When the Culture Wars Hit Fort Wayne

Arp, too, saw the issue through the lens of Trump-era polarization. “There’s something in the ethos or the zeitgeist of the country currently, in which people have decided they’re going to be on one side or another of some sort of, you know, great ‘woke’ divide,” Arp told me, adding: “Anything that’s patriotic is automatically evil in some people’s eyes. It’s automatically aligned with some sort of ‘ism’ or ‘phobia,’ without any discussion of merits or actual history.”

So what was the actual history? Like many other arguments in the Trump era, that question would soon boil over.

One of the first people it started to scald was Geoff Paddock, the other Democrat on the city council. At first he had little interest in the debate. Whereas Hines had vehemently objected to the Wayne Day resolution, Paddock had not spoken up during the meeting, and then he joined the majority who voted for it. In the moment, Paddock later told me, his only thought was that it would look bad for the city if its council spurned its namesake.

But a few days later, a retired pastor in Paddock’s district, John Gardner, asked him for a copy of the resolution—writing that from what he had heard, it “appears to express the sentiments and work of a white nationalist,” according to emails I obtained under a public records law.

Paddock, who also ran a nonprofit organization that developed a riverside park near downtown, passed on the request to the council’s administrator, Megan Flohr, telling her he would try to convince the pastor that he was no white nationalist.

“There’s no win on this one,” Flohr wrote back. “If it failed, you all would have gotten dragged for not supporting history. But passing it is bringing up these points. No win.”

“Yes,” Paddock wrote. “I knew that when it was introduced. Hopefully, we will get by this one.”

Gardner later told me that he had been stewing about Wayne Day since first hearing about it, seeing it as a “bully” move that, in his view, seemed to reflect the same toxic racial animus behind 2017’s “Unite the Right” rally by white nationalists in Charlottesville, Virginia. But after receiving a copy of the resolution, Gardner decided to read a biography of Wayne.

What he learned in the book about Wayne’s actual life, he said, caused him to become “even more enraged.”

As I sorted through this debate myself by studying books and interviewing historians, it struck me how sanitized my childhood exposure to my hometown’s past had been. In the period after Fort Wayne was built and before the natives were forced to leave, it could be an ugly place.

The government used the fort to distribute annual treaty payments it had promised the natives in exchange for giving up their lands. The money attracted white traders who sold them manufactured goods and liquor, turning annuity days into exploitative bacchanals, contemporaneous accounts show.

Beset by rising alcoholism and dependency on annuities, tribes in the region like the Miami declined, able neither to adapt to the new culture of private property and yeoman farming, as an aging Little Turtle urged, nor to preserve their way of life. Between annuity days, the traders encouraged the tribes to buy on credit, running up debts that their existing payments could not cover. The government leveraged this dynamic to continually push Miami leaders to sell ever more reservation land, and then to agree to the tribe’s eventual removal.