YOU ARE LOOKING AT UNCEDED LAND
At Yates Hall, Chicago Cultural Center
The Chicago Cultural Center—like the city of Chicago, like every other city in the United States, and like the United States itself—occupies land that European and U.S. settlers seized from Indigenous people. The Great Lakes region was for millenia traversed, occupied, and sustained by Odawa, Ojibwe, and Potawatomi people allied in the “Three Fires Confederacy,” along with people from many other tribes. As it expanded westward, the United States gradually seized this region through multiple battles and treaties, both with former colonial occupiers such as France and Britain and increasingly displaced and dispossessed Indigenous people.
Amidst a series of treaties between the United States government and Native Americans, and the coercion, deception, and violence that accompanied those treaties, the 1833 Treaty of Chicago with Odawa, Ojibwe, and Potawatomi people was taken by the United States government as a surrender of Native American claims to Chicago and its surroundings; the city of Chicago was incorporated four years later. But at the end of the 19th century, when the building now known as the Chicago Cultural Center was designed, constructed, and opened, the Pokagon Band of Potawatomi laid claim to a part of Chicago that did not exist when the 1833 Treaty of Chicago was signed—this was the land east of Michigan Avenue created by landfill in the 1890s in the wake of the Chicago Fire.
Chicago’s post-fire landfills were the result of the need to dispose of vast quantities of rubble left by the fire’s destruction. In the 1890s, this process yielded the creation of Lincoln, Grant, and Jackson Parks. The Pokagon Potawatomi claimed this land because it did not exist in 1833 and so could not be ceded by the treaties they signed. For the Potawatomi, both land and water were part of Potawatomi territory and the 1833 treaty only ceded what was land in 1833.
In 1914 the Pokagon Potawatomi filed a lawsuit in the Federal District Court for the Northern District of Illinois. The case made its way to the United States Supreme Court in 1917. In its decision, the Supreme Court held that the Potawatomi claim to land was premised on its occupancy of that land, an occupancy that ended when they “abandoned” that land in the wake of the arrival of settlers; the court therefore decided the Potawatomi claim was without merit. In forcing the Supreme Court into an absurd argument—that non-existent land could be abandoned—the Pokagon Potawatomi revealed the way in which United States law was structured by settler colonialism and the distance of both law and colonialism from an ethical relationship to land.
Sitting on Michigan Avenue, the Chicago Cultural Center is therefore located on the frontier between ceded and unceded Indigenous land—a frontier that was and continues to be denied and invisibilized by the beneficiaries of settler colonialism but asserted and visualized by the Indigenous people who colonialism displaced and dispossessed.