Tribal Self-Sufficiency Behind Pokagon and South Bend Agreement

Brian Daffron

Before the University of Notre Dame became South Bend, Indiana’s most well-known institution, nearly 5 million acres that surround the Golden Dome was all Potawatomi land. With a new historic agreement, the Pokagon Potawatomi will now have a more visible presence in the city of South Bend.

On March 22, elected officials with the Pokagon Band of Potawatomi and the City of South Bend reached an initial agreement on water and sewer services on a 166-acre site owned by the Pokagon Band. Pending approval of a Draft Environment Impact Statement as part of its trust land application to the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the initial agreement will begin development of the land for 44 homes for tribal members, government services that include a health care clinic and a Class II-level casino. The site is located in the area of Prairie Avenue, U.S. Highway 31 and Locust Road within the city limits of South Bend.

“We have a philosophy among the Pokagon band tribal leaders—‘It’s a place to work here, play here and live here,’” said Pokagon Band chairman John Warren about the tribe’s plans for development. The Pokagon Band’s tribal jurisdiction includes six counties in northern Indiana—within which South Bend lies—and four counties in southwest Michigan. Its other major developments include New Buffalo, Hartford and Dowagiac, Michigan, where its tribal offices are located.

“Everybody’s been very supportive,” Warren said. “[Officials of South Bend] took the time to really understand the sovereignty of the tribe. They understand it’s a restoration.”

Part of the agreement includes monetary payments by the Pokagon Band to the city of South Bend a full 12 months after the casino opens. Although federal law doesn’t require the tribe to pay the city, the Pokagon felt it was in their best interest to do so. However, Warren did not disclose any projected revenue that the casino may generate.

“The Pokagon Band, when we do our planning, we plan in a conservative way, and we do a lot of analysis,” Warren said. “We wouldn’t do this if we didn’t think it would better the tribe and the tribal citizens’ future.”

A press release from the Pokagon Band includes a statement from South Bend mayor Pete Buttigeig that said the agreement between the city and “the region’s original inhabitants” would bring “millions” into the local economy “and create hundreds of new jobs.”

The Pokagon Band of Potawatomi’s presence in the area was established when Pokagon Band leader Leopold Pokagon purchased 640 acres from treaty money in order to keep his band from being relocated out of the area in the 1830s. One of the people he recruited to keep his band from being relocated was a Jesuit priest, Father Stephen Badin, who would eventually be one of the founders of the University of Notre Dame. The relationship between the Pokagon Band and the priests at Holy Cross would continue in good standing, according to Warren, until at least World War II. Within the past 10 years, Warren said there has been a resurgence of a strong relationship between the Pokagon Band and the UND administration.

Plans to re-strengthen the Pokagon presence in South Bend go back to at least 2012, with town hall meetings and surveys conducted with the tribe’s nearly 5,000 citizens. By 2013, the Pokagon Band opened a service office in South Bend. In the past, there have also been festivals that promote Pokagon Band Potawatomi culture in South Bend, and Warren was confident that events such as these would continue.

The federal re-affirmation of the Pokagon Band of Potawatomi occurred in 1994 through legislation signed by President Bill Clinton. Warren said that the goal of the tribe was self-sufficiency of each of their tribal members and to not simply be known for gaming.

“We’re trying to build each tribal citizen up so they can be a stand-alone, productive human being,” Warren said. “That’s our goal.”

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