restricted access Neshnabemwen Renaissance: Local and National Potawatomi Language Revitalization Efforts
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The American Indian Quarterly 30.1 (2006) 61-86

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Neshnabemwen Renaissance

Local and National Potawatomi Language Revitalization Efforts

Shortly after noon on Saturday at the 2004 Gathering of the Potawatomi Nation, hosted by the Citizen Potawatomi Nation, I left the language seminar coordinated by Justin Neely, a Citizen Potawatomi member and the Hannahville Indian School's new Potawatomi language teacher, and Don Perrot, a Prairie Band Potawatomi member. During the well-attended session friends visited with one another as they learned to introduce themselves, ask basic questions, and offer thanks. Reflecting on dialect differences, I asked several elders about two terms to express thanks: megwetch and wawana.

The first elder with whom I talked, a member of the Pokagon Band of Potawatomi Indians, smiled at my query. He responded that wawana is the correct way to offer thanks in Potawatomi and that megwetch is actually borrowed from Ojibwa. The next person I visited, a Forest County Potawatomi Community elder, explained megwetch is a Potawatomi term and suggested people from the southern tribes might say wawana due to the influence of Odawa speakers in their region. Later that evening, I posed the same question to a friend from the Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation. She replied succinctly with a question of herown: So long as people are speaking the language, what difference does it make?

Rosemary Feal, executive director of the Modern Language Association, describes the challenge of language preservation in America: "The United States is where languages come to die." She continues: "We often see the first generation speaks [a language] but by the third generation their children may know only a few words."1 While language decline is a modal experience in many immigrant and ethnic communities, the [End Page 61] situation for Native nations seems particularly bleak. Census Bureau data indicate 72.6 percent of Native Americans over age eighteen spoke only English in 1980, increasing to 76.2 percent by 1990.2

Although such numbers could reasonably be interpreted as evidencing a decline in tribal languages, countervailing trends are present. Citing an increase in the number of Indians who spoke English poorly between 1980 and 1990, Rodney L. Brod and John M. Mcquiston infer "native language use as a sole vehicle of communication may actually be increasing (or at least maintaining), not decreasing." Further, organizations have been founded to document and teach Indigenous languages, a number of tribes have crafted ambitious language policies, and Congress approved the Native American Languages Act in 1990.3

It is precisely these efforts at invigorating Indigenous languages generally, and Neshnabemwen specifically, that are of interest to this study. In this article I examine the current status of the Potawatomi language, describe tribal and national language revitalization projects and programs, and consider the implications of these endeavors.


It is necessary to provide some background information on the Potawatomi tribes and language. This is not intended as a comprehensive history of the nation or of particular tribes, as both have been thoroughly depicted elsewhere.4 Prior to the 1830s between 11,000 and 12,000 Potawatomi lived in more than one hundred communities throughout the lands surrounding southern Lake Michigan.5 The expanding presence of settlers, militia incursions, and political interventions by a nascent American government caused cleavages within and between the villages. Forced removal exacerbated these divisions as some Potawatomi signed treaties ceding lands and relocated; others fled to Wisconsin, northern Michigan, and Ontario; and still more initially went to Kansas and Iowa only to later return to the Great Lakes region.

Currently, nine tribes participate in the annual Gathering of the Potawatomi Nation: the Citizen Potawatomi Nation (Shawnee, Oklahoma), the Forest County Potawatomi Community (Crandon, Wisconsin), the Hannahville Indian Community (Wilson, Michigan), the Match-e-be-nash-she-wish [Gun Lake] Band of Potawatomi Indians (Dorr, Michigan), the Nottawaseppi Huron Band of Potawatomi Indians [End Page 62] (Athens, Michigan), the Pokagon Band of Potawatomi Indians (Dowagiac, Michigan), the Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation (Mayetta, Kansas), Walpole Island First Nation (Wallaceburg, Ontario, Canada), and Wasauksing First Nation (Parry Sound...