By Justin Neely, CPN Language Department Director
Ngom bgéji ntages epich nebyégeyan Bemwédekben ga mbot. Today, sadly, I write about the passing of one of our most revered elders, James Thunder, Sr. So, I thought I would take a moment to go back in time and remember the first time I ever heard of Jim Thunder and the first time I ever met him. Early on when I first started learning the language in 1995 or 1996, there wasn’t much out there for someone who wanted to learn Potawatomi. Smokey McKinney had a website with about 1,000 words. Laura Welcher had a website with some grammar terms, and then Jim Thunder had a series of books — Mbook 1, Mbook 2 and Mbook 3. My mom bought Jim’s three books for me for Christmas that year. How that moment would change my life forever I could never have known at that time. I studied those books and listened to those audio tapes over and over again.
When I went off to college, I made it a point to take time to work on our language. I was drawn to it. I listened to that man’s voice for hundreds and hundreds of hours. The language was so peaceful and fulfilling. I would even fall asleep or drift off while listening to his voice. In the year 2000, I had the pleasure of riding the bus to the Potawatomi Gathering and sitting in on one of his classes. I still remember today what the class was about. Amazing that even now, over 22 years later, it’s almost like I could close my eyes and be sitting there again. He was teaching a class on Goldilocks and the Three Bears. His laughter would just relax you, and his love for his people and our language glowed in his eyes. He was a special man — an elder that each of us could only hope to become even a little like.
He spent well over half his life teaching our language and helping our people. When I was still young and so hungry to learn our language, there was Jim always willing to give his time. Always willing to help a person out. Never too busy for anyone. As passionate the first day I met him as the last time I saw him. We were at the Potawatomi Gathering this year for the first time in so many years since the onset of COVID. Jim was always such a joy to be around and was often surrounded by so many eager for just a small amount of his humor, his passion and his knowledge. I remember the last time I spoke with him. He was excited and had a glimmer in his eyes. He said to me he was amazed how many people were there wanting to learn our language. As a language instructor for over 20 years, I knew exactly what he meant. So many times, a class will begin with the best intentions, maybe 25 or 30 people, only to slip to perhaps three or four by its end just a few weeks later.
For so many years, Jim Thunder and Billy Daniels were fixtures in our Potawatomi Language Conferences. We also lost Billy a couple of years ago during this terrible pandemic. These men were from a different generation. They both embodied the truest characteristics of what it means to be a Potawatomi elder. Jim led by example. He was humble, yet so full of wisdom. He had the kindest of hearts and gentlest of spirits. He had a sharp wit and a hilarious sense of humor. He wrote countless books and manuals. He left us with such a wealth of Potawatomi language data. It’s now our turn to carry our ways and language forward. For a long time, Jim and Billy were the ones who were carrying these ways forward, not for themselves but for each of us. Take some time to use some of our many sources for learning the language. Take a class, access our dictionary at potawatomidictionary.com, check out our two YouTube channels. Pick up our language and ways and stoke that fire inside. You will never regret your decision to learn.
Migwetch Bemwedekben. Cho wika Gwi-wnénmen jak she gégo ga zhechkeyen. Nwi-bmowdomen o gdezheshmomenan wje nigan ji igwan. Nweshmon gete nikan.