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Last updated: Tue. May. 08, 2012 - 06:20 am EDT

COLUMN

Chief Richardville: Walking the fine line between collaborator and hero

Miami leader made deals, but his tribe ultimately remained

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Twenty years before most of his tribe was forcibly uprooted and shipped west, Miami Chief Jean-Baptiste de Richardville signed a treaty in which the very government that would exile his people gave him and eight other tribal leaders the homes and land that eventually made Richardville one of Indiana's richest residents.

So was the man whose house still stands at 5705 Bluffton Road – and was named a national historic landmark in March – a self-serving collaborator or even a traitor?

Or is Richardville's legacy just a bit more complicated, nuanced and even heroic than that?

To Dani Tippmann, the fact that she and other Indiana Miamis can still gather at Richardville's home to celebrate their culture answers the question.

“He was an enigmatic man,” Tippmann said of her ancestor. “But he staved off (the Miamis') removal for a generation, and if he had lived longer, more might have been allowed to stay. I think he did the best he could. Getting the government to provide them permanent houses was a testament to his shrewdness.”

That shrewdness made him wealthy, yes. But it also preserved a Miami remnant in a city that today is increasingly aware of its Native American roots, even if it does not always fully understand them.

As much as I love historic buildings, their real importance flows from the people and events with which they are associated. And so when we're told that the Richardville House was built in 1827 as a result of the Treaty of Paradise Spring a year earlier, or that he contributed $1,600 to its construction and the government just $600, or that it may be the oldest Greek Revival-style home in Indiana, we risk losing the man in the architecture.

Todd Maxwell Pelfrey is executive director of the History Center, which has owned the Richardville house since 1991. And he points out an historical fact most of us probably sense but would rather not ponder: In Richardville's day, most white Americans and their government didn't care all that much about an Indian tribe's legal claims or property rights. But by negotiating treaties in which he and other individual Native Americans were given legal deeds and other binding assurances, Richardville was able to build an economic base that could not be taken away – a base he then used to benefit his people.

Born in the village of Kekionga near the confluence of Fort Wayne's three rivers to a Miami mother (Tacumwah) and a French officer turned fur trader named Antoine-Joseph Drouet de Richardville, Jean-Baptiste was educated in Quebec and at home in both cultures, making him a skilled negotiator. After becoming the tribe's civil chief around 1814 and until his death at home in 1841, “Nobody could take advantage of him. It was an incredible irritation,” Pelfrey said.

About 800 Miamis lived in the Fort Wayne area when Richardville died, and less than half were allowed to stay because of permanent-home deal Richardville made. But today the Miami Nation of Indiana numbers about 5,000 people, and the Miami Tribe of Oklahoma another 3,500. (“We were sent to Kansas first, but then they found oil there,” Tippmann said.)

It's worth asking: How many Miamis would still be in the area if not for the homes and property Richardville negotiated for himself and others?

At one point, Pelfrey said, Richardville was worth about $23 million in today's dollars – gained in part from charging to use river portage on his property. At his death, much of the money went to the tribe. As for Richardville's family, it was living in poverty within two generations. “Some prominent people had the daughters declared incompetent and took the money,” Tippmann said.

“Everybody knows about Little Turtle (an earlier Miami war chief) and the Miamis vs. Anthony Wayne. But there's so much more to the story,” Pelfrey said.

By understanding what might have motivated Richardville to seemingly benefit himself at the expense of his people, we might also understand more of that story.

Perhaps it should also make us just a bit more reluctant to criticize others throughout history who, when confronted by foes they could not defeat, did not live up to the high standards we haughtily impose upon them – from a safe distance and time.

kleininger@news-sentinel.com


This column is the commentary of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of The News-Sentinel. Email Kevin Leininger at kleininger@news-sentinel.com, or call him at 461-8355.


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