ROGERS PARK — Tucked behind an electrical box on a Rogers Park corner is a plaque that commemorates a controversial moment in Chicago history.
The plaque marks the Indian Boundary Lines, the northern edge of land the United States government took from Indigenous people that would become the city of Chicago. The line cut through modern-day Rogers Avenue, where the plaque stands on a building at Rogers and Clark Street.
Erected in 1937, the plaque is among the 40 city monuments being reconsidered under the Chicago Monuments Project. Launched by Mayor Lori Lightfoot last year, the initiative aims to re-evaluate potentially problematic statues and monuments throughout the city.
Now, Rogers Park neighbors are mulling what should happen to the Indian Boundary Lines plaque, including how it could be modernized to reflect more perspectives on the controversial land treaty.
‘We Don’t Have Anywhere Where Our History Is Shown’
The Indian Boundary Lines is the product of the Treaty of St. Louis, when United States government officials in 1816 attained land from Indigenous people in the Midwest.
Illinois Gov. Ninian Edwards and brothers George Rogers Clark and William Clark — Clark Street is named after Revolutionary War soldier George Rogers Clark — helped get included in the treaty a 20-by-70 mile tract of land along the Chicago River from Rogers Avenue south to Lake Calumet.
Those borders are marked by the Rogers Avenue plaque, Indian Boundary Park in West Ridge and Indian Boundary Golf Course on Cook County Forest Preserve land in Dunning.
The treaty helped build what’s now the city of Chicago and gave the United States government control over more Great Lakes waterways. But only that side of the story is reflected in the Rogers Park plaque commemorating the land grab.
By the time of the Treaty of St. Louis, Indigenous people had suffered decades of mass killings and dislocation at the hands of white settlers, Dorene Wiese, founder and chief executive officer of the American Indian Association of Illinois, said at a community meeting on the monument last month.
Further, the United States did not negotiate the treaty of St. Louis in good faith, nor did they consult official tribal leaders, Wiese said. Eyewitness accounts say Indigenous people involved in the treaty process were plied with whiskey. When it came time to sign the treaty, the Indigenous people marked an “x” because they did not read or write English, she said.
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The treaty resulted in a mass dislocation of Indigenous from the Chicago area, Wiese said.
“This was not an empty territory,” Wiese said. “There’s been Native people here since the beginning of time.”
The Indian Boundary Lines can still be traced through maps of Chicago. The boundaries impacted the modern geography of Chicago, said James R. Akerman, a prominent scholar of history of cartography and the Newberry Library’s curator of maps.
“It’s important to commemorate this for people to understand the extent this boundary did affect our geography,” Akerman said at a Rogers Park community meeting last month. “Far more importantly is the significance of this boundary in the creation of the modern city of Chicago.”
But how the Indian Boundary Lines should be recognized is up for discussion.
More than 140 people attended a meeting last month held by Ald. Maria Hadden (49th) and the Rogers Park West Ridge Historical Society, who sought to start a discussion about the plaque.
The plaque was erected by the Chicago Charter Jubilee, when city officials installed plaques honoring Chicago history on the 100th anniversary of the city’s incorporation. Its inscription honors the officials and settlers who attained the land from Indigenous people, but it says nothing of the people who were already here.
“You look at the plaque, you get a very clear sense that there is no other view,” said Patricia Mooney-Melvin, a history professor at Loyola. “We should be asking, ‘What facts did we overlook?'”
Wiese is a member of the Ojibwe Tribe, which has a long history in the Chicago area and is still one of the biggest tribes in the area, with thousands of members living in Rogers Park and beyond, she said. Despite the tribe’s rich history in Chicago, there are no monuments or public acknowledgement of its presence.
“We don’t have anywhere where our history is shown,” Wiese said. “We need for our future generations to have images that say something about who we are and our history. So that there is somewhere where our children can see their faces.”
David Kalensky, vice president of the local historical society, said the words of Wiese and the other scholars shows a “need to reinterpret the plaque in some way.”
One way to do so is to add a “companion piece” to the plaque that highlights the history of Indigenous people in Chicago and the impact such treaties and land boundaries had on them, Mooney-Melvin said.
Hadden said she encourages further discussion of the plaque and the naming of buildings and places in the ward. Her office has a survey for residents to provide feedback on the plaque> It can be filled out here.
“I think that’s an important process,” Hadden said. “We can correct misinformation, reveal what might be hidden or what people might think is invisible, but also take the opportunity to maybe claim ownership of the naming.
“I think that’s a welcome process for parks and schools, in addition to monuments.”
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