By Kevin Roberts,
Bertrand family descendant
Some of you may recall the 1979 Steve Martin movie, The Jerk. There is a scene in the movie where he has just received the new phone book. He exclaims, “The new phone books are here, and there I am,” pointing to his name. He states, “Now I’m somebody!” I share this as a related reference for the purpose of this topic.
I remember as a young boy how excited I was when my mother explained to me that we were Potawatomi. I remember my excitement years later when I received my Tribal ID card in 1989. It was official! I had a card that stated I was Potawatomi although I had known that for some time prior. However, I would share this information with all who would listen. “I am Potawatomi!” Most asked, “So what that does mean exactly?” What does it mean to be Potawatomi? Great question and one that has taken me on a terrific journey these past 30-plus years. A journey requiring dedication, self-awareness, a sincere commitment to learning and research, an appreciation of perspectives, establishing and nurturing relationships, and simply freeing myself from the years of conforming and norming within today’s societal boundaries.
I am committed to our Bodéwadmimwen (Potawatomi language). I have been studying it for years and continue to leverage the abundant resources available through our outstanding Language Department in Shawnee, Oklahoma, headed up by Director Justin Neely. Most, if not all, has been remote learning since I reside in Illinois, and the online access is very much appreciated. We are fortunate as a Tribal nation to have Justin Neely and his team!
Justin, along with Robert Collins, have both been instrumental in my journey. I appreciate the mentorship and friendship that has evolved. Both have taught me an absolute fact about our language. Our language is the bedrock of our people, culture and traditions. I realized early in my language journey that I was acquiring unexpected knowledge about our culture, traditions and our connection to Segmekwé (Mother Earth), and Mamogosnan (The Creator), and our sacred medicines (Séma, Kishki, Wabshkebyek, Wishpemishkos) and everything in between. Most things in nature are considered animate or alive. With this concept, you really appreciate what was important to our ancestors and how they viewed the earth as sacred. Our ancestors saw the earth and all its creations as relations. Not better or higher on the food chain but as equals. If a tree is treated in the same manner as a person, and likewise a grasshopper or deer is treated just like a person, it changes your perspective. Often I have read or heard our elders refer to “my brother the bear” or “my sister the river.”
Where I am on my journey at present didn’t happen overnight. Understanding what it means to be Potawatomi didn’t happen when my mom shared with me that I was Potawatomi or when I received my Tribal ID card. It is a journey we all must take. The Potawatomi teachings and understanding that I continue to evolve have been so important and freeing for me. I have been able to fill voids I have experienced in my life’s journey, grasp thoughts and beliefs I hold with better understanding and appreciation through the knowledge I have acquired and my doing. I honestly believe after 62 years, I have finally freed the Potawatomi that has always been within me.
In a recent class I was able to join via Zoom, Justin Neely addressed this very topic with our class. It was an “a-ha” moment for me indeed! Even though my journey continues, I believed I have arrived as a Potawatomi. With his permission, I have included his summary, which is key to each of us truly appreciating what it means when we say, “Bodewadmi Ndaw!”
Being and doing Potawatomi
Bodewadmi Zhechkewenen — Potawatomi doing
Yon Gdezheshmomenan — Use our language
Nimedin — Dance
Bgednen O Sema — Offer/lay down tobacco
Yon Mshkekiwen — Use our medicince
Mawjeshnon Bkan Bodewadmik — Gather with different Potawatomi
Being Potawatomi is about living and incorporating Potawatomi in your daily life.
My journey has led me to a daily, sustained commitment of doing Potawatomi each and every day. It is an individual journey we each must take. I offer tobacco and prayer every morning while watching the sunrise and wildlife come to life around our lake. One area I have experienced personal growth in is my closeness with nature. My perspective has evolved to viewing nature and all the trees, plants and animals as equals to me as I have learned through my Potawatomi journey. I have combined two areas that have helped connect me to many of my Potawatomi friends and family. Those are my love for wildlife and photography. I have always spent countless hours in the outdoors hunting, fishing, hiking and just absorbing nature. Now that I am retired, I have more time to connect with nature and have combined my Potawatomi way of life with my love of wildlife photography. Daily, as part of practicing our language, I leverage social media to post my photos and include captions in Bodéwadmimwen and English translations.
Hopefully this gives you one perspective on what it means to say, “Bodewadmi Ndaw!”