Before French explorer Jean Nicolet introduced colonialism to the Potawatomi in the 17th century, its society interlaced a respect for nature, an emphasis on community and a thankfulness for the gifts and knowledge bestowed upon the people by the Creator into daily life.
CHC’s third exhibit highlights the balance once held between the Potawatomi, the earth and the pieces of culture kept alive despite centuries of unrest, including activities such as hand games, fishing and hunting as well as traditional medicines and teachings.
Potawatomi bmadzewen (life) cycled like the four seasons: mnokme (spring), niben (summer), dgwaget (fall) and bbon (winter).
“Whether it be simple lifeways and survival strategies and subsistence, to leisure and ceremony, everything was in balance with each other,” said Blake Norton, Citizen Potawatomi Nation CHC curator.
Each season brought specific governances with it. This section emphasizes how the Potawatomi interacted with their environment and the connection once held between spiritual and physical realms.
During bbon (winter), Potawatomi trapped, hunted game and spent much of their time indoors to survive long and strenuous Great Lakes’ winters. Potawatomi share many oral traditions during this time of year while the spirits are at rest.
Life reawakened during mnokme (spring). The Potawatomi gave thanks for protection during bbon (winter) and the abundance provided. The sugar bushes’ flowing maple sap during mnokme called Potawatomi families to their sugar bush camp, transforming the trees’ nectar into sugar and syrup.
In niben (summer), the Potawatomi gathered to celebrate and connect with each other. While comradery was an essential part of this season, they also took advantage of the longer days and warm weather to secure sustenance for the winter ahead, Norton said.
Between niben and dgwaget (fall), the people gathered at lakes to harvest wild rice. Dgwaget served as a time to prepare for the long winter ahead by harvesting and storing food.
CPN tribal member and seamstress Gayla Mosteller sewed and created attire featured throughout the CHC, including the traditional pre-European contact garments featured in this section.
The seasons and environment not only dictated activities, but also impacted the Potawatomi’s choice of clothing.
“They didn’t have patterns, so most of their pieces were done with rectangles and squares,” Mosteller said. “They basically cut by the materials they had. In other words, they let the skins talk to them.”
Sticking true to tradition, she took pieces of beaver, elk, bison and fox hides, blending them together while remaining mindful of the story each pelt had to tell.
Mosteller explained that while working on the displays throughout the CHC, she felt a strong, ancestral presence and a connection to the Tribe’s past.
“It was really, really awesome,” she said.
For her favorite project, the fur boots featured in the bbon (winter) scene, she used fur and elk hoofs. “These were the 1600s Uggs of the day,” she said, then laughed. She especially enjoyed using her skills as a seamstress to aid her daughter, CHC Director Kelli Mosteller, through the center’s renovations.
“As I was creating, I wanted to make sure it was more traditional to our Tribe, not tribes of the south or plains tribes,” she said. “I wanted to keep it woodland.”
Instead of featuring large feather headdresses, which is not traditional for the Potawatomi, she created a fur turban.
“We covered up more because we had the cold weather,” she said.
Potawatomi also used debekgises (the moon) as a guidepost and calendar. They accomplished specific duties and tasks throughout each lunar cycle. Examples include the Berry Picking Moon, Bark Peeling Moon, Ricing Moon, Big Bear Moon, Little Bear Moon and Suckerfish Moon.
Each moon’s name and activities could vary among Potawatomi groups depending upon their environment. Some may have called August-September’s full moon Ricing Moon, and others may referred to it as the Leaves Turn Yellow Moon, Ripening Moon and even Cottontail Moon, said Blake Norton, Curator, CPN Cultural Heritage Center.
The environment also determined the type of housing used. Like today, many forms of shelter existed across different tribes and groups of people, depending upon lifestyles and available resources, Norton said.
The Potawatomi utilized several shelters including a wigwam and the nsoe’gen. Saplings serve as a wigwam’s framework. Birchbark, hides or cattail mats cover the round, domed-shaped shelter. The Potawatomi used wigwams in their more permanent camps and generally opted for nsoe’gens made out of bark and poles while on the move.
“Nsoe’gen translates to three poles,” he said. “You use more than three poles to actually make the structure itself, but the framing is built the same as you would a teepee.”
Compared to the wigwams, the nsoe’gen’s components were less cumbersome to pack and transport.
The exhibit also displays tools the Potawatomi used including early stone axes called kemsagen and a variety of arrowheads.
The star-shapes that illuminate the night sky served as a reference point and educational tool for Potawatomi.
“The constellations that you see are connected back to oral stories and parables, so they’re really teaching vessels,” Norton said.
Norton said each one has a spiritual component.
“They are very prominent, especially when you can see them throughout the seasons, but they also help dictate those seasons.”
The night sky features new constellations throughout the year. Star knowledge is the oldest form of Native American science. Astrology served as a map for the Potawatomi by helping guide the present and future.
“Again, everything in itself is connected,” he said.
Museum visitors can use the interactive galaxy display within this section to learn more about this ancient science.
This exhibit features three traditional games including the moccasin game, snow snake and bowl and dice. Nathan Hawkins, CPN web developer and Shawn Barfield, CPN AV production manager, worked with CHC staff and CPN’s Information Technology Department to provide the games in digital format.
“The games were the most difficult interactive to nail down in the entire museum,” Hawkins said. “There was a lot of trial and error with both the artwork and functionality of them.”
The program software used to develop the games required Hawkins to learn an entirely new programming language.
“My role was to design and build each interactive, making sure everything worked as it should and collaborating with Shawn to make sure all of the artwork was cohesive throughout the entire section,” Hawkins said.
The Information Technology department assisted with hardware and installation of each interactive component featured throughout the CHC.
“These interactives are very important to me because they are going to be seen for years and represent part of Potawatomi culture, so I do want to give them the time and attention they deserve,” Barfield said.
“It was a long learning process, as I attempted several different techniques, and even now I am still finding the best techniques for version 2.0, which is due for festival this year,” Barfield said.
These games provide the Potawatomi more than just extracurricular enjoyment.
“Some of the traditional games have deeper significance to them. Many had spiritual and healing qualities,” Norton said.
For moccasin, “Traditionally, it’s more of a man’s game, but everybody can really play it these days,” Norton said.
It features a hider and a seeker for each team and is similar to the modern-day shell game.
“You have an attendant that helps you keep score and holds the scoring sticks, which is the way points are distributed,” Norton said. “The goal is to collect all those sticks and have the highest number of points. Then there’s also a team of musicians, if you will, that sit behind you and play specific hand-games songs.”
Norton said the moccasin game is extremely competitive and can last weeks, sometimes months, at a time.
The singing “creates an ambiance that kind of enhances the game, but it’s also meant to distract and throw the person who’s trying to find the ball off that way. It’s a pretty complex game — it’s not just a hide, seek and search game. There are different levels to it based upon the way you want to select and hedge your bets.”
Bowl and dice is traditionally a women’s game. However, not everyone possessed the game pieces, nor could every woman play.
“Women would have a dream or vision of the game; they would then seek out elder women of the Tribe to help interpret the meaning of the dream,” Norton said. “Understanding the dream, they would then seek out a specific man, known for making the game pieces, and ask him to make a set.”
Once a woman received her set, they would host a feast and invite others to play.
“It’s a way to build camaraderie and exchange certain things,” he said. “It’s also keeping things in balance. In essence, you’re actually physically thanking God and the spirits for doing this and giving us this opportunity to just sit around and enjoy each other’s company.”
Snow snake utilizes snow banks or frozen bodies of water as a chute to luge a spear-shaped branch. As it travels down the chute, the stick slithers like a snake. Whoever flings their rod the longest distance wins.
“People consider it a healing game mainly because of the camaraderie and everybody having fun and getting out, especially during wintertime,” Norton said. “Winter was a pretty rough time back then, both physically and psychologically.
“Having games and stuff like that where you can actually get together in group activities — having that camaraderie, enjoying one another — that would be considered healing,” he said.
Potawatomi basketry and the medicine wheel
For the Neshnabé and Potawatomi in particular, basketry emerged as a utilitarian tool that evolved into an art form, said CHC Director Kelli Mosteller.
The baskets displayed in exhibit three feature some of the best and most intricate pieces from the CHC’s extensive collection, including baskets woven out of sweetgrass, birchbark, quill and black ash.
One side of the display features an interactive about the Potawatomi medicine wheel. Sweetgrass, sage, tobacco and cedar are the Potawatomi’s four most sacred medicines.
“They’re gifts the Creator gave us, so they were things that were found in our environment,” Mosteller said. “Certain ones, obviously, are a little bit more apparent in the landscape than others.”
Sweetgrass prefers to grow in moist areas and can reach 7 or 8 feet in height. On the medicine wheel, white represents the direction north and this sacred, aromatic herb.
“The teaching is that we always keep it braided because it’s the hair of Mother Earth,” she said. “Just like you braid your mother’s hair, keep it kempt and looking nice, you do the same thing with sweetgrass, which is why we chose to keep it braided when we put it into the display.”
Cedar often covers the ground to make a soft floor for ceremony in sweat lodges. On the medicine wheel, red symbolizes cedar and the direction south.
“It purifies the air so that when you are in that sweat, for example, you can put your face down by the ground, and you breathe through the cedar,” Mosteller said. “And it helps you to breathe.”
Cedar may also treat chest congestion, colds and other respiratory issues, she said.
Yellow on the wheel represents tobacco and symbolizes the direction east. One of tobacco’s many uses its ability to help people communicate with the Creator.
“It’s used for this purpose of smoking and putting it into the fire for prayers,” she said. “Again, it came to us because the Creator gave it to us.”
Black signifies sage and the direction west. The smoke from sage provides purification, she said.
“It’s not a subtle plant. That strong aroma is the property that is the most associated with healing. It gets in your skin. It gets in your nose, but that’s its value, also,” she said. “It wipes those things away, and it stays with you throughout the day even after you’ve gone away and you are doing something else. You still smell that sage, and it is that reminder that you’ve gotten those bad things off and you’re prepared for ceremony.”
These four medicines serve a purpose for the community, and each distinct characteristic and property themselves are gifts, she said.
“We have to remember to be grateful for them and to use them,” Mosteller said. “They are something that are of no value to the community if they’re not used. It’s a reminder that they need to be brought in our ceremonies. They need to be brought in our lives when we see a need for them because that’s what the Creator gave us to get us through.”