Friday, 4 June 2010
Thinking of the Potawatomi
Lake Michigan is so vast it’s easy to forget that it is a lake. Plenty big enough for Indiana wastewater treatment plants to flush 6.5 billion gallons of partially treated sewage into it in July 2009, big enough, one hopes, to safely absorb it since the lake is a major source of drinking water for the district.
I wasn’t thinking of that on July 5th 1982. Roland and Birged had opted for the Art Museum that day. I wanted the beach and went with Daghmar and Evelyn. The Planetarium was on the way but the cosmos was closed until 1pm. In lieu of stars, Daghmar and Evelyn went shopping and I ended up alone on the beach.
Even the heat, 93 degrees in the shade, was good. Heat and colour fused: joggers, gleaming concrete walkways, blue skies and grass of an unrelenting green. There was no shade. I sizzled. And dreamt.
Jean Nicolet was the first European to cross Lake Michigan, presumably on a canoe. In 1634 he trumped that by being the first European to explore what is now Wisconsin. He landed at Red Banks near modern day Green Bay searching for a passage to the Orient and was convinced he’d found it. His evidence was slender, even bizarre. The local tribes were called the Winnebego, which, translated, means ‘The People of the Stinking Water’ or ‘The People of the Sea. Nicolet no doubt assumed the name referred to the smell of salt rather than the 6.5 billion gallons of semi treated sewage dumped in there today.
Convinced he’d discovered an outlet to the Pacific and hence a trading route to China, he sailed down the Fox River and some way down the Wisconsin until it began to widen. If he hadn’t turned back, convinced he’d found an outlet to the Pacific, he would have discovered the upper Mississippi. Exciting days.
Through half-closed eyes I stared at the empty expanse of blue, imagining that first canoe, a speck coming closer. Through half-closed eyes Jean Nicolet could be staring back, enjoying the Chicago skyline, seen at its best from the lake. The dreaming was punctuated by duty. Every so often I was forced to check the adjacent road for Roland, who had the one map showing where our coach was parked.
No bold explorer I.
But unlike Jean Nicolet, lighting a fire in the woods, I ascended Sears Tower at 6.30 pm and drank in the City spreading as far as a distant blue haze. It was hard to imagine the deep forests that had once been there, its wild-life and rivers.
Somewhere in that sprawl was Fort Dearborn on the intersection of Wacker Drive and Michigan Avenue, the settlement from which Chicago emerged, and close to where I had been sun-bathing.
Also, somewhere down there, in 1822, Alexander Beaubien opened his eyes to the world, the first child of European ancestry born in Fort Dearborn/Chicago. What is truly eye-watering is the fact that he lived until 1907, and that, in theory his grandson could have been eating a pizza a few blocks away.
Not the Potawatomi Indians however.
When the Potawatomi Indians first greet Jean Nicolet, they little imagined that two hundred years later they’d be embroiled in European wars and ultimately forced from their land to make way for Chicago.
In 1812 they fought with the British against the newly independent America, and, led by chief Mad Sturgeon ambushed 148 evacuees from Fort Dearborn, killing 86. It has gone down as the Fort Dearborn massacre, though we don’t know how many Potawatomi were killed.
The Potawatomi had prescience. Fifteen years or so later a series of treaties enforced by the new American government dispossessed them of their land. Most of the tribe moved to Kansas where they remain to this day. Those who refused to go were removed by force in 1836. It was called ‘The Trail of Death’ - a road built on land they'd ceded to the U S government by a previous ‘treaty’.
But life moves on. That evening Roland, Veronique Pardue, Daghmar, Evelyn and myself went to a Mexican restaurant called the Margarita. Just so that we knew we were eating Mexican, a small band of Mexican guitarists along with a plaintive violin, weaved their way between tables. They sang Mexican songs while you ate, then came round with their sombreros for payment.
Paying the over-all bill was a bit of a nightmare – bit like a United Nations office outing working how best to divide the bill via travellers cheques. Something Jean Nicolet never had to contend with.