Cass County Native American History
Native Americans Make Up Our Earliest History
People from the Hopewellian Civilization occupied many sites in the county between 100-400 B.C. Artifacts from these early inhabitants plus those of the Woodland Indians have been found throughout the county. One of the most visible reminders of their time in Cass County is at the Sumnerville Mounds. After the Miami Indians moved to Wisconsin, the Potawatomi moved into southwestern Michigan. The Potawatomis were part of the Algonquin Confederacy along with the Ottawas and Chippewas. (If interested, Michigan State University maintains an extensive historical library of Southwestern Michigan’s earliest inhabitants at https://project.geo.msu.edu/geogmich/paleo-indian.html which is a good place to start.)
The early French priests that founded Notre Dame University in 1842 introduced Chief Leopold Pokagon and his band of Potawatomis to the Catholic religion. The Indians built the Sacred Heart of Mary Catholic Church in Silver Creek Township. The original log church was replaced by a frame building that burned; the last structure is a lovely brick building completed in 1858 and is still in use today.
Three Indian leaders and their bands of Potawatamis lived in the county when the first settlers arrived. Chief Weesaw and his band lived in the Marcellus/Volinia area. Chief Shavehead and his band lived in what is known today as Porter Township, while Pokagon and his followers left the Pokagon Prairie and relocated in Silver Creek Township where they purchased farmland and thereby avoided the evacuation of Potawatomi to Kansas and Oklahoma in 1837.
The Indians lived peacefully with the whites. Shavehead and his band were the exceptions. Treaties beginning with the Treaty of Greenville and treaties signed in 1821, 1828, and 1833 stripped the Indians of the lands where they had lived, hunted and fished for so many generations. The United States government wanted the land for resale to settlers relentlessly pushing westward and to compensate soldiers for military service. The Indians were woefully compensated when the federal government did not live up to the conditions of the treaties.
Leopold Pokagon refused to sign the 1833 treaty until his tribe was granted the right to remain on the lands they had purchased in Silver Creek. Pokagon objected to removal to the West on the basis that his members would lose the Catholic faith and white-style civilization they had acquired.
Pokagon’s band was allowed to remain in Cass County. The Pokagon Band of Potawatomi Indians was restored to federal tribal status by an Act of Congress in 1994 and has re-established tribal reservations. Today, there are approximately 1,500 members of the Pokagon Band of Potawatomi Indians living in Cass, Van Buren and Berrien Counties and the band owns over 2,200 acres of land in Pokagon, Wayne, Silver Creek and LaGrange townships. Tribal leaders and elders seek to preserve their heritage, culture, and history, and to provide employment, education, elder housing, daycare, and healthcare opportunities to tribal members.
Today, one of the highlights of the late summer season for all residents and visitors to Cass County, Michigan, is the Kee-Boon-Mein-Kaa Pow Wow where over 100 Native Americans come to dance and compete.
The 2021 Kee-Boon-Mein-Kaa (KBMK) Pow Wow Committee has decided NOT to host this year’s annual Labor Day Pow Wow because of the uncertainty of COVID-19 surges and other reasons. Please visit https://www.pokagonband-nsn.gov/2021-kee-boon-mein-kaa-pow-wow-update for a more detailes explanation.