The Journal Gazette
Sunday, July 02, 2017 1:00 am

Keeping Miami Indian culture alive

Cody Thompson | The Journal Gazette

If a Fort Wayne resident stepped into a time machine and traveled back to the late 1700s, they would find it was called Kekionga, the capital village of the region's Miami Indians.

After numerous conflicts between white settlers and the Miami tribe, General Anthony Wayne eventually secured the area. Only a few items from that time remain, one of which is the Chief Richardville House.

“Fort Wayne, in general, has a very strong connection with the Miami,” said Zach Arnett, education coordinator for the Fort Wayne History Center. “It's very important for us to keep in touch with that connection.”

The history center offers tours of the house, built in 1827, and presentations from 1 to 4 p.m. on the first Saturday of every month between May and November as part of its Miami Indian Heritage Days.

The center brought in presenter Erik Vosteen on Saturday to demonstrate some clay sculpting reminiscent of the style the Miami would have used in the days of Kekionga. Vosteen was quick to insist that he is not Native American, but he knows a lot about their style of pottery.

“Pottery for ancient people, like any culture, has many purposes,” he said to the visitors who began to arrive.

Vosteen explained the difference in thickness of pots, and mentioned that he gathered the clay in the state.

He sat on a wooden bench next to his 3-month-old baby while using his hands to mold the clay, occasionally wetting it with water. The crowds eventually made their way inside for the start of the ground-floor tour led by Arnett.

Arnett began explaining some of the history of the house on the hill. He walked visitors through rooms of hardwood floors and walls with chipping paint. He explained that the rugs are Pakistani reproductions of the Turkish rugs that would have been used at the time of the house's construction.

He mentioned that other houses at the time were one-room log cabins or tepees compared to this two-story, multiroom, brick home.

“So imagine seeing this house on the hill,” Arnett said. “That would be huge.”

Once he was finished with the ground floor, he passed the group to Gabriel Tippmann, the day's representative of the Miami tribe, for the upper-floor tour. Tippmann may only be 17 years old, but he is a descendant of Jean Baptiste de Richardville, the home's namesake.

He said he enjoys giving the tours to pass on the culture of his people.

“A lot of times it's easy to think of Native Americans as people of the past,” he said. “This is a way we can have community outreach to let people know we're still alive.”

The visitors passed through the house and occasionally stopped to study a picture or an old coin. Many of them asked questions or made comments during the tours, including Gene Fosnight.

Fosnight was on the tour with his wife, Rise Smith. They grew up in Fort Wayne but currently live in San Diego, and were in town visiting family for the week. Smith said she had many memories of driving past the building with her mother but had never been inside. “It was very nice,” Fosnight added.

Arnett said they do have a goal, something they want visitors to take away when they visit the nearly 200-year-old house.

“I would like for visitors to have an awareness and appreciation for the people who lived here before us,” he said. “History is your culture, and it's important to stay in touch with your culture.”

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