Don Perrot is the last heritage fluent Potawatomi speaker for the Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation. Born in Arpin, Wisconsin, he learned the language living in a traditional Indigenous community with his family. Perrot began helping Citizen Potawatomi Nation members learn the language in the mid-1970s, leading the way through the decades to his 80th birthday in August.
“I went about my life in, I thought, a good way, trying to fill my life with something useful to be a credit to my people,” he said.
Perrot believes keeping traditions alive and vibrant requires all Potawatomi people across all communities to work together, which inspires him to continue spreading the language.
Perrot mastered Potawatomi by listening to his parents and grandparents. They immersed him in it from birth, and few people in the community spoke English at all. His vocabulary and language base grew extensively by the time he had reached 2 years old.
At age 6, Perrot’s family moved to Wisconsin Rapids where his introduction to English began with elementary school. Before that, he knew basic phrases such as “Hello,” “Goodbye,” and “How are you?”
“It was a little traumatic at first because people made fun of the way I tried to speak. I, of course, spoke a type of Pidgin English, you might say. But there were two excellent teachers that I had back then,” he said.
With the help of those teachers and fellow students, within three years, Perrot spoke, read and wrote in English. At that time, mastering five languages — Potawatomi, Menominee, Ojibwe, Winnebago and English — developed his “keen sense of hearing.”
“When you can speak that many languages, learning another one, your ears are attuned to the sounds, the intonations,” he said.
“Everybody spoke each other’s languages back then. You had to to survive. If some Winnebago came in and had something to trade, and all he could speak was Winnebago, if you didn’t understand his language, there was no business done.”
After high school, Perrot enlisted in the Navy.
“My father actually became a minister during the time I was in the service, and when I came home, of course, that was quite a shock to learn that my parents had converted to Christianity,” he said.
Perrot held a variety of jobs and eventually obtained a degree in theology. As time passed, his language skills became increasingly rare. Perrot accepted a position teaching Potawatomi at the Hannahville Indian School in Michigan and developed curriculum there from 1996 to 2003.
The number of native speakers continued to decline over the last three decades.
“My mother passed away September of 2013, leaving me the sole heritage fluent speaker for Prairie Band. I’m the sole speaker that they have left,” he said.
Perrot traveled back and forth to Oklahoma throughout his youth with his grandparents to visit and practice ceremonies with the Kickapoo Tribe located near the Citizen Potawatomi Nation in Oklahoma. He knew the Citizen Potawatomi by their traditional name, shishibe’niyek, and regularly taught them about culture and language in his early 30s.
“I believe I started (CPN) out on the road to learning their language because no one down here really actually spoke the language anymore,” Perrot said.
He traveled to Oklahoma once every six months to spend a week teaching Potawatomi history, language, ceremonies and more. CPN Language Department Director Justin Neely worked with Perrot at Hannahville Indian School, becoming fluent and accepting a position as an instructor in 2003.
Both Perrot and Neely moved to Oklahoma near the Tribe in 2005 to create a language department. Perrot worked as a language consultant. CPN Chairman John “Rocky” Barrett asked Perrot’s opinion about Neely as language director.
“He would sit in that office back here, sit there till sometime 10, 11 o’clock; he’d be sitting there studying and speaking,” Perrot said.
“It was a wise move, I think, on the Chairman’s part and our part as far as recommending him.”
Perrot admires Neely and his efforts to reach Tribal members across the country who want to learn Potawatomi, including streaming and teaching courses, creating an extensive dictionary and introducing children to oral traditions at a young age.
Perrot and his wife moved back north in 2010 but maintain CPN connections. He continues to teach his family and friends, and recently bestowed three of his grandkids with Potawatomi names while visiting Oklahoma.
“That’s what the salvation of this language is going to be — if it’s returned home. Not if it’s returned to a school, although that has its place right now.”
Perrot labels language a “consistent thing” and “a way of life.” He stresses learning Potawatomi from elders and fluent speakers in a familial setting before being able to read and write. Other methods, such as introducing pencil and paper too early, produce “clinically lab trained speakers” who forget the nuances, according to him.
“Learning a language is not about reading and writing. Learning a language is about listening, hearing all the sounds and then imitating those sounds to the best of your ability,” he said.
That includes comparison with a native speaker for intricacies, participation in the language and submersion in the process. Perrot’s grandfather encouraged his mother and father to talk to Perrot in the womb, and Perrot now believes babies identify their mother after birth by the sound of her voice.
“Everything is connected in the language — the material culture is part of it, the physical culture, the spiritual culture, the social culture. Even the financial culture, the things that we talk about as far as dealing in trade and things of that nature,” he said.
Today, Perrot sees limited vocabulary and a vast array of grammatical mistakes on Facebook and other places online where people learn and use the language. He encourages students to learn more than one way to say simple phrases such as “Bozho, ni je na (Hello, how are you)?” Bridging the gap between how primary English and heritage Potawatomi speakers view language, down to a cultural level, remained a focus of his career.
“Before I leave this earth, I’d like to leave a lexical work — a complete lexical work in Potawatomi for all the people that are trying to learn the language,” he said — a gift to future generations.
For more about the CPN language department, visit potawatomi.org/language.