Although the Potawatomi language, Bodéwadmimwen, continues to flourish and spread to new segments of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation population, the number of first language speakers continues to decrease.
The CPN Language Department uses many online platforms to teach students of all ages how to speak Bodéwadmimwen, including YouTube, Zoom, Tovuti, Facebook, an online dictionary and more. These web-based tools have helped department employees approach public schools surrounding Tribal land to offer a course approved for world language credit in Oklahoma. They continue to expand with introductory courses for middle schools as well as collegiate material.
Google Arts & Culture approached the department and its director Justin Neely about participating in a new platform, Woolaroo. It allows users to take a picture of common plants, animals, items and more and hear the Potawatomi word for it played back to them. It features more than 900 Potawatomi words and phrases.
“It was very humbling even being approached by Google,” Neely said. “When one of the main project coordinators said she had heard about our language program, I was like, ‘Wow, that’s awesome.’ I knew this was an amazing opportunity.”
He feels Woolaroo suits children in particular, allowing them to combine technology with their heritage. Potawatomi culture is rooted in language and oral traditions of storytelling and exchanging knowledge. Lessons, thoughts and ideas, ceremonies, agricultural practices and more were passed along by word of mouth, with no written language.
The words, phrases and verb conjugations all show and explain how the Potawatomi saw and continue to see the world with an emphasis on a connection to the earth, a high regard for mother nature and living beings, and a communal lifestyle. The language also expresses the values that take precedent for making decisions, both large and small: honesty, wisdom, love, humility, truth, bravery and respect.
Neely and many other CPN tribal members feel language remains the thread that ties all Nishnabé culture together.
Much of Bodéwadmimwen reveals what Potawatomi people prioritize. The déwégen, or drum, comes from the words dé (heart), wé (a sound) and gen (a thing) — or “the sound of a heartbeat.” Used in the most sacred ceremonies and biggest social occasions that bring Potawatomi together, the Nishnabé describe the drum as “the heartbeat of the Nation.”
“(Google) really understood if we didn’t have words for certain concepts. They originally gave me a list of the 1,300 most Googled terms. … There were also a number of words which had to be created, which if not for the project might have been missed and are now part of our online dictionary,” Neely said.
The Potawatomi people survived displacement several times in the mid to late-1800s. Originally from the Great Lakes region, the Potawatomi were forcibly removed from their homelands by the U.S. government to a reservation in present-day Kansas in the late 1830s. Named the Trail of Death, the devastating passage resulted in more than 40 Potawatomi losing their lives, mostly women and children.
After two more treaties with the federal government in the 1860s, the Potawatomi then took allotments in Indian Territory, or present-day Oklahoma. The language and culture persisted despite generations of Potawatomi being taught by missionaries and attending Indian boarding schools far away from their families.
These forced removals and the era of Federal policy aimed at terminating tribal governments were a severe detriment to Potawatomi language and culture. The Nation has been adding resources to preserve the language and culture through online and in-person activities. The Tribe hosts the annual Family Reunion Festival each June. The weekend’s events culminate with the powwow, when the Nation honors ancestors and traditions through dancing, regalia and competitions.
After the century-long diaspora experienced by the Potawatomi, the Nation’s members are spread out across the country. Many travel to Oklahoma each summer for the festival and powwow; however, CPN and its members have been using technology more to connect and learn — including to teach the language.
During competitive dances, Tribal members often participate to honor someone else and consider their movement and the music a deep connection with the Creator and earth.
The patterns, colors and shapes on regalia often represent that dancer’s family, clan or some other longstanding tradition passed from generation to generation. There might be certain animals or plants that hold special meaning, including many Eastern Woodlands floral designs as well as some foods or medicines.
Woolaroo from Google Arts & Culture adds another innovative piece of interactive technology that Tribal members can use to learn Bodéwadmimwen and expose the rest of the world to an Indigenous peoples’ lifeways. Find Woolaroo online at cpn.news/woolaroo.