Meet the Owners: The Pokagon Tribe

The August 2, 2007 ribbon cutting ceremony for Four Winds Casino Resort with tribal elders of Pokagon (poh-KAY’-gun) Band of Potawatomi (pot-uh-WAH’-tuh-mee) Indians in attendance was a not only “a proud day for members of the Pokagon Band,” as
John Miller, Tribal Chairman and president and CEO of the Pokagon Band Gaming Authority declared, but end result of a decade-long struggle. Much like the long and winding road that welcomes visitors to the Casino’s campus off I-94 at exit 1, the Tribe has faced more than its share of court battles, protests, and fierce competition from nearby gaming facilities.

The Tribe now has a world-class facility that has set a new standard for gaming operations in the Midwest. Before its doors even opened, nearby Blue Chip Casino updated its presence in Michigan City, Indiana to help offset the anticipated competition from Four Winds Casino Resort.

Coincidentally, on the same day the New Buffalo casino opened its doors, Saginaw Chippewa Indian Tribe leaders announced plans for a huge expansion of its Soaring Eagle Casino & Resort and a nearby hotel. Described as “a Disney-esque expansion of epic proportions,” preliminary plans call for expanding the hotel and casino, adding a water park, a theme park, an indoor ski, and skating area, a bowling center, theaters, and retail stores.


There is more than a bit of irony in all this. Consider these facts:

  • From 1695 to the 1760s, the Potawatomi territory was once much of the land from Milwaukee to Detroit around the southern end of Lake Michigan. During the 1760s they expanded into northern Indiana and central Illinois.
  • Land cessions to the Americans began in 1807 and during the next 25 years drastically reduced their territory.
  • The Potawatomi sold one million acres of hunting ground known as “She-gong-ong” (Chicago) for 3 cents an acre. The government reneged on the deal, not paying them a dime. Chief Pokagon tried to persuade the United States government to pay the claims of his people for the sale of their land. He ended up making several trips to Washington. Most of his pleas went unheard until Lincoln was president, his case was reviewed and part of the money was paid.
  • Through a series of treaties, the Potawatomi of the Woods (Michigan and Indiana bands) were relocated to eastern Kansas. Some Potawatomi groups avoided removal and remained in the Great Lakes. The Pokagon Band was one of these groups. In order to remain on their ancestral land, they traded their tribal identity and slipped from greatness into poverty.
  • The Potawatomi claims remained unpaid until President Cleveland took the matter up, and in 1896 the Potawatomi Indians finally received the money for the sale of their land.
  • Tribal Recognition was not restored until September of 1994 under President Clinton.

The Pokagon Band of the Potawatomi owes much to two men in their past. Chief Leopold Pokagon, from whom the Pokagon Band takes its name, and his son, Simon. Little is known about the elder Pokagon. The place and date of his birth are not known exactly, but he was probably born about 1775 near Bertrand, Michigan.
Simon Pokagon

From Jesuit letters of the time, it was known that Leopold Pokagon was a forceful advocate of peace and a great orator who worked diligently to keep his people out of the war with white settlers.

The Potawatomi of this area had been influenced by Roman Catholicism dating back to the 1670s when Father Marquette first visited. The Pokagon found sponsorship among Catholic missionaries seeking to re-establish the long-abandoned French Catholic mission on the St. Joseph River. Among these men was Father Stephen Theodore Badin who maintained a mission near the site of today’s Notre Dame University. Badin had great respect for Pokagon, and the relationship between the men would be a critical factor in Pokagon’s future.

In the late 1820s Chief Leopold Pokagon was forced to sell over a million acres of tribal land to the United States government at a price of three cents an acre. The area of land sold surrounding southern Lake Michigan included the area of Chicago where the State Street bridge spans the river. Despite the fact the Potawatomi were being run off their land, Pokagon maintained friendly relations with white settlers.

By 1838 the tribe only owned 874 acres on Silver Creek, near Dowagiac, and this is where they resettled.

In 1840 the Pokagon obtained from Judge Epaphroditus Ranson, then an associate judge of the Michigan State Supreme Court, an opinion stating that as Christian, land-owning farmers, the Catholic Potawatomi were protected from forcible relocation by rights found in Michigan law. By way of Father Badin’s influence and General Brady’s acceptance of the court ruling, an amendment was made to the Treaty of Chicago (1833) which allowed the Pokagon Band to remain on the land of their fathers while almost all the rest of the Potawatomi people were removed west of the Mississippi.

Chief Leopold Pokagon died in 1841 in Cass County, Michigan. The Potawatomi lost their best friend as well as their chief. They no longer had anyone to advise them on the complexities of the treaties and no leader to help them secure their rights since the Government had not paid the Potawatomi as agreed.

Soon after Leopold’s death, his son Simon was sent by Catholic priests to the newly founded Notre Dame school for four or five years. Later he entered Oberlin College and then Twinsburg Institute in Ohio. When Simon Pokagon returned from school, he became his tribe’s Chief. Seeing the poverty of his tribe, he made it a priority to secure some degree of justice for his people. He made several trips to Washington to try to persuade the United States government to pay the claims of his people for the sale of their land. His claims were just, and he had all the necessary legal documents to prove them, but his pleas went unheard. Pokagon was persistent however and finally, under the Lincoln presidency, had his tribe’s case reviewed and part of the money paid. It was not until 1896 however, before President Cleveland took the matter up that Potawatomi Indians received the money for the sale of their land.

Chief Simon Pokagon was an articulate man familiar with the classic languages of “Latin” and “Greek” from his studies, and he earned a great deal of respect in society. In fact, he became known as the best-educated full-blooded Indian in North America and was called “the Redskin Bard,” “the Longfellow of his Race.”

  • Pokagon wrote what was perhaps the most eloquent defense of the American Indian ever written. He called it, “The Red Man’s Greeting”. It became better known as “The Red Man’s Book of Lamentations”. The booklet was published on birch bark and was sold by the Indians at the Exposition. The booklet caught the attention of the Chicago press, was reviewed at length by the national press and was quoted eventually by journals in England and Europe. Pokagon became a world celebrity. The Chicago Mayor asked Chief Pokagon to be the keynote speaker for Chicago Day at the Exposition. Thousands came to hear him. In his speech, he asked the Indian to lay aside all bitterness of spirit, to adopt the culture of the white man, to get an education and develop skills, and to be loyal citizens of the republic.
  • In addition to “The Red Man’s Greeting”, Chief Simon Pokagon wrote several other birch bark booklets entitled “Algonquin Legends of South Haven”, “Lord’s Prayer in Algonquin”, “Potawatomi Book of Genesis”, and “Algonquin Legends of Paw Paw Lake”. His crowning achievement however was a paper novel entitled “Queen of the Woods.”
  • Under Pokagon’s time as Chief the Potawatomi Indians took part in the Civil War, and President Grant thanked the Chief for his tribe’s services.

Chief Simon Pokagon died a poor farmer in Southwest Michigan in January 1899 survived by his son Charlie and his wife.

His descendants will fare much better financially thanks to the New Buffalo casino. Funds generated by Four Winds Casino Resort directly impact the Pokagon community through some form of revenue sharing. In addition, a percentage of profits will be donated to a Michigan non-profit corporation, The Pokagon Fund. The mission of The Pokagon Fund is to benefit communities surrounding Pokagon Band trust land, where the Band is now conducting Class 3 gaming as defined in the Gaming Regulatory Act (IGRA), and the New Buffalo region. Contributions can be made to support the government, charities, school districts, and non-profit and non-governmental organizations.

The Pokagon Band of Potawatomi Indians’ sovereignty was reaffirmed under legislation signed into law by President Clinton in September 1994. The Pokagon Band is dedicated to providing community development initiatives such as housing, education, family services, medical care, and cultural preservation for its approximately 5,000 citizens. The Tribe’s ten-county service area includes four counties in Southwestern Michigan and six in Northwestern Indiana. The Tribe’s administrative offices are located in Dowagiac, Michigan. More information is available at