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Do Chicagoans know DuSable had a Native American wife? We should celebrate her, too

DuSable was the first permanent, non-indigenous settler of what would become the great metropolis of Chicago. But Native Americans were there long before.

A bust of Jean Baptiste Point DuSable along North Michigan Avenue.
A bust of Jean Baptiste Point DuSable along North Michigan Avenue.
Sun-Times file

The fight rages on over a proposal to rename Outer Lake Shore Drive, a 17-mile stretch from Hollywood Avenue to 67th Street, in honor of Jean Baptiste Point DuSable. The Chicago City Council is expected to vote on the name change on June 23.

Sometime after 1770, the Haitian-born trader traveled from New Orleans and up the Mississippi River and founded a thriving trading post at the mouth of the Chicago River, a place the Potawatomi native tribe called “Eschecagou.”

DuSable was the first permanent, non-indigenous settler of what would become the great metropolis of Chicago.

Native Americans were there long before. What do they say?

“I think he’s cool. I think he should be venerated,” says Andrea Carlson. But, she adds, Chicago must also celebrate Kitihawa, the existential link to those who came before.

DuSable was married to Kitihawa, a member of the Potawatomi tribe, and through that marriage he was native “kin.”

Carlson is a member of the Ojibwe tribe, a Chicago-based visual artist, and co-founder of the Center for Native Futures. Carlson and Ohio State University scholar John N. Low are curating an upcoming exhibit in the lobby of the Marquette Building in downtown Chicago. It aims to “redress harmful murals” that misrepresent Native history.

“It was (DuSable’s) proximity to his wife, Kitihawa, that allowed for him to operate under Potawatomi sovereignty. There was a lot of power in that relationship,” Carlson tells me.

“A lot of the white settlers also took native wives because of that power, because of that access to the native community and trade routes. But then they left their wives and went off to marry white women and traveled back East once they’d made all their money.”

DuSable stayed, had two children with Kitiwaha and was “the first non-native naturalized citizen of the Potawatomi people.”

“We should know who he is,” Carlson said. “But I don’t think it should come at the expense of indigenous people.”

We should also know the place that became Chicago first belonged to the Potawatomi and other native tribes. Land was violently stolen by white settlers. And know that, in the 1830s, via the Indian Removal Act, the federal government forcibly removed the Potawatomi and other tribes.

Their ancestors returned. Today, Chicago is home to more than 65,000 Native Americans who represent 175 different tribes.

When Carlson moved to Chicago from Minneapolis five years ago, she was surprised by the ignorance about native history.

“People have told me to my face, ‘Well, I thought all the natives were killed off,’ like, not believing that native people exist.”

Like Kitihawa.

And, Carlson said, “like with most women in history we have their names and very little information about them.”

The Center for Native Futures has commissioned native artist Chris Pappan to create a drawing of Kitihawa for the exhibit.

“We can give her more presence, and people can relate to the face,” Carlson said. “I think that would be really cool to have her image around, so people can say her name.”

The debate over renaming Lake Shore Drive for DuSable is an opportunity to help reverse the “erasure” of Native people.

The name Kitihawa Point DuSable should be prominently celebrated on streets, statues, in exhibits and more.

“And if we start telling the truth, when you crack a little hole in it,” Carlson said, “then all the truth wants to come out.”

The Center for Native Futures exhibition will open later this year.

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