Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Potawatomi Mission

I'm a little far removed in the gene pool to be considered Native American, but my great-great grandfather was half-Choctaw. He was half-Choctaw during a time when nobody knew what to do with half-breeds. They weren't excepted by white people and even worse, they often weren't accepted by full-blooded Choctaws. My great-great grandfather didn't belong in either world and, as with most half-breeds during the early 1900s, he was placed in a mental institution where he died. So, as you can imagine, I'm a little sensitive to how the Native Americans were treated.

About a month back I decided to write a story set on the Oregon Trail. Since it travels right through modern day Topeka I was all excited for a research trip, which led me to the Potawatomi Mission.

For thirteen years, 1848-1861,the Potawatomi Mission, also known as the Potawatomi Baptist Manuel Labor School, boarded nearly 100 (if I remember correctly) Native American children at any given time, all sleeping on the top level.. I know the missionaries meant well, but.... some of the displays at the Kansas History Museum broke my heart.

I'll let this picture show you why.

 The text in the photo reads as such:

Religious Beliefs

To become Christian, missionaries demanded that Indians completely change their ways of life. Students had to speak, eat, dress, work, and worship like their new teachers. At many missions Indians were even required to take English names.

"It is a leading motive to us to Americanize the Indians."

"The service to a new pupil was to trim his hair closely; then with soap and water, to give him or her the first lesson in godliness which, was a good scrubbing.... and then he was furnished with a new suit of clothes, and taught how to put them on and off. They all emerged from this ordeal as shy as a peacock just plucked. A new English name finished the preparation for the alphabet and the English language."

 Can you imagine? Being ripped from your home, from everything you ever knew and forced to change?

Typing in those words leave me brokenhearted for what the children must have experienced. I know the missionaries held good intention, but still....

 I find nothing wrong with education. In fact, I love the Bible and Geography. I also think that learning English would have helped in communicating. However, I believe the teachers could have gone about it a different way, one reflecting the heart of Christ.
Sewing is a good skill, as are soap and candle making, but what was wrong with the way the Indians made their clothes?

This picture showcases some of the projects from the mission as well as tools used in making clothes.

I'm guessing the Indians believed their way was much easier as they didn't have to card wool.

Pin cushion

 To work in a white man's world...
 Tools the boys used to make shoes. Seems to me the moccasins would have been more efficient against the weather and much more comfortable. Of course, I prefer going barefoot.  ;)

Again, I find nothing wrong with many of the skill taught the Indians, but it should not have been something forced upon them. And, I can quite imagine the Indians had much to teach the white people too. However, white people in general were unwilling to learn, and as many discovered, most white men refused to accept the Indians once they were Americanized, which left them where? Stripped of their identity and demoralized as a plucked peacock.

It's no wonder dear old great-great grandpa ended up in a mental institution, he had no where else to go. I know I'm not the only one with such a family story, but I'd love to hear some happy ones too. Please share if you do.

  Born and raised in Kansas, where she currently lives with her husband and children, Christina loves to read stories with happily ever afters, research,  take photos, knit scarves, dig into her ancestry, fish, visit the ocean, write stories with happily ever afters and talk about her family and Jesus. 

Her debut novel, The Guardian’s Promise, released from Love Inspired March 2014. The Warrior's Vow releases July 2015.


  1. Very informative post, Christina, I had no idea. Thank you for sharing.

    mauback55 at gmail dot com

  2. Great post, Christina! It is so sad to see what all of the "good intentions" did. But In a world where the Indians of any nation were looked down upon, I think for the time anyway, the missionaries probably were doing the best they could to help these children. They were trying to help society accept them and though we see it as harsh today, it really wasn't back then. My father-in-law was raised in the 1880's (yes that is not a misprint) and life was hard for kids. The stories I heard would make a mom's skin crawl. At least those not rich had it tough. Same for my grandmother. The work that was expected out of her at such a young age is unbelievable. We not only wouldn't give a young child those duties today we'd not do some of them ourselves. People in so many ways were not as compassionate as they are today.

  3. Very interesting post! Lots of info I never knew before. Thanks for teaching me something new.

  4. That is so sad how the Native americans were forced to change their lifestyles, as if Jesus only want Western lifestyles in his kingdom! Thanks for your post. sharon wileygreen1(at)yahoo(dot)com

  5. Hi, Christina, my friend visiting from Illinois is a Potawatomi. She said this is a great post, very interesting and informative—and I agree. My family is a Choctaw/Chickasaw blend from Benton County, Tennessee. I'm looking forward to reading your Oregon Trail novel.

  6. I've always had a heart for the American Indian. I went to school with a girl from the Pueblo tribe and it was really sad as when she was young there was a fire on their reservation and all records of birth burned...she never knew her birth date or how old she was so she took her brothers birthday and tacked on a few years. Sad.

    My husband's great grandmother was full blooded Cherokee. So once again I have reason to love the American Indian.

    Thank you for this post Christina and a BIG congratulations on your debut novel!

    Smiles & Blessings & and Happy Birthday America!

    Cindy W.

    countrybear52 AT yahoo DOT com