The Forest Park Public Library will repatriate a collection of Potawatomi artifacts back to a museum operated by the tribe, after the pottery shards, stone axes and spear points were removed from Potawatomi burial mounds once located on what is now Forest Home Cemetery.
The library’s board of trustees voted unanimously to repatriate the collection to the Forest County Potawatomi Cultural Center, Library and Museum in Wisconsin at a meeting on July 15. The Potawatomi Cultural Center is an organization focused on preserving the tribe’s history and culture.
“These items are of significant cultural value to the tribal community from which they came,” said Pilar Shaker, library director. “By ensuring that those individuals will have access to these items, we’re helping to strengthen their cultural identities and providing opportunities for future generations of Potawatomi to learn about the traditional practices of their own ancestors.”
Shaker said she believes this is the first time the library has ever repatriated items.
The wood fragments, ceramic and metal vessels, textiles and silver ornaments will be on display at the library until August 11, when they will be packed into archival boxes for safety until transfer. Shaker said she has not yet confirmed an exact date to transfer the items with the director of the museum.
In 2010, an archaeologist from the University of Illinois inventoried the Potawatomi artifacts and photographed them. A display with photographs and descriptions of the Potawatomi items will remain at the library.
“I think there is a component of this that is Forest Park history, and a component of Potawatomi history, but I think anybody would agree anything that represents a specific group’s culture and religion and burial ceremonies really are best represented by the culture from which they came,” Shaker said. “I think if you look at it from that context, that it came from somebody’s burial ground. They should have it.”
She added that the museum is also accessible to the public to visit.
Native Americans in Forest Park
According to a 1926 edition of the Forest Park Review, the first settlers of Forest Park were the Weanamees tribe, who it is believed came directly to the village in 1783, after the Revolutionary War. “The site at Roosevelt Road and Desplaines Avenue marked the top of the elevation and was chosen by the Indian because of its exceptional height and natural beauty,” according to the Review.
The Weanamees were eventually driven westward by the powerful Potawatomies, who came down from southern Wisconsin. The Treaty of Prairie du Chien in 1829 guaranteed Forest Park’s land to the Potawatomi but, just three years later, the tribe was forced to move west after the Black Hawk War of 1832.
Leon Bourassa, a French-Native American trader, and his Potawatomi wife, Margaret, remained on the land. According to popular legend, Margaret’s family had left the area but she remained on the site to care for her relatives buried there. Two Potawatomi burial mounds were located at Forest Home Cemetery.
Then, a German immigrant named Ferdinand Haase came to town, and purchased the land from Bourassa in 1851, with the intent of farming it and making it his homestead.
In 1869, he established Forest Home Cemetery. Haase leveled the ground to turn it into a burial space for whites—the first white people buried there were three of Haase’s relatives—and disinterred the remains of some 13 Native Americans in the process. He kept the artifacts and ornaments he found.
Haase’s grandson, Wilbert, apparently “amused himself by dragging about in a gunny sack, a collection of the dried bones of the noble red man which he had disinterred from Indian Hill,” according to the 1926 Review. A school principal used two Native American skulls to teach anatomy.
As late as 1886, the Review reported that “a few” Potawatomies remained on the land, writing that they were “law-abiding and peaceful, who mingled with the whites in perfect freedom, although they always remained curiosities to the natives of this community.”
In 1942, a boulder was erected in Forest Home Cemetery to commemorate Potawatomi origins at the site.
Library receives items
In 1968, the library received the Potawatomi artifacts from Forest Home Cemetery, where they had essentially been kept in offices on semi-permanent display since Haase excavated them.
Over the years, Shaker said she and the board periodically discussed repatriating the items so they could be more easily accessible to their tribal descendants. The library’s interior renovation project—which will start September 3; the library will remain open during regular hours during the approximately four-month renovation—also led staff to rethink keeping the Potawatomi items as part of its permanent collection. In June, Shaker also attended a meeting with library professionals, where a discussion of repatriation and decolonization came up.
“The group discussed the role libraries often play as local history centers and how important it is to keep in mind that we aren’t always the most appropriate place for many of the items that end up in our facilities,” Shaker said.
She consulted officials at The Mitchell Museum of the American Indian, along with The Newberry Library’s D’Arcy McNickle Center for American Indian and Indigenous Studies. Both groups told her about the 1990 federal “Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act,” which requires organizations like the Forest Park library to identify qualifying Native American artifacts in their collections and return them if requested by a tribe.
While the Potawatomi did not specifically request the items, library staff and board members decided the restructuring presented the “opportune moment” for repatriation.
Shaker said that, if presented with Potawatomi or other native items again, the library would politely decline the goods and help the donor find a tribal organization to accept them instead. She added that the Forest Park library cannot offer temperature-controlled display cases, archival staff and other professional features necessary “to provide appropriate context and care for them.”
“I think records of local history more than anything else belongs in the library, keeping a record of the history of community is more along the lines of stuff we should have,” Shaker said. “Other places like museums and cultural centers, even historical societies, are probably better places to have actual artifacts.”