Chicago, the “City in a Garden,” is home to more than 8,000 acres of parks — each a small reminder of the land beneath the concrete jungle. On the North Side of the city, in the West Ridge neighborhood, Indian Boundary Park — with its 13 acres, lagoon and fieldhouse — is one such parcel.
“I’m not sure who told me, once upon a time, that Indian Boundary [Park] was named because it was the boundary where the Native Americans couldn’t cross,” she said. “That’s all I’d heard about it.”
The park’s name and elements of its design offer clues about the area’s past and Native Americans’ presence there — but they fall short of telling a full or accurate story. For example, on the play structure Loriaux used to climb up on as a kid, there’s a wooden post that depicts an Indigenous person with a Plains-style headdress. That’s a stereotypical depiction of Native Americans common in popular culture. Native people of the Great Lakes region didn’t wear headdresses in that style.
But understanding the history of Indian Boundary Park is important because it’s part of a much larger story of the U.S. government’s “Federal Indian Policy,” a war waged with ink and parchment that displaced Native American communities. Beyond the park’s name — and Indigenous caricatures on its playground and fieldhouse — there are efforts to dispel myths about Native Americans and movements to correct historical wrongs.
Treaty-making in Shikwaakwa in the 1800s
Long before European settlers arrived in Shikwaakwa — the area we know today as Chicago — the Anishinaabe people (including the Potawatomi, Ojibwe and Odawa) as well as many others made the area their home. The famous Scharf map, created by cartographer Albert F. Scharf, shows the area where Indian Boundary Park is today was made up of Native American camps and trails, and was connected to major villages along the Chicago River.
Between 1795 and 1833, several treaties concerning the Chicago area were negotiated between the U.S. government and Native Nations. Most of these treaties were signed under conditions of duress, designed to take the legal title to Native Americans’ most desirable lands.
One of these was the 1816 Treaty of St. Louis, the central goal of which was to pave the way for the European colonization of the lands including what would later become the city of Chicago. In doing so, the U.S. began to push the remaining Anishinaabe people living in the area north.
The line that separated Native Americans from the settlers, established by the treaty, was initially just a line on a map. Eventually a road was built along it known as Indian Boundary Road, which is now North Rogers Avenue. Europeans built settlements south of the road, and Indigenous people continued living north of it.
But the boundary line only existed for about 17 years, until the second Treaty of Chicago. That agreement between the Anishinaabe and the U.S. government ceded five million acres of land. The federal government removed the majority of Indigenous people living along Indian Boundary Road and sent them west of the Mississippi River.
However, some Native people continued to live and trade in the area. The location became an important trading post for settlers and Indigenous people. Around 1835, a settler named Philip Rogers built a log cabin at roughly the intersection of what is now W. Lunt and N. Western Avenues, a block from where Indian Boundary Park is today. Rogers established a trading post with Native people in the area that was situated near the park’s current fieldhouse. Eventually, the nearby neighborhood of Rogers Park was named after him.
“There was a business interest in maintaining Indians there for trade,” said Jojo Galvan, a historian at the Chicago History Museum. “But at the same time, this is a story we know all too well.”
The eroding boundary line at today’s North Rogers Avenue was just one example of a much larger policy of Native removal that was systematically carried out by the U.S. government during this period.
For example, under a subsequent treaty, Chief Shab-eh-nay of the Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation received about 12,000 acres in southern DeKalb County. The rest of his band was removed to Iowa, and from there, planned a move to a newly established reservation in Kansas.
But as soon as Chief Shab-eh-nay was gone — to check on members of the band who had been removed — the state government moved in, explained Joseph Rupnick, Chairman of the Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation and a direct descendant of Chief Shab-eh-nay.
“The General Land Office in the state of Illinois came back and said, ‘Well, you abandoned that land.’” In 1849, the government proceeded to sell the land in DeKalb County that had been granted by treaty to the Potawatomi.
“According to the United States’ own constitution, treaties are the supreme law of the land,” said Doug Kiel, associate professor of history at Northwestern University. But the U.S. government “has had a habit” of not upholding these agreements.
The 1900s: Indian Boundary Park and sanitized history
Native American removal continued throughout the 20th century, though policies changed in attempts to solve “the Indian problem.” Concurrently, on a local level, there were efforts to appropriate Indigenous imagery and symbolism into the city’s infrastructure, including through park names and monuments.
The early 1900s saw the development of many of Chicago’s neighborhood parks. In 1915, the Ridge Avenue Park District, a local neighborhood park commission, began buying up land to create what would be “the centerpiece” of the local park district, according to Jojo Galvan of the Chicago History Museum.
The Ridge Avenue Park District (which later merged with the Chicago Park District) officially established the park off N. Rockwell St. in 1916. They named it Indian Boundary Park, commemorating the Treaty of St. Louis’ centennial. While the name is a reference to the Indian Boundary Line established under the treaty, no one interviewed for this story knew exactly how the district decided on this name or the intention behind it.
Richard F. Gloede, a landscape architect from Evanston, was hired to design the park. Gloede’s plans included planting shrubs and poplar trees, and improving the natural pond by creating a lagoon that could be home to ducks, swans and native wildflowers.
The fieldhouse was erected in 1929, and was designed by prominent Chicago architect Clarence Hatzfeld. His design included a stoic relief carving of a Native American wearing a Plains-style headdress above the front entrance.Elsewhere in Chicago, similar flawed depictions of Indigenous people were underway. U.S. post offices in the Chicago area commissioned murals based on the treaties that displaced Native people from the West Ridge area, using “noble savage” imagery to sanitize and justify their removal. And in 1928, the most recognizable representations of Native people in the city, the Bowman and the Spearman — two 17-foot statues of Indigenous people on horseback — were installed at S. Michigan Ave. and W. Ida B. Wells Dr. downtown.
Like the relief carvings at Indian Boundary Park, these statues rely on romanticized and ahistorical depictions of Native people.
Kiel said monuments like the Bowman and Spearman and the relief carvings at Indian Boundary Park reinforce false narratives about Native people and their removal in the public consciousness by romanticizing these histories. They act as generic stand-ins for Chicago’s Indigenous history, according to Kiel.
By replacing Native people with literal cartoons, Kiel said the settler narrative of the so-called “vanishing Indian” lives on guilt free. It sanitizes the brutal history of removal, dispossession and assimilation.
The Land Back movement
In part because of its connection to the 1816 treaty, Indian Boundary Park continued to be a site for Native groups to remember and mourn the treaties broken by the U.S. government and the lives and land lost. In the 1980s and ’90s, for example, groups including the former Anawim Center of Chicago and the Indian Treaty Rights committee held vigils at Indian Boundary Park in opposition to the city’s recognition of Columbus Day.
John Low is an associate professor at Ohio State University and a citizen of the Pokagon band of Potawatomi Indians. He said from an early age he took note of Chicago’s various statues of colonizers and of the so-called “vanishing Indian.”
“Traveling around the city I was struck … by these monuments and memorials to settler colonialism that exist in Chicago,” he said, “and the stereotypes embedded in those monuments.”
Low said he often worried about the impact racist imagery, like the relief carvings at Indian Boundary Park, could have on urban Indians living in Chicago — especially the youth. “What do they think, how does this affect them?” he asked. “[What does it make them] think about themselves, their tribes, their families, their urban Indian community?”
At the same time, he thinks Indian Boundary Park can offer an occasion to teach people about a little-discussed aspect of the region’s history. “That gives an opportunity to talk about the whole treaty process — the legitimization of stealing Indian land,” Low said. “And what the country is founded on, the two original sins: Indian land and resources, and African slavery.”
Low hopes that in the future the city will give more thoughtful consideration to the Native imagery and symbols it uses in its statues, fieldhouses and park names. But in the meantime, he believes Indian Boundary Park gives people in-the-know the opportunity to share with others the history of Native removal in Illinois, as well as the continued presence Native people have with the city and the surrounding area.
Doug Kiel of Northwestern University said an accurate understanding of history is also an essential part of current Indigenous-led justice movements, particularly Land Back.
“Land Back is sometimes imagined as something that’s pie-in-the-sky, like … it has no real potential,” Kiel said. “And that could not be further from the truth.”
Land Back is a multifaceted movement that is attempting to reestablish ownership and governance of former tribal lands. According to Kiel, this can take many forms, from co-management of public lands by Native Nations and U.S. agencies to restoring Tribal governance of former reservation lands that have since been sold to non-Native people.
Land Back includes Chairman Rupnick’s work fighting to regain the lands taken from Chief Shab-eh-nay. “[Shab-eh-nay] fought for many years until he passed away, trying to reclaim that land,” Rupnick said. “Here we are 180 years later, and we’re still fighting to get that land recognized and reaffirm that it is still an Indian reservation.”
The renewed push for the Land Back movement relies heavily on the 2020 Supreme Court ruling in McGirt v. Oklahoma, which holds that a reservation still exists unless it has been formally disestablished by Congress. Kiel said this decision has very real implications for Indian Country that could completely reshape the map.
Taking a closer look at Indian Boundary Park’s name offers insight into Chicago’s history of Native American removal, and sheds light on the continued relationship many Native Americans have with the city. The park also lends an opportunity to learn about the ongoing fight for recognition of Indigenous land in and around Chicago.
“Land Back is the future,” Kiel said. “And it’s happening.”
Kadin Mills is a freelance journalist covering Indigenous issues. Follow @krmilz.
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated Indian Boundary Park is in the Rogers Park neighborhood. The park is located in the West Ridge neighborhood.