Southwestern Michigan College student Rhonda Purcell provided half of the Academic Speaker Series March 9, calling a bingo-like game of shishibe as part of a broader presentation on Potawatomi being culturally crucial as one of three indigenous Great Lakes languages.
“There were 269 indigenous languages north of Mexico,” Purcell said.
Purcell, language program coordinator for the Dowagiac-based Pokagon Band the last three years, attends SMC as a Ferris State University student finishing her human resources management bachelor’s degree.
Fall semester SMC offers two levels of Potawatomi language classes taught by Elder Kevin Daugherty, who also teaches at Hartford Public Schools. He instructed two trial classes this academic year and was in the audience. Registration opens March 29.
Purcell’s colleague, Jefferson Ballew, distinguished between traditional gaming and gambling since the tribe operates three casinos.
Their two-piece program was part of One Story, the community-wide read of Images of America: Dowagiac by Steven Arseneau and Ann Thompson and I Found No Peace by Webb Miller.
Activities sponsored by the Pokagon Band, the college, Dowagiac Area History Museum, Dogwood Fine Arts Festival, Dowagiac District Library and Dowagiac Union Schools continue until an Epilogue Feast May 25 at the Dailey Road tribal community center.
Ballew, who joined the Pokagon Band in 1991 after moving home from California, said playing games such as shishibe — which means “duck” — was a way to socialize while sharing wealth.
“Prior to European arrival, men worked on average 13 hours a week, women 17. Not raising children. Our women were our legislators and the only ones who could declare war on another nation. They brought life into this world and were the only ones who could say when it could be taken,” Ballew explained.
“After community chores, we could do what we were best at — making snow shoes, canoes, moccasins or maple syrup buckets. We’d make multiple items, then come together and play” with those things as prizes. “Nobody left empty-handed. Our games are about noise, distraction and sleight of hand, so we’d bring in drums and singers.”
Potawatomi language is a subgroup of the Algonquin family, related to Ojibwe and Odawa.
Decline of the Potawatomi language began in 1830 when bands except the Pokagons were removed to Oklahoma and Kansas.
The Treaty of Chicago in 1833 let Leopold Pokagon and his Catholic followers retain Michiana land.
“This was the beginning of assimilation for Natives along the St. Joseph River,” Purcell said.
But in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, youths went to boarding schools, forbidden to use their language or practice their religion.
“Kids just didn’t talk,” Purcell said. “They were upset about being taken from their homes, but they couldn’t express that to peers without incurring persecution and abuse. Our language starts to become something that hurts us more than strengthens us.”
The American Indian Religious Freedom Act of 1978 restored the right to pray as they wish in their language.
“We have only seven fluent Potawatomi speakers who are members of the Forest County reservation in Wisconsin. Their average age is 80,” Purcell said. “Language is culture and culture is language — a package deal. We lose our culture if we lose that connection. Culture is the sum of attitudes, customs and beliefs which distinguish one group of people from another.
“We are Keepers of the Fire, which does not translate into making sure our community is warm. We believe fire is the channel by which our people can pray to The Creator. (Pokagon) means rib. My interpretation is he did the same thing a rib does for your body — protect internal organs. He protected this land so we could stay. It’s fitting our tribe is able to acknowledge work he did for us through our identity.”
The language is so unique and distinctive “you can’t misunderstand someone speaking Potawatomi. They’re very explicit in meaning. We have four types of verbs and 79 different ways to change one verb to specifically communicate what is said. English is not that complicated,” Purcell said.
Besides Daugherty, “We have two instructors who teach adult language one night a week and two instructors who teach children language once a week for an hour. Head Start helpers introduce words to our community’s children. We’re looking at more online opportunities and building speaker and teacher resources. Studies show children more readily available to accept a second language than adults.”
SMC’s speaker series continues at 2:30 p.m. Thursday, March 16, in the theatre of the Dale A. Lyons Building on the Dowagiac campus with a diversity lecture by Andrews University Chaplain Michael Polite open to the public at no charge.