Michigan Avenue Bridge House sculpture is important to Indigenous history

The frieze sculpture, considered insensitive by many well-meaning people, doesn’t show a “dead Indian.” It depicts Naunongee, a slain Potowatomi chief who died in a battle to protect Native land.

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The Battle of Fort Dearborn frieze sculpture on the southwest section of the Michigan Avenue Bridge house is shown on Sept. 18, 2020.

The Battle of Fort Dearborn frieze sculpture on the southwest section of the Michigan Avenue Bridge house is shown on Sept. 18, 2020.

Tyler Pasciak LaRiviere/Sun-Times

As part of ongoing work by the Chicago Monuments Committee, 41 monuments and memorials across the city are now “under review” for potential removal or modification. The city of Chicago recently announced a $6.8 million Mellon Foundation grant to the committee, and the announcement spurs me to defend one of those 41 monuments: the frieze sculpture of Potawatomi Chief Naunongee on the Michigan Avenue Bridge House.

This sculpture is an important part of Indigenous history, depicting the last desperate push to return sovereignty to Chicago’s first Americans.

“You are on Potowatomi Land” indeed. Even with the installation of artist Andrea Carlson’s epic mural on the Chicago River in June 2021, many residents don’t know this is Potawatomi country. Fewer still know that we are still here.

The Potawatomi lived in Chicago before Fort Dearborn, the soldiers or the settlers. The very name of Chicago derives from “Shikaakwa,” a Potawatomi reference crudely translated as “stinky onion.” Phonetically, the French wrote this as “Chicagou,” which ultimately became Chicago.

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As a member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation as well as a descendant of Archange Ouilmette, the Potawatomi woman who settled in the area with her French fur trader husband, I am deeply concerned by the decision of the monuments committee to target the frieze, called “Defense,” by Henry Hering.

There have been strong objections to “Defense” because of the depiction of “the dead Indian” — considered by many well-meaning people to be insensitive to Native people. Allow me to present a different perspective.

While I acknowledge the intention, I’m offended by the recurring reference to the “dead Indian.” The sculpture depicts a slain Potawatomi, an essential reminder of Native battle fatalities. When I was taught about the Battle of Fort Dearborn (identified as the Fort Dearborn Massacre in those days), the only losses mentioned were of helpless women and children killed by crazed savages.

Without reservation, the loss of life that day was tragic and brutal. Indeed, the preceding Tribal Councils went on for days, with older chiefs advocating for diplomacy versus younger warriors — foreseeing a future that would deprive them of their lands, autonomy and very right to exist — insisting on a fight.

A ‘quietly subversive’ work of art?

How many Chicagoans know the scene portrayed is actually part of the battle record? An Army officer, Sgt. Otho Hayes, is depicted in hand-to-hand combat with Potawatomi warrior and chief Naunongee. In my view, their engagement is portrayed with an equality that is not typical in historical works of art.

Naunongee was the only chief to die in the Battle of Fort Dearborn. The Potawatomis won this battle, and for the next two years, the only non-Indian resident of Chicago was Antoine Ouilmette, who lived with his wife Archange and their children — his neighbor, Jean Baptiste Pointe du Sable, having left Chicago around the time Fort Dearborn was built. Archange, arguably the “Mother of Chicago,” was the daughter of Chopa and granddaughter of Naunongee.

These are my ancestors, and I do not pass this monument without a touch and a word to my grandfather Naunongee. Archange and Antoine had nine children, and many of their Potawatomi descendants are alive today, along with the descendants of her siblings. “Defense” is a pictorial testimony of the day when Potawatomi warriors believed they might wrest their land and future from the control and dictates of an encroaching army.

Let’s examine the sculpture’s title, “Defense.” Two groups battled each other: one in defense of their homeland, and the other in retreat. Which was which seems clear to me. Do I believe the artist was defending the Potawatomis? It wouldn’t be the first time a classical artwork was quietly subversive. I choose to side with the defenders, just as I choose to believe the angel depicted is shepherding all the lost souls from that day, not just the white people.

There is very little historical reference to the Potawatomi visible in Chicago. Most Native figures are depicted as anonymous symbols, yet in Naunongee, we have a rare specific figure of Native history.

Let’s reconsider what this touchstone means to many Potawatomis and investigate a new bridge house narrative. The undeniable offense lies in the biased, colonial and now barely visible inscription on this monument.

By collaborating on a narrative accurately describing this pivotal event in our city’s history with a new plaque, Potawatomis, our many Indigenous residents, Chicagoans and visitors may better comprehend a defining and true story of Chicago.

As I was taught by my elders, “That’s all I have to say. Ahau.”

Sharon Hoogstraten is a member of Citizen Potawatomi Nation and author of “Dancing for Our Tribe: Potawatomi Tradition in the New Millennium.”

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