Where Illinois’ past meets Oklahoma’s future

Peoria Chief John Froman stands in the schoolhouse where tribe members were educated for almost a century. The tribe recently purchased the building and is planning to restore it in order to open it for use by school groups. Josh Birnbaum

Peoria Chief John Froman stands in the schoolhouse where tribe members were educated for almost a century. The tribe recently purchased the building and is planning to restore it in order to open it for use by school groups. Josh Birnbaum

By Courtney Linehan

MIAMI, Okla. – It’s 86 degrees of dry heat on an October Sunday. A thin film of harvest dust hangs in the air, carried through town on a warm breeze. Rows of cars fill the Wal-Mart parking lot, but the old downtown is nearly lifeless; fast food joints like Taco Bell and KFC serve a slow stream of customers while diners down the road stand empty, closed for a day of rest.

Miami, Okla., is 490 miles from Champaign, but it might as well be a quick trip down Interstate-57 for the parallels you’ll find. Miami has the same strip of new development you’ll see driving down Prospect, only scaled to fit a town one-thirteenth the size. Ottawa County, of which Miami is the seat, has virtually identical poverty and employment rates as Champaign County.

Just one clear difference divides Miami from Champaign. It doesn’t become apparent when ambling through town or driving down Main Street. It isn’t announced on billboards as you drive into town; there are no indicators of what makes Miami unique. Its only overt image is a cluster of office buildings on a street running parallel to Interstate-44.

Miami is headquarters for nine American Indian tribes, each forcibly relocated to Oklahoma more than a century ago. There are no Indian reservations here. No boundaries declare where Ottawa land ends and Modoc begins. In Ottawa County, 22.8 percent of residents claim American Indian heritage. Governments of Miami’s nine sovereign nations intermingle and work in conjunction with local, state and national leadership. Their aim is to provide services to their tribe members and, in doing so, to improve the overall quality of life for Miami’s 13,700 residents.

In Champaign, the University of Illinois is deep in a 15-year debate about its Chief Illiniwek symbol and Fighting Illini nickname. Whether the University will retain or retire the Chief is a common topic of conversation on campus – but in Miami, members of the Peoria Indian Tribe of Oklahoma, the descendents of the “Illiniwek” tribes that once inhabited Illinois, focus more on local economics and tribal government than on the controversy at a college two states away.

Peoria Chief John Froman has other things on his mind besides Illinois’ ongoing debate.

Froman emerges from his white minivan wearing a striped polo shirt and worn, ripped jeans. Stepping onto the sidewalk in front of his office, he rubs the grease from his fingers onto his pants before holding his hand out in greeting.

“Sorry I’m late,” he apologizes for the 10-minute delay. “My daughter’s car broke down when she was on her way back from school. I’ve been messing with the engine all day.”

Froman says he prefers to worry about problems directly affecting his family. That’s why he ran for Chief of the Peoria tribe – his Peoria heritage has always been an important part of his identity. He spent his childhood mowing grass at the tribal cemetery for his grandfather, who was Chief at the time. Froman devotes his time to serving his 2,800 tribal members, who live in Miami, Okla., throughout the country and around the world.

“Our Chief’s a good man,” said Peoria tribe member Don Pogue. “He listens to the people, listens to what they say. He’s a good honest man.”

For the Peoria, life in northeast Oklahoma is about economic development. Froman grins as he tours the competing Ottawa Tribe’s casino and his bigger, newer, more upscale version down the road. He enjoys playing a round of golf at the Peoria Ridge course with Rascal Flatts when the country music superstars are in town to perform at the Peoria-owned Buffalo Run Casino. He takes the company SUV off-roading across mounds of red Oklahoma dirt as he surveys tribal property leased as grazing land and construction on the new road to the traditional tribal cemetery.

“We’ve been in the Internet business, we do agri-business, but our primary focus has been trying to operate as a government,” Froman said. “What we’re trying to do, economically, is diversify.”

More than 300 years ago, the ancestors of today’s Miami lived west of the Ohio River in Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Ohio and Wisconsin. They spoke variations of the Algonquin language. They are best known for building the mounds at Cahokia some 2,000 years ago and for a defiant, yet unsuccessful, stand during a battle at Starved Rock in the 1760s. They were closely tied to the Miami tribes – two of the four tribes now part of the Peoria were Miami sub-groups until 1818. Now the Miami tribal buildings are a few steps from the Peoria’s, and the two tribes work hand-in-hand on services offered to members of both tribes.

“We are very fortunate that we work so well together,” said Miami tribe Chief Floyd Leonard. “We have our differences, but they’re mostly political. We are always wiling to help someone in need.”

Today’s Peoria tribe is a confederation of the Kaskaskia, Peoria, Piankesaw and Wea tribes. Prior to the Civil War, the U.S. government moved them to Missouri, then to Kansas. The four groups formally united in 1854, forming the Confederated Peoria. In1867 they were moved again, this time to present-day Oklahoma.

“Everybody talks about the Cherokee and their Trail of Tears,” Froman said. “Well, we all had our own version of the Trail of Tears.”

The present day Peoria work to maintain their tribal heritage, with projects to restore the tribal schoolhouse built circa 1870 and extensive interaction with the Illinois State Museum to identify and rebury American Indian remains unearthed in Illinois.

While some members of the original tribe remained in Missouri or Kansas, becoming U.S. citizens, today’s Peoria are descendents of those people who settled in Ottawa County.

“We don’t deny them their Indian heritage,” Froman said of the descendents of those who stayed behind. “But we all have to live with the choices our ancestors made.”

Finding a hotel room in Miami on a Saturday night can be a challenge. The small town has a Microtel and a Best Western, among other options, but those fill up fast when the Buffalo Run Casino puts on a concert.

In less than one year of operation, Buffalo Run has hosted more than 50 entertainers, ranging from musicians such as ZZ Topp and Blake Shelton to boxing matches broadcast on Showtime. An expansion opened in early October, and plans are in the works for more casinos, restaurants and possibly a hotel.

“We’re in negotiations with some developers for a hotel. I actually want to build a strip of casinos, a boardwalk. Our biggest competition here is casino hopping, people saying ‘Aw, we didn’t do well here, let’s go to the Quapaw casino down the road.’ We’re going to own the casino down the road.”

While the casino’s first-year returns were certainly successful, Froman said the Peoria are lucky to break even on their combined business ventures. Total tribal revenues on all enterprises – including the golf course, agri-business, lease holdings and gaming operations – should be about $4 million, Froman said. But the more than 300 jobs those projects bring to Miami make the businesses very profitable.

“We’re barely breaking even; we’re just here to provide jobs for the community,” Froman said.

When the Peoria received a Bureau of Indian Affairs grant to pave the road to their golf course, the money paid to pave a two-mile stretch of Ottawa County highway. When they received another grant to pave the road to their cemetery, the Peoria looked at which route would most benefit the community.

Miami’s nine tribes make the most of their combined potential. The town has a clinic where members of any tribe can receive subsidized healthcare, and the Miami tribe offers free lunch to American Indian elders in the community. Many tribes have housing authorities, but they work together to offer services to the maximum number of people.

“We lost a lot of our land, and how we lost it I don’t really know it was just over the course of years, but we’re starting to get a lot of it back in tribal trusts,” Pogue said. “There’s a lot more that they’re doing for the tribal members now, college funds, grants. Just a lot of things that aren’t a whole lot, but when it’s all said and done, it really is.”

As for the University of Illinois’ Chief Illiniwek symbol, the Peoria have little to say. In 2000 the tribal council issued a 3-2 vote in opposition of Chief Illiniwek, and they plan to stick with their position. They say they are two states and two centuries removed from Illinois.

“As for the position of the tribe, it stands,” Froman said. “(Chief Illiniwek) is not important.”