Where Illinois' past meets Oklahoma's future
The Daily Illini
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
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
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
"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
"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
"As for the position of the tribe, it stands," Froman said. "(Chief
Illiniwek) is not Important.