the first non-Native settler of Chicago. Across from us, on the other side of the Chicago River, was a massive painting by Grand Portage Ojibwe artist Andrea Carlson that read, “You Are on Potawatomi Land.”
Now, Pioneer Court is home to an Apple store. Folks gathered on tiered seating outside of it to hear closing remarks written by John Low and to witness a Potawatomi water ceremony, led by Billie Warren, from the Pokagon Band. “That was really impactful just to be in that space,” Kadin Mills said. “It’s a weekend in Chicago in fall, it’s still warm, and there are tons of tourists and people out. Having that visible space where we’re singing and doing ceremony in public in Chicago was something I’ve never experienced before.”
Wesaw agrees that raising awareness is one of the most important components of the project. “A lot of people aren’t really familiar with Potawatomi history,” she said. Today there is a sizable population of Pokagon Potawatomi in and around Dowagiac, Michigan, near land that Leopold Pokagon purchased in the 1830’s. There are no federally recognized tribes in Illinois; the Pokagon didn’t gain federal recognition until 1994. Wesaw highlights the importance of telling stories about Indigenous triumphs and how they have overcome adversity, noting that Native Americans were only granted religious freedom in the 1970’s. “We’ve only recently been in a place where we can openly be Native without fear of persecution, and because of all that persecution, a lot of things were lost,” she said. “What you’re seeing right now, this is the first and second wave of people who are coming back to revitalize our culture in a really meaningful way.”
“One thing I was really hoping for in this project,” Lee said, “was that by having it in public space, that there would be more people encountering it than if it were in a gallery or in a book. And even if they didn’t completely understand the context or the meaning of it, it would shift something in their experience of this place. I think art is really important for that.” She is interested in seeing what other projects might stem from this one. “I feel like one question for me coming out of this is: How do you go from marking unceded land to actual land back, and is there an artistic or creative way to push the issue even further?”
Low believes Whose Lakefront was successful in helping to uncover this “hidden history of Chicago,” which he also discusses in Imprints. “They always talk about truth and reconciliation,” he says. “Well, truth is education, so we can’t get to reconciliation until you know the truth. We have to have an acknowledged understanding among the majority of people of what happened to the Indians. We didn’t give up the land freely or voluntarily. The land was taken from us, and we haven’t forgotten. We’re still here, and we haven’t forgotten.” ■
This story is part of the Indigenous Rust Belt project, supported by Ohio Humanities.
Cover image by Peter Fitzpatrick.
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.