What Native Americans Have Given Wheaton


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What Native Americans Have Given Wheaton

From the land to present-day relationships, local First Nations people have made significant contributions to the College.

By Mollie Waldrop and Haleigh Olthof | Staff Writer and Features Editor
November 24, 2021
Examples of artifacts in the DuPage County Historical Museum. Credit: DuPage County Historical Society.

November marks National Native American Heritage Month in the United States, and families across the country will sit around Thanksgiving tables this week to commemorate the meal shared by European settlers and Native Americans in 1621 in Plymouth, Mass. But many of us don’t know the history of Indigenous people in Wheaton. The Record talked to the curator of the DuPage County Historical Society and various Wheaton faculty with knowledge on the subject. The story they shared gives cause for both gratitude and lament.


The gift of the land


In the late 1830s, brothers Warren and Jesse Wheaton traveled west from Connecticut, making a new home just west of Chicago. They had purchased nearly 1,200 acres of land from the U.S. government for an amount between $1.25 and $5.25 per acre. Adjusting for inflation, those rates are equivalent to about $40 to $185 an acre today.


“That’s incredibly cheap, so they were able to start farming and building up the towns that we have today,” said Zachary Bishop, curator at the DuPage Historical Museum. “It’s important to acknowledge the great gift that the land is in DuPage County.”


The U.S. government had acquired the land in 1829 by signing the Treaty of Prairie du Chien, in which Potawatomi, Chippewa and Ottawa tribes ceded much of northern Illinois. 


In 1838, Andrew Jackson’s Indian Removal Act (signed into law in 1830) sent local Potawatomi on the 660-mile Trail of Death to Sugar Creek, Kan. The U.S. subsequently sold tracts of the land these tribes had occupied to settlers like the Wheaton brothers, who farmed and invested in the area that would one day become the town of Wheaton as well as parts of Glen Ellyn and Lombard. In 1853, the Illinois Institute—rechartered in 1860 as Wheaton College—was founded on a parcel of land donated to the Institute by Warren Wheaton.


“Wheaton College owns land, or does it?” Art history professor Matthew Milliner said. “I’m not contesting our legal claims, but I’m suggesting there is something above the law. There is a theological layer to consider before we consult the deeds.” Milliner reads Leviticus 25:23 as a biblical land acknowledgment: “The land shall not be sold in perpetuity, for the land is mine; with me you are but aliens and tenants.”


Multiple migrations


Although the Potawatomi resided in DuPage County at the time settlers arrived, they are not the only tribe with a history in the area.


“People often think there’s only one tribe that lived in certain areas, but in reality it was more complicated,” Bishop said.


Over 1,000 years ago, a community known today as the Mound Builders lived on the western banks of the DuPage River. Their mounds, used for religious or burial purposes and often in the shape of animals, still stand in nearby Winfield. Winfield is named after General Winfield Scott, who quelled the Blackhawk rebellion in which the Sauk leader Blackhawk refused to cede lands east of the Mississippi. Scott also supervised the Cherokee Trail of Tears, a forced removal to land west of the Mississippi. Wheaton College professor James Jennings and his archaeology classes conducted digs of the Winfield mounds and the surrounding site in 1975 and 1976. 


The next tribes known to have lived here were the Illinois (or Illiniwek). They arrived in the first half of the 17th century, fleeing attacks from the Iroquois Confederacy, which sought to monopolize the fur trade driven by French, Dutch and British traders. By the time the first white settlers arrived in DuPage in the 1820s, the Miami and Illinois had left.


Instead, settlers met the Potawatomi, who had been pushed by the Iroquois from their previous homeland in northern Michigan in the 17th century. The Potawatomi settled in four villages now constituting parts of Naperville, Hinsdale, Churchill Woods Forest Preserve in Lombard, and the Morton Arboretum.


Far from gratitude


Wheaton College has a mixed history regarding Native Americans, starting with its first president. In “The Christian Cynosure,” a newspaper he published, Jonathan Blanchard lamented the “utter extermination [of] that wild and wonderful people” and the “frontier encroachments and the avarice of white men.”


However, Blanchard openly approved of the residential school movement of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, in which Indigenous children were forcibly removed from their homes and sent to Christian boarding schools. Blanchard wrote in The Cynosure, “Each Indian youth in a government school is a hostage for the good behavior of his tribe … The true Indian policy, we repeat, is his Christian education by his white brother, with a view of making him a fellow citizen.”


More recent Wheaton practices also show failures to respect Native American culture, though these practices have since been recognized and corrected. Melissa Harkrider, the chair of Wheaton’s history department, spoke about Wheaton’s history of misappropriation of Native American imagery both on Wheaton’s campus and at HoneyRock.


“One of the ways that we’re trying to reconcile with Native communities today is taking a really close look at our campus culture,” she said. The first case study of this which she mentioned was two Fischer men’s floors’ Senior Skip Day festivities. “From 2003 to about 2015, one very popular costume was war paint, feather headdresses and drums,” Harkrider explained. “The event started as a way to get these two groups of young men to try to think about what it means to live in community, but it devolved into creating a stereotype of Natives that isn’t so fun.” Vice President for Student Development Paul Chelsen and Residence Life staff worked with student leaders to remove culturally inappropriate props and costumes.


Like many summer camps across the nation, camps at Wheaton’s HoneyRock Center for Leadership Development had also appropriated Native American imagery, Harkrider said, throughout the 20th century and as late as 2013. In games at children’s camps, counselors divided campers into “tribes” and distributed “war paint.”


“Although for these students it is all perhaps fun and frivolity,” Harkrider said, “we should think about the experience of students engaging in that kind of activity from the perspective of the Forest County Potawatomi and Sokaogon Chippewa Band communities 45 minutes away in Crandon, Wisconsin. How would they feel if they heard that a bunch of Wheaton evangelical campers are dressing up and acting like wild Indians? It’s a way of treating Native Americans as if they’re static figures,  treating them like they’re artifacts of the past, like their problems today don’t matter.” Dean of Global Programs and Studies Laura Montgomery, Director of HoneyRock Rob Ribbe and HoneyRock student leaders collaborated to revise camp programming to remove disrespectful games and imagery.


Journeys of gratitude


Emeritus New Testament professor Gene Green said when he began teaching in 1996, none of the CCCU sister schools offered courses on Native American history. Beginning in the early 2000s, Wheaton College held faculty development seminars featuring Native American speakers to educate Wheaton’s faculty on the experiences of Indigenous peoples. In following years, Green helped host a powwow, a Native American celebration involving singing and dancing, on campus led by Casey Church, a Potawatomi theologian who studied at Fuller Theological Seminary and works in ministry in Native American communities, and his family.

Green, along with Harkrider and emeritus professor Christine Folch, also taught student courses on Indigenous realities in the Black Hills and on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. Students interacted with over fifteen Lakota leaders. For Green, the most important outcome of these engagements is the facilitation of mutual listening. “We were listening to Native Americans instead of just talking,” Green said, “We began to read into the history of North America from a Native perspective rather than reading the history of the nation from Anglo-European perspectives.”


In recent years, Wheaton has hosted two conferences with NAIITS (formerly the North American Institute for Indigenous Theological Studies), a learning community which trains Indigenous people in theology and ministry.


“This is a robustly Christian group of theologians, and they are approaching their Christianity through the lens of their Indigenous identity,” Milliner said of NAIITS. “That makes it feel like the faith is new for the first time.”


Milliner first started learning about Wheaton’s Native American history at a faculty seminar Green helped lead. He has since taught two courses that engage Native American art and history and has recently written a book, “The Everlasting People: G.K. Chesterton and the First Nations,” which approaches Native American history through a theological lens and will be released in December.


“Before I asked these questions [about the Native American history here], there was a ghostly inability to fully inhabit the place because I was worried what I’d find if I underwent this kind of investigation,” Milliner said. “But once I began to ask these questions, relationships with Indigenous people who are not of the past, but of the present, were inaugurated. And therefore new elements of joy have resulted in my life and in my faith.”


Green remembers the first powwow he and his wife attended, sponsored by the American Indian Center of Chicago. “Given what we had learned about the Native American experience on this land, we were concerned about how we would be received. But we found they welcomed us. They embraced us. Paul, in Romans 15:7, says, ‘Welcome one another as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God.’ The gospel is about welcome. Native American students and other Indigenous people probably taught me more about welcome than anybody else.”


Zachary Bishop at the DuPage County Historical Museum provided research regarding Indigenous tribes in the DuPage area.

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