Annette Kingsbury, of Lathrup Village, flips through documents of treaties with the Potawatomi May 10 at the opening of an exhibit on the nation’s history in the Southfield area at the Southfield Historical Museum.

Annette Kingsbury, of Lathrup Village, flips through documents of treaties with the Potawatomi May 10 at the opening of an exhibit on the nation’s history in the Southfield area at the Southfield Historical Museum.

Photo by Sarah Purlee

Potawatomi Nation exhibit explores fate of original residents

By: Kayla Dimick | Southfield Sun | Published May 15, 2018

SOUTHFIELD — Before the skyline of the Town Center, before the Lodge, and even before the Mary Thompson Farm, the Potawatomi Nation called this area home. 

To celebrate the heritage of the Potawatomi Nation, the Southfield Historical Society hosted a grand opening May 10 of its Potawatomi of Southfield exhibit at the Southfield Historical Museum, 26080 Berg Road. 

According to the Pokagon Band of the Potawatomi’s website, some stories say that the Potawatomi people have always been in the Great Lakes region, but other stories tell of a migration from the Eastern seaboard with the Ojibwe and Odawa nations. 

The three tribes were loosely organized as the Three Fires Confederacy. The Ojibwe were said to be the Keepers of Tradition; the Odawa were the Keepers of the Trade; and the Potawatomi were the Keepers of the Fire. Potawatomi reportedly means “people of the place of the fire.”

The Potawatomi eventually migrated from north of Lake Huron and Lake Superior to the shores of Lake Michigan. This location — in what is now Wisconsin, southern Michigan, northern Indiana and northern Illinois — is where European explorers in the early 17th century first came upon the Potawatomi. They called themselves “Neshnabek,” meaning the “original” or “true” people. 

“We’ve always known, as a historical society, that we had Potawatomi living in our township, and after we did the Underground Railroad exhibit, we just said we needed to put something together. We’ve always known that they were here,” said Darla Van Hoey, a member of the Southfield Historical Society. 

The new permanent exhibit showcases a slew of factual information, as well as many different artifacts, such as clothing, pottery, jewelry and photographs. 

Van Hoey said the exhibit was made possible through a matching grant of $500 from the Michigan Humanities Council, which is a nonprofit organization that supports quality cultural programs. 

“We wanted to get the language right, because the treaty part of this is really difficult,” she said, referring to the 1807 Treaty of Detroit. “But the grant was really the impetus. So then we just started writing and contacting people and doing research,” she said. 

Laura Herrington, of Royal Oak, attended the opening. A portion of the collection of artifacts belonging to her late husband, Loren, was loaned to the exhibit. 

“He was Native American and had very little experience with his mother being Indian, and he was curious about it. When he became a grown man, he was interested and started going out visiting reservations … and in visiting them he started learning stories, and the collecting happened second to the learning about his background,” Herrington said. 

Herrington said her husband collected items for about 30 years. 

“He didn’t just collect for his own self. He liked to share it, and when he was alive, he’d put it on display in a variety of places,” she said. “After his passing, I just continued doing that.”

The exhibit also examines what happened to the Potawatomi Nation after its land was taken over by European settlers. 

“This is a lot about the culture and how they lived before the white man, or what they called ‘Big Knife,’” Van Hoey said. 

Van Hoey said the Potawatomi were slowly forced out of the area as a result of the 1807 Treaty of Detroit. 

“Once the Europeans came in, they wanted land, and so the Treaty of Detroit was signed in 1807, and they took two villages and placed them near the Rouge River during the land survey in 1817,” she said. “By 1827, the treaty said ‘We want to have more settlers come in. If we want to become a state, we can’t have any more native people here.’ It was really a shame what happened to them. They were forced out. By 1847, the treaty said, ‘You’re gone. You have to leave.’” 

Van Hoey said there are four Potawatomi communities in the state of Michigan: two in the Kalamazoo/Grand Rapids area, one in Dowagiac and one in the Upper Peninsula. 

“Basically, they have their own rights and education system, and they’re working very hard to bring back all of these cultural things that have been lost over the last couple of hundred years,” Van Hoey said. 

The museum will be open 6:30-8:30 p.m. Tuesdays in July and August for the gazebo concerts. Tours can also be made by appointment by emailing