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Walking tours tell a different story about Chicago’s lakeshore


“What we’re going to do is go for a walk.”

JeeYeun Lee, artist, activist, and creator of social justice walking tours along Lake Michigan, stood in front of the Museum of Contemporary Art with a microphone in her hand. Its cable curled up on the concrete and ended up in a small portable speaker at his feet. She waved a leaflet. “Everyone should get one of these,” she said. “If you look at the map on the cover, it’s from 1902.” It showed where the shore of Lake Michigan used to be. It was where Lee stood now.

He pointed east.

“Everything from here to the lake is actually garbage,” he said. A few of the three dozen or so people sitting on the MCA steps nodded. Yes, they had heard this place was a dump. This is part of the narrative Chicago likes to tell about itself: After the Great Fire of 1871, there was so much rubble blocking the streets that the city cleverly used it to expand the lakeshore.

Over time, he continued, the white settlers discovered that the vast land was the most valuable part of the city. Streeterville, Soldier Field, Grant Park, the Field Museum – all built on top of the landfill.

No more nods.

“Since then,” he said, “there have been fights over who will control the lakeshore.”

He’s smiling now – everyone knows about Chicago politics…

That’s when Lee dropped a comma: But did they know that part of what made his growth and wealth possible was the ignorance of treaty claims by Native Americans living on Chicago’s coastline? Did they know that Potawatomi was discussing any deals the Pokagon Marching had signed? original Lake Michigan shoreline as the boundary of the ceded land, and as many Potawatomi still claim, Chicago had no right to annex it beyond the original shoreline?

There was no shaking now.

Indeed, in 1914 the Potawatomi sued the city for this vast stretch of coastline, which went all the way to the US Supreme Court, which ruled that the tribe had no right to take the lands they had abandoned. A strange decision considering that the Potawatomi, like other Indigenous tribes, were forced into agreements.

“Okay,” Lee said cheerfully to the abruptly motionless audience, the walk they were about to take is a work in progress. It takes about an hour. Later this month, when Lee takes his last walk of the summer, the walk will take at least three hours and six miles, moving south from Jackson Park to Steelworkers Park near 87th Street. But he intended to take a short, mournful stroll at the MCA: “We’ll go around the corner on Chicago Avenue, there’ll be stairs to go under the overpass on Lake Shore Drive, we’re going to the water’s edge, then we’re back.”

He nodded to his phone: “The main part is the audio track.”

Artist, writer, and activist JeeYuen Lee leads an audio tour along the Lakefront Trail in Chicago on June 10, 2023.

(For Lou Foglia/Chicago Tribune)

The crowd put on the headphones and put on the headphones and started walking. The Voice was an alternate story of Chicago. Not the underground talks and alderman arrogance tuned into the usual hustle and bustle of “Sweet Home Chicago”, but the story of broken deals with Native settlers and snippets of Indigenous songs, interviews with elders, nature sounds, legislation readings, everything flowing in and out, peacefully overlapping riding, interrupted by occasional drift punch shot Music from the speedboats moored in the “Theme Park” off DuSable Lake Shore Drive.

When Lee looks at this lakeshore, he later explained to me, he sees it as a kind of byproduct of the city’s original sin – to take the lakeshore to himself and ignore the settlers. As we exited the tunnel under Lake Shore and crossed the bike paths, the riders slowed down and said, “What’s going on?” and “What (blasphemy)!” and “Bike lane, you idiots!”

There was no question of who dominated the lakeshore. A few years ago, when Lee took a three-hour walk along Michigan Avenue, he left behind a long, thin line of red sand—2,000 pounds of red sand poured from a wheelbarrow. This was a way of separating the ceded area (everything east of Michigan Avenue) from the legitimate Chicago (everything west of Michigan Avenue). “The bureaucracy will do that, leave a row of sand!” he remembered. “It reflected everything I knew about who claimed control of the land and what you could do with it.”

A participant queues up the sound created by Chicago artist, author, and activist JeeYuen Lee before a nearly 4-mile tour along the Lakefront Trail in Chicago on June 10, 2023.

Part history, part performance art, part activism, his projects aim to raise troubling questions about who qualifies for lakeshore rights and what is meant by “public land.”

And why do these questions rarely arise?

Lee describes his walks this summer (as part of the Roman Susan Art Foundation’s “Navigations” series near Loyola University) titled “Shore Land”: a threshold gap between land and water, simultaneously a public domain, a breach of contract, and strategy to suppress the rebellion.” (He likes to point out that while Daniel Burnham’s Chicago Plan is hailed as forward-thinking, the creation of green spaces also aims to quell growing anger over working conditions.)

In part, however, “Shore Land” also raises questions about who will tell the story of Native Americans. Lee, 52, was born in South Korea and his family moved there when he was 9 years old.

“Many Indigenous people I reached out to about these projects were cautious,” he said. “They have experience with non-native people seeking to gain knowledge, time and their thoughts through a one-sided transaction. So I tried my best to get around and be as candid as I could.” The Potawatomi tribal council itself asked him to add a note to all materials related to the “Shore Land” that his work had no formal affiliation with the tribe.

But he also received support from many Potawatomi.

John Low, a former Chicago native and an associate professor of Native American studies at Ohio State University, was partly his inspiration. Lee first read about the tribe’s trial in 1914 in a book by Low. “‘Whose Lakeshore?’ (2019 Michigan Avenue walk), credit isn’t the point here, right? Low, a citizen of the Pokagon Band of Potawatomi, remembers being upset during his PhD. He joined the program when he wanted to write his thesis about first author and activist Simon Pokagon. and learned that two other students, both non-Natives, hadn’t claimed him anyway. I’m sorry, he said. “I’m Pokagon, but isn’t the whole point of science to inspire? Frankly, more people talking about the Natives’ claims to the Chicago lakeshore – why not? I don’t feel violated. I want this story alive.”

Billie Warren, a member of the Pokagon Band of Potawatomi, sparked a discussion with attendees before Lee's 4-mile audio tour along Chicago's lakeshore on June 10, 2023.

(For Lou Foglia/Chicago Tribune)

Madolyn Wesaw, a Michigan-based activist and Potawatomi citizen, was as much a part of that first “Shore Land” march as Lee, who stood by the artist and spoke. Wesaw said at the event that Lee did “meaningful work that didn’t center the oppressor” on the story. But he had it on his mind, “and when Natives talk to whites a lot about it, we hear that you can’t blame people for their grandfather’s sins… People ask me: ‘What do I have to do? Do you want to fire all whites?’ That’s not the point. But you can go home and learn about us and you can believe us when we talk to you about these things. We know what’s best for our people and we know our history and the Indigenous peoples should tell them – with the help of allies.

Lee said his motivation for the marches was partly because he was Korean and grew up in a country that was “not officially colonized, but under the domain of US military imperialism.” Profession is on his mind. “So I sympathize with what has happened and continues to happen on this continent. I see my role as someone who has some understanding of what it’s like to be colonized.”

His father was a diplomat and when his family moved to Chicago they settled in Budlong Woods; later Winnetka, where Lee attended New Trier Township High School. He said he had never learned anything about Potawatomi at New Trier or at Chicago Public Schools before. She studied linguistics at Stanford University, ethnic studies at the University of California Berkeley, and fiber arts at Cranbrook Academy of the Arts near Detroit. While in Michigan, he embarked on a series of 25-mile solo marches that reflected changes in population, ethnicity, and opportunity, starting in Detroit and moving outward. Back in Chicago, he embarked on a similar project: “100 Miles in Chicago”, a series of 20-mile hikes that trace trails once created by locals. She wore a traditional Korean dress made of denim, an American fabric “with a history of cotton and indigo slavery.” Often, you don’t know what he’s doing unless asked.

He said very few people asked him what he was doing.

“But it’s also not traditional activism that organizes people for direct impact. But then, many things contribute to the way we change a society. Many are stories that we have in mind about the world and why the world is the way it is and who does what.

“Chicago does not consider the fact that we are occupying the land of the people who live here. My project is not ‘Give the land back’. I see this as the advancement of knowledge. Art and activism—the art of social practice, whatever you call it—contributes, however small, to changing all that.”

The final “Shore Land” walking tour is on August 27 from 63rd Street Beach; more information jeeyeunlee.com



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