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Protecting Potawatomi in the 2019 Year of Indigenous Languages

An issue many Native American cultures have experienced for centuries is speeding up around the globe. Linguist David Crystal estimates that once every three months, a language is lost for a lack of native speakers. According to Smithsonian Magazine’s Kat Escher, less hopeful estimates show that 90 percent of the tongues currently spoken on earth will be extinct by the end of the century.

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization’s Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger chronicles the attrition of the past 60 years.

The news in a recent piece in National Geographic Magazine was just as grim.

“Today, a third of the world’s languages have fewer than 1,000 speakers left,” Nina Strochlic wrote. “Every two weeks, a language dies with its last speaker, 50 to 90 percent of them are predicted to disappear by the next century.”

CPN Language Director Justin Neely leads a Potawatomi language class.

Linguist Nancy Rivenbaugh estimated there are approximately 7,000 spoken globally, and only 100 are used regularly. The interconnected nature of a global society may be a leading cause of this linguistic mass extinction, giving way to the dominance of “metropolitan languages” like English, French, Mandarin Chinese and other broadly spoken tongues.

The United Nations declared 2019 the Year of Indigenous Languages “to raise awareness of them, not only to benefit the people who speak these languages but also for others to appreciate the important contribution they make to our world’s rich cultural diversity.”

Tools for preservation

Technology drives growing global interconnectedness, resulting in the current state of linguistic affairs. The prevalence of technological innovations — specifically used to preserve and teach non-native speakers — may also aid efforts to save Indigenous tongues.

Platforms like Duolingo, which have easy-to-use smartphone apps, may provide a way forward. They cite their impact on Irish, which according to the site, only 100,000 people spoke when they introduced the course in 2014. Time Magazine reported Duolingo has engaged 4 million users in learning the language since, drawing thanks from Ireland’s president.

In 2018, the app announced its first two courses available for Native Hawaiian and Navajo, or Diné. The company mentioned in its blog post announcing the launch that there are important factors involved for those wanting to protect Indigenous languages like Potawatomi.

“These courses would not be possible without the help of students, educators and activists at the San Juan schools district in Utah and the organizations, Kanaeokana and Kamehameha language school network in Hawaii. We thank these partners and contributors for bringing these courses to life!”

All the bandwidth and app development in the world will not preserve these unique dialects if living, breathing people do not put in the work.

CPN Language Director Justin Neely agrees with that sentiment when it comes to Potawatomi.

“The biggest challenge is not having enough interested students but also people just using it in their lives,” he said. “Whatever they know, they just have to use it.”

Though the vast majority of Citizen Potawatomi may not know more than a few words and feel overwhelmed by the challenge of learning, Neely’s experiences provide guidance.

Neaseno

Neely was an attendee at a regional meeting in Kansas more than a decade ago when he heard fellow Tribal member Walter Cooper offer a prayer in Potawatomi.

“I thought to myself, ‘I have always been proud to be Potawatomi. I always tell people I’m Potawatomi. But how can I be Potawatomi if I don’t speak our language?’ I asked my mom to get me some language tapes for Christmas from Jim Thunder then started learning,” Neely said.

Thunder, a member of the Forest County Potawatomi, is a well-known speaker and teacher. Tapes of him speaking circulated amongst those wanting to hear their ancestors’ language spoken aloud.

With encouragement from the Tribe and speakers like Cooper, Neely secured an endangered language grant from Yale University. He used the funds to travel north to Hannahville Indian Community to study under Don Perrot, a key figure in Potawatomi circles. Perrot — named Neaseno in his native language — played an instrumental role for many of the Nishnabe tribes in North America. He helped organize the first Potawatomi Gathering, serving as a cultural and lingual guide for generations of leaders from the various tribes. Neaseno played such a vital role in fostering inter-Potawatomi ties that CPN Tribal Chairman John “Rocky” Barrett dedicated the street in front of the Tribe’s Cultural Heritage Center in his name in 2016.

As one of the last native speakers, he was an excellent teacher for Neely, despite some challenging logistical circumstances when Neely first arrived in Michigan.

“The intimidating thing was I met Don originally through a mutual friend online,” Neely said. “I had never met him in person. I traveled up there for a summer class he was supposed to be hosting, but it was canceled. He had invited me for it but didn’t know it was off until I was already up there.”

Perrot still made an effort to teach Neely, meeting with him daily in his hotel room. Eventually, Neely began attending classes at the Hannahville school and visiting Perrot at his home. He shared class materials with Neely, which helped form some of the first Citizen Potawatomi language curricula.

Today, the CPN Language Department boasts a YouTube channel, an online, self-paced learning course and numerous instructional materials for members around the world. As Neely’s example shows, the responsibility in preserving the language rests with Tribal members.

“Don’t be afraid to make mistakes,” Neely said. “This is your language, and it is your language to make mistakes. If you never try, you can never learn to say things correctly. Mistakes will happen, but keep with it, and don’t be too hard on yourself. Often we are our own worst critics.”

Aside from distinct cultural nuances that a mother tongue provides, tribes in the U.S. have a more practical reason for protecting and speaking their languages. In the aftermath of World War II, Congress pushed for a set of legislative actions commonly known as the Termination Era.

Tribal governments across the U.S. were disbanded, their properties divided and their sovereignty no longer recognized. One of the arbitrary measurements Congress considered while determining whether to terminate a Native Nation was the presence of a distinct and shared language amongst its citizens.

Should the Termination Era be repeated, tribal programs like health clinics, academic scholarships and elderly housing would cease to exist.

The wrongs of this era are familiar to Native Nations today, putting instructors like Neely at the forefront of tribal sovereignty issues.

“Who we are as Potawatomi people is that we share common blood, history, dance, food, traditions, and it’s the language that ties it all together. Without a language we cease to be a unique people,” he said.

The CPN Potawatomi Language Department offers multiple ways to learn Potawatomi, from online, self-paced courses for beginner and intermediate speakers, to children’s videos and in-person courses. Learn more by visiting potawatomi.org/language or by emailing Justin Neely at jneely@potawatomi.org.