It’s been almost 5 years since my grandpa George passed away, about that long since I started looking into his family tree to find out who we are. It’s been tense at times – some people don’t like change – but this is the native story I know of my family, the part that hadn’t been recorded or remembered… and needed to be rediscovered. It has been compiled from census data, land claim and immigration documents, and a few stories along the way.
My great-great grandparents, who for the first many years of their life were only known in census data as “George (Indian)” and “Julie (Indian)”, were both born somewhere in the 1850’s in the Kankakee Valley of Illinois. Their parents were born somewhere around the Great Lakes region but no further information about their parents is available beyond that – though they claimed this origin on census data, neither set of parents show up in the British censuses of the Canadian dominion or the French. We do know that Julie’s parents died in Indian Territory, around Chickasaw, Oklahoma, but George’s parents both show no record of death – it is assumed they died during the forced removal to Kansas in the mid-1800’s.
The Kankakee Valley was the home of the Mshkodésik (M’sh-ko-da-sik, meaning “People of the Little Prairie”) Potawatomi, or Bodéwadmi meaning “keepers of the fire”, one of the Anishinaabe peoples. The French had good relationships with the Potawatomi in the Kankakee Valley since the 1700’s, and many families were close. This began to change in the late 1830’s and 1840’s when the Indian Removal Act began forcibly moving many of the Potawatomi people either into what is now Oklahoma or Kansas.
It appears that George and Julie were kept or perhaps even hidden with other families in the Kankanee Valley until they left the area and travelled to Kansas in the late 1860’s. Most likely they were married in a traditional way and then left to be with surviving members of their family. They show up as members of the Prairie Band Potawatomi for a few years, but in 1876 they marry in St. Joseph’s Parish in Cloud County and the names “George Cyr” and “Julie Bisette” appear for the first time, and they begin to report as “French” on the census data and live in Cloud, Kansas.
After having their son, Edward, in 1889, George and Julie begin horse trading between Kansas and Alberta. In 1898, George buys land in Chauvin, AB where they became known as “friendly folk with the Indians.” Both George and Julie pass away very shortly after. Edward marries Hennriette Delemont from Alsace, France in 1922, the first European-descent person in the bloodline. Their son, George, my grandfather, was born in 1929.
Given the treatment of Aboriginal peoples, both in the US and Canada, life on the reservation and the risk of losing their children to residential schools, becoming “French” was a move that saved my family a lot of hardship and suffering. It also meant losing our language, our ceremonies, and our traditions. But now, with the help of some amazing family, I get to rediscover the things that have been left by the wayside… and pass them on to my daughters.
Boozhoo ndinawe maaganag. Dylan ndigo. Miskwanimikii ndezhnikas. Binesii ndoodem. Mshkodasik ndonjii. Ndanishinaabew.