Pokagon band aiming to revive the Potawatomi language
DOWAGIAC, Mich. (AP) – Standing at a large whiteboard, language specialist Carla Collins writes with a blue marker that squeak out unusual looking words.
Six adults sit behind her at long tables arranged in an angular horseshoe.
The group is in an airy multipurpose space at the Language and Culture Center for the Pokagon Band of Potawatomi Indians. It’s a fairly new building, and the room has a high, beamed ceiling, large windows that let in the winter afternoon light and a fire burning in the fireplace.
The class, made up of language center staff members, is engaged in an exercise in which each member greets the next person and says the town where they live.
“Byankik” means “in/at Hartford.” “Zénba odanêk” means “in/at South Bend.”
“Do we have a word for Dowagiac?” Collins asks another language specialist, Kyle Malott, who indicates they know one.
“Ndowathoyék” is Dowagiac. They know a way to say Benton Harbor, too. “Wzawkik.”
They’re speaking, and Collins is writing, in Potawatomi.
In centuries past, and even just decades ago, the language was passed naturally from parent to child. On this day, it’s passed around the table from adult to adult, in halting practice conversation.
Even one of the best speakers among them feels just semi-fluent. Another laughs at herself and says she speaks the language “like a 4-year-old.”
Only a handful of Potawatomi native speakers remain living in Wisconsin.
The Potawatomi language has been all but lost.
Rhonda Purcell, language program manager for the Pokagon band, says it’s essentially what’s called a “dormant language.”
But the Pokagons want to breathe new life into it. And this past November — among several ongoing efforts — the tribe even rolled out a new app for that.
“Tribal Council knew that something needed to happen in regards to doing our part in ensuring the language was learned and passed on,” Purcell said.
Saving the tribe’s native language goes hand in hand with honoring the tribe’s culture, according to Malott.
“You can’t have one without the other,” he said.
Since securing federal recognition in 1994, the Pokagon band has grown significantly in almost every way, from virtually no holdings and about 2,500 citizens to several thousand acres of property and profitable casino and business operations. The tribe distributes millions of dollars annually to local governments and charities, and invests in housing, health care and education for its citizens, who now number 5,800. New buildings on the Pokagons’ Dowagiac campus include design features that honor the tribe’s culture, such as a peacemaking circle at the new Justice Center, or ceiling beams that echo the shape of a canoe at the Language and Culture Center.
Language program efforts began in earnest in 2013 when the tribe paid for two citizens — Collins and Malott — to live in Wisconsin for four full years to learn Potawatomi first-hand from elderly native speakers.
What the pair learned they’ve been teaching to area language apprentices and students, with the goal of creating new second language speakers, Purcell said.
Dozens of community language classes are offered at Pokagon offices in Dowagiac, New Buffalo and South Bend. Coming to learn are interested citizens, from preschoolers to adults, and members of other Potawatomi tribes, including the Huron and Gun Lake bands. There’s also a class taught at the high school in Hartford, Mich. The Pokagons want to verse those who work for the tribe in the language, too, so staff members also attend classes.
A staffer at a Pokagon office might say hello to a visitor in Potawatomi — which sounds something like the French greeting “bon jour.” As you drive up to a Pokagon building, a sign might point to visitor parking in both English and Potawatomi — “mbwawachewejek.”
The efforts are part of a process to normalize the language, Purcell said, as are regularly using Potawatomi words on parts of the website, newsletter and government documents.
Even popular bingo nights are conducted almost entirely in Potawatomi — and people love it, Collins said.
In November, the tribe launched a new app for iPhone, Android and personal computer that expands digital teaching tools beyond what’s been available. What’s been available electronically includes a pronunciation guide, writing tips for the traditionally spoken language, and downloadable children’s coloring books on the tribe’s website, as well as an app that teaches nouns. The new app teaches phrases and sentence structure, with chapters that progress from simple, conversational Potawatomi to more complex, descriptive uses of the language.
The technology is a great way to facilitate learning, Purcell noted, but to achieve fluency, face-to-face instruction is key and, ideally, it should start young.
“The best efforts for language revitalization will be realized if we can capture kids in these environments where they have to be somewhere every single day for multiple hours a day,” Purcell said. “Nobody is going to become fluent from community classes where they attend once a week.”
Someday maybe the tribe will be able to offer a day care or school.
But efforts currently are mostly with adults to build up a “resource of speakers,” she said.
“Just about every native I’ve met wants to learn the language. They want to be more like their ancestors,” Collins said. “We’re taking the right steps. We can only go as fast as we can go.”