A Potawatomi elder who was one of the few remaining native-speakers and helped lay the groundwork for current efforts to teach Bodéwadmimwen has walked on.
James “Jim” Thunder, Sr., of Pickerel, Wisconsin, walked on Dec. 2, 2022, at the age of 86. He was born May 25, 1936, in Soperton (Wabeno), Wisconsin, to Frank and Jennie (Mike) Thunder, according to an article in the Forest County Potawatomi’s Potawatomi Traveling Times.
“Thunder served the Forest County Potawatomi Community through his involvement in tribal government and in his dedication to teaching the Potawatomi language to younger generations,” it stated.
Thunder taught the Potawatomi language in Forest County, Wisconsin, and in Hannahville, Michigan, and was a language consultant for many Potawatomi bands across the U.S. He was the author of several language books and was instrumental in creating the Potawatomi Dictionary in 2014.
A U.S. Army veteran, Thunder served from 1955 to 1958. He was a Forest County tribal council member from 1974 to 1975, was tribal chairman in 1977 and led the tribe’s Constitution and By-Laws Committee.
“For many years, Jim Thunder and Billy Daniels were fixtures in our Potawatomi language conferences. These men were from a different generation. They both embodied the truest of 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 heart and the gentlest of spirits. He left us with such a wealth of Potawatomi language data. It’s now our turn to carry our ways and language forward,” wrote Justin Neely.
Neely, CPN language department director, was among the hundreds who shared their remembrances in an online memorial to Thunder.
Thunder put people at ease
Neely first began learning Potawatomi as a teen when he received Jim Thunder’s language audio cassettes as a gift. In college, he continued to listen to the tapes, making time to study Potawatomi alongside his college assignments.
Neely first met Thunder at the 2000 Potawatomi Gathering in Forest County, Wisconsin, an encounter he still recalls more than 22 years later.
“The thing about Jim was he just had this way of making people feel comfortable,” Neely said. “He had a way of laughing and having a good time. And he made he made the experience of learning Potawatomi something that was fun and enjoyable.”
Neely believes that when language learners feel comfortable, they become even more motivated to learn Bodéwadmimwen.
“As a beginner in Potawatomi, you might feel like you weren’t saying it right. But Jim had a way of putting you at ease and at the same time instilling a sense of value in the importance of the language. He knew what it means to us as Potawatomi people, what it means to our traditions, our ceremonies, to even the essence of being Potawatomi, what language really means to us,” Neely said.
Thunder also used humor to engage students, teaching sentences about animals involved in various mishaps.
“(Jim) was always joking and laughing, and he always had a passion for it, and that passion came out in his teaching,” Neely said. “I never knew him not to be engaged and passionate about the language.”
Optimism and generosity
Neely recalled the last time he spoke with Thunder, during the first Potawatomi Gathering to be held since the coronavirus pandemic began.
“I remember a brief conversation I had with him, and he just had this optimism about him, and he said, ‘There’s so many people here that want to learn the language. It’s great,’” Neely said.
He believes Thunder’s personality was perfect for teaching the Potawatomi language for so many years.
“You really have to have a great personality because it can be really easy to get disappointed. You start a class with 30, 40 people. After two or three weeks, maybe you get 20 people. After like a month, you might have 10 people. It’s easy to get discouraged but he still had an optimism about him,” Neely said.
“He had a passion for life, for the language, for the Potawatomi way of life. He cared a lot about Potawatomi people, and he gave of his time really so freely. He tried to help people out whenever he could.”
Neely recalled that Thunder invited Pokagon Band of Potawatomi members from Michigan to visit Forest County as his language apprentices. They spent four years with the Forest County Potawatomi learning the language.
“I can’t tell you how many times he was my go-to guy. If I had a question, or if I wanted to double check something, he was just a Facebook message away,” Neely said. “I was real gung-ho. Most of the guys, they’d see me come in and want to go the other direction — but not Jim. He’d sit there with you and answer all of your questions.”
Setting an example
Thunder’s vast knowledge encompassed so many aspects of Potawatomi life that his passing reminded Neely of an old saying.
“They say when an elder passes, it’s like a library burns down. There’s a truth to that because each of these elders, they have their own unique experiences of the world around them. Not every fluent speaker is going to be an avid fisherman or avid hunter or know their medicinal plants or about different dances or cooking. Jim really was like an encyclopedia of knowledge,” he said.
Thunder’s legacy covers not only the years he spent teaching the language but also the documentation he created and shared with Potawatomi everywhere, no matter where they lived. He laid the foundation for future generations to learn Potawatomi.
“It’s a challenging language, but it’s something people definitely can do,” Neely said. “I think that’s the legacy that he left. He left us so many audio and video recordings and personal experiences that will carry on for many, many years. That’s the kind of impact I think each of us could only hope to have in our own lives.”
Neely treasures the way Thunder shared traditions as well.
“He really exemplified what it means to be a traditional Potawatomi elder and what it means to be a Potawatomi person. I definitely value those moments that I got a chance to talk with him or listen to him. You just never knew where those little gems of knowledge were going to come from,” Neely said.
Carrying tradition forward
Neely said learning from Thunder’s audio cassette tapes are what spurred his language journey and he has continued to learn because of the influences of people like Jim Thunder. Like Thunder, Neely wants to create a space where students can thrive.
“We try to create a very positive environment when we’re working with language because we want people to have a good experience,” Neely said. “If you have a negative experience, then you just don’t have a desire to continue with it. But when you have those positive interactions and moments laughing and having a good time, you can feel comfortable in what you’re trying to accomplish.”
Neely said Thunder deeply understood the value of Potawatomi traditions and language.
“He had a serious side. He said his parents had told him that, if the language died, that the world would end. He never really elaborated on that fact. Maybe he didn’t know for certain because you just didn’t (question) your elders. You just accepted what they had to say. This had been passed down to them,” Neely said.
“Language is one of the essential parts of what makes you a unique people. When the U.S. government started terminating tribes, that was one of the characteristics they looked at — if you still had your own language, culture, ceremonies, traditions and things like that. Language is that piece that kind of ties it all together. It really is an essence of who we are as a people.”
While Thunder will be missed, Neely is hopeful Jim Thunder’s legacy will mean more Potawatomi are able to learn Bodéwadmimwen.
“(Jim) had such an impact across so many different groups of Potawatomi throughout the country and even into Canada,” Neely said. “He would do whatever he could to help his people. He lived the kind of life that we can only all hope to live and to follow in his footsteps and carry things forward. I remember he said, ‘We’re just here carrying this language, and now it’s time for that Seventh Fire, that seventh generation, to pick up those teachings and carry it forward into the next generation.’”
For more information about Potawatomi language, including an online Potawatomi dictionary and links to language videos, visit potawatomiheritage.com/language.