Friday, February 26, 2010

The Great Depression Hits Potawatomi Reservation

In the early days of the Potawatomi Tribe, long before the Europeans journeyed to the shores of this continent, stories about early history, culture and traditions were told over winter camp fires, which eventually became known as oral history and remain a strong part of the tribal culture. Stories of the Great Depression are a good example of contemporary oral history that are just now taking its rightful place around today’s “camp fires,” and are lessons to live by and to learn from by the many off-springs of these elders.

While the rest of the country spiraled into a severe economic down-turn in 1929, the Potawatomi, honed by a long hard history, made the necessary adjustments to survive. Years of hardship had taught the people on the reservation to depend on important survival skills, such as an ability to improvise, but not to be overlooked were a few welcome federal work programs, that became the key to managing in a severe economic period of this country.

Inner strength and character would help the people on the reservation cope with the trauma of the times. Thus, while the world fell apart around them, the people on the reservation did what they had to do to survive. Adversity has a way of building character and this became evident as the years rolled by for the Potawatomi people.

Surviving the Great Depression was just one chapter in the life of the Potawatomi people for a long eventful history had preceded this event but a history that had done a fair job in preparing the tribe for this moment in time.

Many of the people on the reservation wrote down their expenses, income, deaths, and the recording of the arrival of new babies in little journals or ledger books. This, along with oral history provides an insight on how the Potawatomi lived in those trying times. The Potawatomi have long depended on the wisdom and advice of their tribal elders and this enabled this story to be told for the first time.

Human suffering became a reality for millions of Americans as the depression continued. Thousands lost their homes because they could not pay the mortgage. In 1932, at least 25,000 families and more than 200,000 young people wandered through the country seeking food, clothing, shelter, and a job. Many youth traveled in freight trains and lived near yards in camps called hobo jungles. While this happened to many other Americans, the Potawatomi generally stayed on or near the reservation. A key to staying was the ability to improvise.

In one family journal, for instance, it reveals how Hattie Lasley sold chickens, hens, and one rooster for a pittance to buy food for her family. She sold bushels of potatoes, tomatoes and even helped cut wood for the local farmers. And like so many during this era, she worked a small farm, but it was just enough to make a living.

Luther Wahwasuck, an elderly Potawatomi man, recalled his experience, “I was just in my teens. Around home, we had a helluva time and it was hard to do anything to make money. We had to eat hard-tack, a hard cracker, squirrel, rabbit, turtle and had to put up food for future use. We did quite a bit of trapping and skinned out the animals and took them to Topeka and with this money, we would buy .22 ammunition for hunting and Bull Durham.” He remembered that even before the Depression, there was no money for Potawatomis to lose. So they never learned to distrust banks like so many others in America who lost money when they failed. He also related how the Indian people often had no cars, but did have horse and buggies and wagons. There was no electricity or running water in most homes and many people died of tuberculosis.

One important factor was that people helped each other. They had wood-cutting crews that went from home to home to help each other. In return, they would receive meals and a place to stay for the night. An arrangement such as this worked out for everyone.

To compound the economic problems, the entire state experienced a severe drought to compound the existing economic conditions and was generally considered the worst in Kansas history. In the year 1934, in Topeka the daily temperatures averaged 102.5 for the month of July and reached 119 on July 13 in the town of Lincoln. Temperatures topped the century mark for 64 of 92 days during June, July, and August. These readings of between 105-110 degrees were commonplace during 1934. Another Depression-era summer, 1936, ranks as the second-hottest in Kansas history. It seemed like everything bad happened at once for the people of that time. The reservation was described as seared landscape, hardened top and subsoil’s, and dried up the wells from which the reservation population drew its water. “The weather was so dry that we had to dig a hole in the creek bottom so our livestock would have water to drink” said Jane Pukkee, 85 years at the time of this writing. The only recourse for the few farmers on the reservation was to sell the livestock or having to about give them away. The shortage of water was that bad. Puckkee recalled how they hauled water great distances, but first had to remove all the dirt from around the well. Water shortages were critical to the 800 people living on the reservation who depended extensively on their gardens. Additionally to compound the problems of the drought, a grasshopper invasion occurred during 1936 and decimated many gardens on the reservation.

For a people who had large gardens before all of these natural disasters, vegetables became scarce and people lacked food they normally had. They started each planting year with hopes of a good garden and would work early in the morning or late in the evenings and stayed in their homes during the torrid day-time conditions.

Severe droughts and dust storms hit parts of the Midwest and Southwest during the 1930s. The afflicted region became known as the Dust Bowl, and thousands of farm families there were wiped out. Many people left this area, but the Potawatomis made the best of a bad situation.
Men working on WPA (Works Progress Administration) planted small trees for eventual shelter-belts all over the reservation, that are still present today, to try and control these dust storms. They would also serve as wind-breaks, helped in erosion control and eventually a place to cut wood. Potawatomi men tried to control the dust storms that came by planting small trees for eventual shelter-belts all over the reservation. The trees served as wind-breaks to help control soil erosion.

In other parts of the country, many farmers refused to ship their products to market. They hoped a reduced supply of farm products would help the price of these goods. These tactics didn’t usually work and poor crop years greatly affected the Potawatomi who chose farming. In fact, unfavorable crop years caused the demise of the Indian farmer. The livestock losses, worn out machinery, dilapidated buildings led to almost a total liquidation of this lifestyle on the reservation. Farm failure, hastened by the Depression, also was caused by lack of diversification.

Reservation farmers succumbed to the one-crop system of producing corn for sale directly to market. Some like Francis Shopteese, remained determined and persisted in farming despite several years of crop failures. But these surviving farmers were usually the exception. Some alternatives to bad crop years during the Great Depression on the Potawatomi Reservation were subsistence farming. Tribal members raised chickens, milked cows and grew gardens when possible. This approach made the difference and served as a survival mechanism for many Potawatomi families. Additionally, hunting of wild game, a popular pastime on the reservation, then and now, helped in trying times. The standard method of hunting was to go out during the daytime to look for tracks. Then, at night, the hounds were let loose. A hunt often took all night and there were many unsuccessful nights. Raccoons were so scarce that when hunters did get one, it brought $25.00. Minks brought between $32.00 and $40.00, but they too were scarce.

Another form of recreation was centered around a place called “Big Soldier Playground” located near Big Soldier Creek. Here tribal members gathered to swim and have picnics. The children played on swings, played croquet and raced in 50 yard dashes.

A steady line of work would come to the reservation in the form of programs like the Works Progress Administration (WPA) and the Civilian Conservation Corp (CCC). They became the main work programs on the reservation during the Great Depression.

One such project was the Potawatomi community building completed and dedicated on February 16, 1941. The cost of the building was about $8,546.15. Richard Pahmahmie, Sr. recalled hauling native stone from Big Soldier Creek for the project. Coraline Potts described how the barter system worked: In exchange for the native stone extracted from various tribal members’ lands near Big Soldier Creek, the government would terrace their land, thus improving it for future rent. This way, both parties benefited. The community building turned into a 36 by 60 foot building used for many tribal gatherings such as political meetings, funerals, social events like Pow Wows, dances, weddings and other tribal functions. Before this, tribal events were held at the homes of tribal members. Men worked on these projects part-time, because most projects were shut down during the summer grain harvest and again during inclement winter months.

The Bureau of Indian Affairs had an unusual requirement for the men working full-time. It required them to save half their wages to buy food during the winter layoff period. This wasn’t a bad strategy, but it was an example of the tight control the bureau had over Indian people’s lives.

While the building programs did benefit the tribal members by providing needed work and housing, some of the Bureau of Indian Affairs management tactics were deplorable. The superintendent at the time, H.E. Bruce, maintained control over who worked on the WPA projects. For example, if a tribal member was reported drunk in town or on the reservation, he would be suspended from work for a set number of days or even indefinitely.

One way Potawatomi families saved on living expenses was to send their children off to government boarding schools established by the bureau in places like Seguoyah, Chillocco, and Pawnee, Oklahoma. Other children went to South Dakota and Genoa, Nebraska. This had detrimental effects on the tribal members who went through the boarding school experience. Some students lost their language and were even punished for practicing their native tongue or culture.

While the Depression was an aberration in the lives of the people on the Potawatomi reservation, the introduction of more government rules and regulations was no mere aberration.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

My Grandchildren

These are my grandchildren:  From left to right:  Luis "Hooty"Ortiz.  I've called him Hooty since he was a baby.  When he was young, there was a hurricane that hit the South called Luis.  We had no word for Hurricane in Potawatomi so I asked this Mexican guy how to say it in his language.  He said "uh duh kon" (sorry for butchering the words) and in time he became known as Hooty.  Hooty is a freshman at Royal Valley High School.

Nyeh was keh is my oldest grandson.  When he was a baby he cried a lot until he got his Indian name and then he calmed down a bunch.  They would play pow-wow songs for him and that calmed him down too.  Nyeh was a top dancer and when he was just a little guy, he would go dance for Maynard and Coraline his great grandparents.  They sure enjoyed watching him. His other grandfather, Troy, taught him how to lead stomp dances. He graduated from Kickapoo Nation School and is a singer with a good voice and is picking up the songs well.  He is working now but we want him to go to school somewhere and I'm sure he will in time. 

"Kek kah kweh" or Kek was born on the day the Oklahoma City bombing took place in 1995 so out of that came life.  She had the most hair I ever saw on a baby and she was such a fragile baby.  Now she is a freshman at Royal Valley High School and has no interest in sports but she helps by being a manager on the baskeball teams.  I never pushed our kids and always left it up to them in this regard.  She volunteers for everything and is a licensed babysitter.  Kek won an award for her "Native Youth Outstanding Volunteer Work for the Health Initative Program 2009.'

I have wrote about my oldest granddaughter Tara on several occasions.  She was a top-of-the-line basketball player who accomplished a lot.  I'm proud of what she did and getting all those all-league awards was something I could never do, so she made up for that.  Now she is in sunny California where her husband is in the United States Marine Corp, and she will someday migrate back toward the middle of the country. She also does some outstanding beadwork.  Tara and her Mom work at this constantly and do some really good work.  Beading is still done here and something we haven't had to outsource to China yet.

The guy on the far right is "Pat ko shuk" and he is my youngest grandson but I call him "my boy."  I teach him prayer words, the words I learned from my mother, father-in-law and my aunt.  I feel so good to hear him learn so quickly.  He prays every night before we go to bed and I told him last night "your grandma Alberta would have felt so good to hear you pray" and she would have, but he can sure be a bad boy at times. too.  He is 9 years old.

I'm so thankful I lived this long to see my grandchildren get to this stage of life.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Jerry Tuckwin, teacher, mentor, coach

Nothing seems simple growing up on an Indian reservation as Jerry Tuckwin's early life experiences will show.

His parents, Louis and Elizabeth Tuckwin lived on the reservation for many years. They raised ten children, including Jerry who was born February 14, 1942 on a cold, windy, snowy night. The family eventually moved to nearby Mayetta, but eight months later a tragedy changed the Tuckwin family's life's forever.

Louis Tuckwin had grown tired of cutting wood for many years so he bought a new kerosene stove, but one day while lighting the new contraption, it blew up. The subsequent fire burned up both Lewis and Elizabeth Tuckwin, along with their daughter Patty. It could have been far worse if Jerry's brother, Brub (Lyle), and sister, Moke (Mercedes) hadn't got Jerry and his brother, Tom, out of the house. April 23, 1949 proved to be a devastating time for the Tuckwin family.

Out of this adversity, the remaining family did everything they could to stay together and make it as a family. For instance, Jerry's older brothers Paul and Mitch, worked for local farmers, his brother Brub went to high school in Delia, two older sisters went to Marty Indian School in South Dakota where Jerry would soon follow. They eventually moved in with Mage and Jane Puckee.

One day his sister Moke and Floyd “Pink” Patterson drove him to Marty Indian School. They stopped and had a chicken dinner, Jerry recalled, and he thought it was all fun. After arriving in South Dakota, Pink Patterson gave him a silver dollar, and he went to a movie at the school. After the movie was over, both of his relatives were gone. He again was devastated. A lonely, empty feeling came over seven-year old Jerry, but he had no choice but to adjust to the new environment. Sometimes adjustment meant taking his fair share of corporal punishment, a typical experience for an Indian at a boarding school.

That Christmas, his brother Mitch, Mage and Jane Puckee came to visit him. What they saw disturbed them. Jerry was in a raggedy condition. Mitch said to the school officials, "We sent him a winter coat and where is it?" They answered that they didn't want one kid to have more than another. Mitch angrily told them that it was wrong to treat kids like animals and promptly loaded Jerry up in their vehicle and took him home. Jerry recalled staying at a hotel in Yankton, South Dakota on the way home where he was able to clean up.

Jerry remembers the positive influence Mage Puckee had on his life. Mage was a teacher at one of the one-room school houses on the reservation and would make Jerry read, Newsweek and, tell him what he remembered from his reading. Jerry said at the age of nine he had made up his mind that he would follow in the teaching steps of this man. Later this was reinforced by another teacher, Tony Coffin. Another factor in his teaching ambition was watching how hard his brothers had to work and how their hands were split and bruised. Jerry decided there was something else out there, which for him was teaching.

Both Mage and Jane Puckee told Jerry how important it was to put his mind, heart and intelligence into everything he did and only then would it be possible to accomplish something in his life. They implored him to get an education because with an education he had choices without it he would only be able to settle for far less.They not only taught him the value of learning and the possibilities of an education, but instilled the importance of religion in his life. His Aunt Jane told him over and over that if he had faith and spirituality in his life he would have everything. She also stressed to him how important it was to respect all religions. Jerry remembered those words many times in future days and years.

After going to school locally, Jerry went to Haskell, when it was a high school at age 14. It was hard for Jerry, then because he didn't weigh very much, which, led to other students picking on him that caused confrontations. Despite this, he made straight A's, and, settled into a fairly consistent pattern with school for nine months and going home in the summer to work for local farmers. He graduated from Haskell.

From there, Jerry went to the University of Wichita (called Wichita State today) on a track scholarship. His room, board and books were paid for by scholarship, but he had to pay for his meals. Back then, Jerry didn't have financial assistance from the Bureau of Indian Affairs or the Tribe, but because of his summer earnings, he was able to eat. His first year in college was one of personal turmoil. Jerry thought people were prejudiced toward him, but after a time he realized it wasn't true. Once again, he came to terms with those difficult feelings and adjusted as so many times in the past. Jerry said college was a great learning experience. He graduated in 1964. A man named Tommy Ward from the Bureau of Indian Affairs in Anadarko, Oklahoma sent him $100 in his last year, which helped him buy his cap and gown. This was the only assistance he received during his college days. He had made it on his own.

Jerry said there were 28 relatives who came to his graduation. Jerry said one person who didn't make it was Bud Onzawah. Jerry had fond memories of Bud. When he was a young boy, Bud would bring milk, eggs and a loaf of bread to his house and Jerry really wanted him at this graduation that year because of this positive experience from his youth.

For a time, he taught at Desoto Public Schools and Haskell Institute where he coached men's basketball. Jerry enlisted in the United States Air Force in 1966. He was stationed at San Antonio, Texas; Champaign, Illinois; Tucson, Arizona and went to Vietnam in 1968. Jerry also married the former Terry Maupin during the early part of his military career. She proved to be an anchor during hard times for him then and now.

While in Vietnam, he served in a reconnaissance unit and was amazed at the capabilities of the pilots and their planes when they went out on patrol. On these trips, the pilots were able to take pictures of enemy movements and bases. The technology was so advanced that they could take a picture of dog tag on a soldier from afar.

Jerry said one day at Bien Hoa Air Base the white soldiers hollered at him "Hey Chief Tuckwin there's a Potawatomi chief here to see you," and Curtis Masquat, Jr. walked up. They got to spend an afternoon together visiting. Curtis Paul was in the U.S. Army and this visit gave him time to clean up and go to the mess hall where he wanted to drink milk. He had read that Jerry was there from a Haskell paper. Soon after, Curtis left to go back to his unit, but for a brief time he was able to visit with a fellow Potawatomi in a far off land. But not all times were so positive. One night around 2 a.m. a rocket attack hit their base. The initial attack and its force pinned Jerry up against a wall, and he could hear the other men crying and screaming. There was fire, and it seemed like his life flashed before him. Jerry was to see his brothers and sisters again, but he made up his mind that he wasn't going to die in that fire like his family had many years before. He prayed to God to show him the way and was able to get to a bunker 50 yards away. He left the military in July of 1970.

Jerry went back to Haskell in August of 1970 and stayed there for 32 years. He enjoyed coaching, assisting with the development of students and athletes and seeing them mature physically, socially and intellectually. It was rewarding to be around Indian people who could laugh even in the most troubling times. He said they had a more relaxed approach to life and appreciated the little things of life.

There were disappointments, too. He saw many with so much talent and potential but for some reason or another didn't realize it. Maybe some lacked desire, or maybe there were extenuating circumstances and some had to go home and work and to support their families. It bothered him to see such talent go to waste.
During his long teaching and coaching careers, Jerry received many awards, but he saw himself as a little person who didn't need headlines and only wanted to help others find a better way. His advice to young people over the years was to work hard enough to achieve something and then work harder. If something fails, go back to the basics, because people can do more if they try harder.

His lessons didn't stop with students at Haskell he had to learn some from within. In the summer of 2005 Jerry lost an invaluable asset to his life. Jane Puckee died that summer. She was a woman who was fluent in the Potawatomi language (her Indian name was "Ah no mo kweh" - a name that once belonged to her grandmother). Despite her 96 years, she stayed extremely alert and could recall Indian names and stories from long ago. It was a traumatic time again for Jerry. This woman was a stabilizing force in his life, and now she was gone.

A week later, it was a hot 90 degree day, but Jerry still played nine holes of golf and came home tired and not feeling right. In times such as these events happen fast, and before he knew it he fell to the floor. His wife Terry called 911 and administered CPR until the ambulance got there four minutes later. They pronounced him dead at one point, but experts helped to jolt him back into this world. Jerry was semi-conscious for three days. When he awoke, the recovery process was hard. Before his heart attack, Jerry did everything on his own. Now, he had to depend on his wife, Terry, for help in doing even the simple things in life. It was a time of total dependence - something Jerry had never experienced before. It was a time to overcome adversity again.

He often wondered why God had spared his life and is still trying to figure that out. Jerry thought that it was meant for him to spend more time with his wife, his children Shannon and John and his four grandchildren. As so many times in his life, Jerry once again depended on his faith and a belief in God and prayer has worked in his recovery process. Jerry Tuckwin deserves more time to contribute to the lives of Indian people. His life serves as an example of great triumph and grace in times of great adversity.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Basketball on the rez

One of the best things that can happen to grandparents is to see grandchildren develop in the athletic arena, especially when sports have been so much a part of their own lives. Age and aching bones might have stopped their enjoyment and progress on the courts and softball fields, but competitive juices refuse to go away for many parents, grandparents and great grandparents. To see it carried on in grandchildren is a truly rewarding time.

In our case, we played softball for years then that slacked up in time. Our oldest daughter took up fast-pitch and she really worked at it and turned into a top pitcher. We hauled her to games all over Northeast Kansas and Missouri. She won a state championship while playing at Lake Shawnee and she went on to play for one year at Highland Junior College where she set records for wins and strikeouts.

And much later youth basketball started to gain popularity on the Potawatomi reservation and our grandchildren took up the sport although we would have sooner they played softball. But the basketball fever spread to the old folks as well. Our oldest granddaughter Tara was a starter on the Royal Valley High School team for three years. She started out slow but made tremendous progress. In one game, she had 23 points, 6 rebounds, 6 steals and 4 assists. At 5'9", she was tall for a guard and had quick hands. In another game, she scored 35 points against Nemaha Valley and that’s the most points I ever witnessed from a girl or a boy at the high school level. She ended up first team all-league for her last two years.

The stands suddenly become a big social event and visiting was on the upsurge. Relatives of the players marked their calendars and load up their cars to see the basketball games. We did the same thing as with our daughter, we went to almost every game no matter where it was at. Our grandson Nyeh Waskeh played in high school and sometimes it was a challenge but we made most of his games too. Nyeh Washeh enjoyed playing basketball with his many friends and scored a high of 17 points. We watched them both develop, learning the fundamentals and they enjoyed playing the game. High school basketball is a level where fun is still there. A $4 entry fee to see your grandchildren play is more than worth it.

Our routine was similar every week. We went to work, came home, change into comfortable clothes and loaded up Maynard Potts, who at the time was 90 years old, and whoever else was riding on that particular day, and head off to Royal Valley High School games. He enjoyed watching Tara and Nyeh play basketball – a real fan. After paying the entry fee and eating the ball-game meal of hot dogs and popcorn, we sat in the stands and wait for the game to start. The only regret is that there weren’t more food choices at games. It was good times though.

Tara and Nyeh both graduated from high school. Tara went on to two years of junior college where it was no longer fun and she eventually married and moved away to California. Now we go to our youngest grandson, Pat ko shuk’s basketball games at the Whitson Elementary School on Saturday mornings. I about jumped off the bleachers when he scored his first two points. It was the same feeling I had watching my daughter and my other grandchildren play, a feeling that I can’t explain but I’m glad I was there. The whole experience is something I wouldn’t trade for anything.


A chance to repay Indian people

Venita Chenault-White, a member of of our tribe struggled with career choices as she neared completing a M.S.W. in Social Work in 1990.

Deep down she wanted to teach and give something back to Indian people, but figured landing a teaching position would take a few years so she went to work at a substance abuse center in Kansas City. A year later an unexpected call came from Haskell Indian Junior College that launched Chenault-Whites teaching career. The school was in the midst of revitalizing their social work program and would soon undergo a name change to Haskell All Nations University. Attendance at the largest Indian university in the United States averages 850 students per semester, representing 140 Indian nations and 40 states.

Making that career change was not easy since she had some trepidation about working for the Bureau of Indian Affairs - an agency with a long history of working against the interests of Indian people - but an older uncle said,

“You can stand outside these institutions but changes to the system must come from the inside.” Chenault-White took his advice and has had an interesting and rewarding teaching experience.

“I feel like I have made a change in the system by preparing Indian students to go back into their communities to make a positive impact.” And most of all, it was a chance to repay the Indian people for their many cultural teachings over the years. She has incorporated these teachings into her classes when it is appropriate.

“Indian people share a core philosophy - a respect for the Creator and a recognition that we are all related,” said Chenault-White. Chenault-White also states that learning and teaching can come from many sources including young people. “I have a chance to learn from the richness of each of their cultures.”

In her classes, Chenault-White integrates knowledge developed by Indian scholars and Indian methods developed in Indian communities. She has a strong belief that the solution to Indian problems lie within these teachings. It is disheartening, for Chenault-White, to see many of her students disconnected from their cultures and sometimes in a state of hopelessness, but she has faith in each one of her students and can see unlimited potential. Chenault-White disagrees with the prevailing “wisdom” of many high school teachers who have said or shown in their actions that little needs to be done to prepare Indian students for college because they aren’t going anywhere.

This practice hurts the Indian college student and in turn the Indian communities. Chenault-White wants to change those perceptions by showing students she cares. Did she make the right career choice? Although some people discouraged her from going into the social work field, Chenault-White relied on her convictions.

“It’s important to do what you want in life.”

Monday, February 22, 2010

A Potawatomi Journey to Iraq

For Curtis Keltner, a 23 year old tribal member, son of Roberta Keltner and grandson of Theresa Asselin, arriving in Iraq was a true cultural shock and living in a war situation for a year only added to the shock.

People in the hometown of Saddam Hussien, Tikrit, were considered loyalist of his regime. Hussein moved to Baghdad after rising to the presidency of Iraq but made sure his old home was taken care of and the town composition was mostly friends of his and relatives. It was evident to Keltner why the people there hated the United States Army. Iraqi’s believed in Jihaad and the concept of a Holy War. By killing non-Muslims or die trying then this act ensured a place in heaven, which is why there were so many acts of sucide toward the United States military during Keltner’s year there.

Keltner said the people were poor, lived in mud huts, and had no running water. The children were nice and walked up to the soldiers and shook hands but would always ask for a dollar. Seeing these poverty conditions in an oil rich country such as Iraq made Keltner wonder why it worked that way. In the country of Iraq each town had a sheik, a millionaire who lived in big houses or mansions. He was considered the town leader and the title of sheik passed from one generation to another. Money equaled power in Iraq.

Before Keltner went to Iraq in March of 2003, the military instructed the soldiers in classes not to look at the Iraqi women because that would cause unnecessary grief for the women. The women were obedient to the men and worked in back-breaking jobs in the fields. The married women dressed in black robes from head to toe. The men in Iraq were allowed to have up to six wives, but only if they could afford them. Women in Iraq society are considered property. A man had to pay the father of a woman money or in a number of sheep, basically buying his daughter. The people of Iraq consumed no alcohol or ate pork and would pray up to five times a day. At certain times of the day, music would come from the local mosque and the people would stop whatever they were doing and fall to their knees toward Mecca and prayed.

What brought Curtis Keltner to this oil-rich but desolate and poor country? He described it as a love of country and life growing up listening to many military stories from his dad, who served 13 years in the army, and from his mother’s side. All of these childhood stories made Keltner determined to follow in his relatives’ footsteps and joining the army seemed the right thing to do for him.

Arriving in Iraq during the hot season where temperatures rose to 140 degrees only added to the initial cultural shock. These feelings of pity toward the poverty conditions soon dissipated when his Alpha Company were fired upon in their daily patrols around Tikrit.

Instinct and all the intensive military training kicked in during these attacks. The attacks were mostly guerrilla tactics where 2 or 3 Iraqi would fire upon the Americans and then run away. That’s the way they fought said Keltner It turned into a waste of time when his unit would have to go search for the attackers. Keltner said nothing happened 90% of the time on these daily patrols then out of nowhere an attack would happen when they least expected it. It was only afterwards, that they thought “Oh my God, I could have died.”  He described the soldiers in his Alpha Company as good people who saved his life on more than one occasion with their courage. “They had your back and you had theirs” as Keltner described it.

Keltners message today is: even if you don’t support American war policies at least support the troops because they are doing it for their country.

An old Potawatomi veteran's story

As with most obituaries, most of a person’s life is left out for reasons of space and cost, and this is true with the Maynard’s Potts obituary. Here is an account of what could have been included if we lived in a perfect world.

  He was part of what Tom Brokaw called the “greatest generation.” Brokaw said they survived the Depression; served the country during World War II; and become involved in their communities as volunteers, elected officials or church leaders.
  Maynard did exactly that. During the Great Depression, years of hardship had taught him and the people on the reservation to depend on important survival skills, such as an ability to improvise. Not to be overlooked were a few welcome federal work programs that became the key to managing in a severe economic period of this country.
  How did Maynard and the Potawatomi people weather these hard times? They only had to look to the no-so-distant past and remember the removal period still fresh in the minds of many elders by virtue of tribal stories preserved by the oral history tradition. The lessons of the past would help the Potawatomi overcome adversity. Inner strength and character would help the people on the reservation cope with the trauma of the times. Yes, adversity has a way of building character, but it also prepared men like Maynard and many others who would serve in the upcoming war. Surviving the Great Depression was just one chapter in his life and it did a fair job of preparing him for the next huge event in his life.
  His ascent into World War II started when he left the United States from San Francisco January 23, 1943, aboard the troop transport Nordom. As they passed under the Golden Gate Bridge, a man in the back of the boat shouted, “Golden Gate, Golden Gate, be back in ‘48.” Of course, the war didn’t last that long, but it seemed like an eternity for these young men. The troop transport traveled one month and one day to get to the war zone in New Guinea, a tropical island in the Pacific north of Australia. The unit aboard the 532nd Amphibian was attached to the Ninth Division of the Australian Army which had just returned from two to three years of combat in Africa.
  It was because of the bravery of the Australians on several occasions that Maynard was able to survive the war. They were ready to fight under any circumstances and showed no fear. In April 1943, the American unit went to Milne Bay, New Guinea. During the first two weeks of which they went through 118 bombings by the Japanese. The bombing started at six a.m. and ended 20 hours later at two a.m. Because of the lack of air support, many Americans died during those initial days.
  After the Allies finally wrested New Guinea from Japanese control in March 1944, Maynard boarded a boat to the Philippines in what was called “island hopping,” or seizing key islands in the southwest Pacific Ocean. With this strategy, the Allies used each island as a springboard to attack the next island. The Philippines had been under Japanese control since May of 1942, and the Allies hoped to recapture it, cut off Japan’s lines of communication with its overseas bases, and set up bases from which to attack Japan.
  While on this first “island hopping” boat ride, Maynard saw Japanese suicide planes take out three American ships one day and seven ships the next. Many Americans died there. It was hard to be at sea or on land because no place was safe. Throughout the war, Maynard was to see men wounded and killed, and he was to experience countless nerve- wracking bombings. But the hardest part was the fear and never knowing what would happen next.
  His life after the war was far from easy. He struggled with the aftermath and as is the case with many combat veterans, their actions are never fully understood and for some people who could never fathom the scars of war, it is simply too easy to judge. Today it is called post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), but back then, veterans had to deal with it the best they could.
  For Maynard Potts, there are more accomplishments in his life, although being a combat veteran would have defined his life by itself; there is more to his life than that. Again those accomplishments never make an obituary. Maynard and Coralene Keesis married October 2, 1942 and raised a large family in definite hard times. To cope with those hard times and the nightmares of war, one of the constants in both their lives was their absolute dedication to the Indian religion of the Potawatomi. She cooked at home and at the services themselves. As she once said, “being a member of the religion involves more than sitting there looking pretty,” and she was right. There is so much work to be done and it has to be shared by all to make any religion work.
  For years, Maynard went over to the Drum Building and cleaned it up before the services or went out and cut wood. As a respected elder, he didn’t have to do that but he did. Both he and Coralene led a long life and will be remembered for their work to make the Potawatomi religious life better. Maynard had a gift and that was the ability to sing the songs of the religion; he worked tirelessly with younger members to learn the songs and help others learn the Potawatomi language. Maynard once said that when he survived the war, he was going to dedicate his life to his mother’s religion and he did.
  Maynard made a point to attend every religious service he could on the reservation, rarely missing until he became sick in the winter of 2007-8. That is called dedication in any circle. He believed in the power of prayer and when he was close to leaving this life a couple of times during his hospital stay, his family held had a prayer service for him. He pulled through those two critical times. The power of prayer made it possible for him to stay with his family for a few more precious days.
  He also had an extraordinary memory and told of events long ago and could remember so many Indian names. Many young people, and some not so young, would find their way to his door to seek out advice on religion, Indian names and maybe to hear the stories of old. Hopefully people will remember what he told them.
  When he died in April of 2008, after surviving 92 winters, Maynard had one of the largest funerals ever on the Potawatomi reservation. The Drum Building was full with people paying their respects to a man who helped others aplenty in his life. During this service, many positive words were spoken about his life-long dedication to the religion and it was all true. During some funerals, it is rare for people to get up and talk to share their feelings, but not this time. This was an indicator of the influence Maynard Potts had on the people of the Potawatomi reservation. He deserved the positive service.
  It wasn’t all serious though. Maynard was remembered for his baseball abilities, being a number one fan of the local fast-pitch teams, and to see his granddaughter Tara play basketball in high school and her first year in college. Because of inclement weather, he missed the biggest scoring game of her high school days, when she scored 35 points against Nemaha High School. Nonetheless, he enjoyed going to the rest of the games.
  Maynard was the Number One fan of Kansas University Basketball. He stayed home and watched every one of those game on t.v. When they weren’t on, he watched baseball on ESPN. He often talked about the young Winnebago pitcher Joba Chamberlain of the Yankees and the Navajo infielder named Jacoby Ellsbury of the Boston Red Sox.
  Maynard died a few days before KU beat Memphis 75-68 in the National Championship game. In fact, the wake occurred at the same time as the big game. The large crowd at the wake were huge KU fans too, but they went to the funeral instead of watching the game on t.v. This showed the deep respect Maynard had in this community. Of course, that didn’t prevent people from checking their cell phones for updates when they went outside. He would want it that way and everybody knew he was keeping up on that score too.
  All in all, Maynard and Coraline left a legacy that their children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren can be proud of and an example to follow. For the rest of the people on the reservation neither will be forgotten.

The Story of the Three Fires

Potawatomi tradition states that the Odawa, Ojibwas, and the Potawatomi originally were one tribe. The members of the “three fires” shared a similar way of life. They were also called the “three brothers,” with the Potawatomis being considered the younger brother.

A Potawatomi legend said the tribes braided three small trees together to signify their brotherhood. It is said that this tree has grown together over the years and is full-grown today in the Lower Peninsula of Michigan.

Loyalties between the three tribes ran deep, and they often came to each other’s defense in times of war, much like a brother would come to aid of another in a fight. So it is with the history that this coalition was solidified over the early years. Coalitions such as this were to become an essential element to the tribe’s social fabric throughout the early years and were to serve the tribe well in those times. In the years of prolonged conflict, territorial expansion and other common goals of advancement, these coalitions were absolutely necessary and utilized heavily to their benefit.

Still another aspect of this coalition was that the Potawatomi, Odawa, Ojibwas enjoyed a particularly close trade relationship. Each tribe had a certain function to keep the alliance strong. The Odawa were the “Trader People” responsible for providing food and supplies. The Ojibwas were the keepers of the faith and kept the sacred teachings. The Potawatomi were in charge of the ceremonial fire burning. It was around this fire that nations came together in peace and made decisions regarding the welfare of all people.

All three groups spoke related languages that linguists classify as part of the Algonquin tongues. It was said this language could carry an Indian traveler across more than a thousand miles of land from east to the west in the Great Lakes, and they could understand the other tribes enough to get by and to manage.

In time, the coalition with the Odawa and Ojibwas ended when the Potawatomi went out on their own and built a new “fire,” which in Indian parlance means to set up as an independent tribe. The Potawatomi (People of the Place of the Fire) may thus owe their name to these circumstances. Yet remnants of the tribes had interwoven over the years, which is why the tribes still retain much of the same characteristics and language today, despite being located in vastly different locations.

Life fairly rough here in the 1960-1990s

Poverty on the reservation was in a similar condition as when many Vietnam veterans had left, and it too had worsened. The reservation was a classic example of how the wartime expenditures had affected the domestic program of the United States. Jane Priwer, a writer, gave a vivid description of the reservation condition in the 1970s: “They are not in good shape today. Their reservation is a desolate place, splintered by unpaved, muddy roads and inhabited by only a few of the oldest and poorest members of the tribe. The rest are in the cities. Average income is about $2,500 a year, unemployment around 50 percent and the high school drop-out rate 44 percent. “

In addition, the tribal government had a $6,450 budget for the year of 1972. This low sum was supposed to be enough to govern the affairs of the tribe. All of these financial figures translated into a period of abject poverty for the tribe, but not much different than the rest of the country. The United States and the reservation were all feeling the backlash of Vietnam, a war that cost $150 billion.

While this analysis of the tribal financial condition was true, the reservation was home, and, as so many times in the past, the tribal members made the best of the situation. Tribal members worked in the surrounding towns and cities in construction fields, packing houses, garden nurseries and whatever temporary employment was available.

In some family situations, as many as 12 children lived in a small four-room house with no running water. But those homes were relatively happy, and food was always available. It was a dire necessity for the children to leave home at an early age, so it was not uncommon for young people to get married at the ages of 18 or 19 and move into apartments in the surrounding towns and cities like Holton or Topeka. Marriages usually lasted a long time simply because there was no room back home if it didn’t work out.

Potawatomis learned self-sufficiency at a young age because of the economics of the times. But the reservation was always home, and young couples often came home to visit or to attend social events.

Grim statistics showed the Potawatomi had a death rate about twice as high as the state average and a birth rate three times the state average as well as an infant mortality rate two times the average during this period. Dr. Patricia Schlosser, who worked in the children’s clinic in Holton, noted how the infant mortality rate is one of the most sensitive indexes of the general health of a people. Another physician who worked with the tribe said the life expectancy was only 43 years of age. He said many Indians in the area had major nutritional problems.

Elizabeth Munoz stated, “Indians have every problem that the ethnic and low income person has plus their own cultural problems, including a sense of pride. It’s harder in many cases to admit they do need help.”

Where the average tribal member benefited the most was the new housing that came to the reservation in the late 1970s. The Department of Housing and Urban Development authorized the building of 36 homes in a housing site. A few were built on scattered home sites. In time, a total of over 90 homes were built on the reservation. Housing was desperately needed for the growing population. Yet there was opposition to this concept.

In the 1960s and early 1970s, many tribal members looked upon the new housing as another ploy to get the land. It was a fear that tribal members would be evicted for non-payment of rent (based on income), and non-Indians would then move in and own the tribal land. It was a justifiable fear, but something that did not transpire. Federal housing programs on many reservations have been resented because the houses are planned on the basis of Western values—geometric lots, houses close together and no place for animals while the Indian people strongly prefer their own traditional housing patterns: houses scattered over the land just within hailing distance or houses designed for small clusters of related families. This pattern was rooted deeply in the history of the tribe.

On the positive side, the new houses meant coming home to the reservation and no longer having to live in surrounding communities where discrimination was an accepted fact. Now the people had the opportunity to live among their families and friends. Yet, it was close to a self-imposed segregation.

All in all, jobs were scarce, housing limited, roads were horrible and adequate office facilities were non-existent, so it was fairly grim here in the 60s to the 90s.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

A fast Potawatomi history lesson.

Over the years the Potawatomi have collected many captivating stories to tell, at every bend, twist and turn of our history.

The stories of old state that we were originally located on the eastern sea board and slowly migrated westward over the years - this migration was at times voluntary while at other times very much against our will. Nonetheless, we were an independent group and lived off the bountiful natural resources of the Great Lakes. What we couldn't catch in the lakes or hunt in the forests, we acquired through trade with other tribes and later with the non-Indians. For the longest time we enjoyed life free from outside influences and prospered.

After the first contact with non-Indians in 1641, land became a central issue that intensified with the expansion of the 13 colonies or "13 Fires." As this expansion started to happen the Potawatomi lost some of their autonomy and freedoms. Non-Indians wanted the land for mines, timber and the growing number of towns, cities and ports. During this time of advancing settlement, the Potawatomi people held no real concept of land ownership. Their beliefs taught them that land belonged to all living things alike. However, the U.S. Government, in its first treaties with the Indians, established boundaries for tribal land. In the numerous treaties that followed, known as "cession treaties," the Potawatomi agreed to sell land to the U.S. Government. Those early concessions soon led to more drastic policies.

The 1830 Removal Act was a governing policy of the United States government. The policy revolved around a dream that the Indian "problem" could be eliminated forever by persuading the eastern Indians to exchange their lands for territory west of the Mississippi. Each band has their own story to tell about the removal and those stories are unique to them and are best told by them. As for the Prairie Band, we made temporary stops in Missouri's Platte Country in the mid-1830’s and the Council Bluffs area of Iowa in the 1840’s. The tribe controlled up to five million acres at both locations. After 1846 the tribe moved to present-day Kansas. Although the area lacked the beauty of the Great Lakes, the circumstances of removal left the tribal people little choice. At that time, the reservation was thirty square miles which included part of present-day Topeka. It is our contention that the land we lost during this period contributed to the greatness of this country. In the following years, land holdings dwindled further and life toughened for the Prairie Band. At times it seemed hopeless, but we persevered.

For the first part of the 20th century the Potawatomi subsisted on farming, hunting and trapping, wage labor, and leasing of their lands. The band suffered greatly during the Great Depression and accompanying drought during the 1930’s. Things didn’t get any better after the wars came along. Many tribal members went and fought in Europe and the Pacific during World War II. They went to Korea, Vietnam and fought in modern day battles in the Middle East. Some died, some were wounded and some suffered for many years after, but they have achieved a place of honor in our society. We are free today because of what those veterans have done for us. Again, it was a difficult time but members persevered and survived.

The tribes in the ensuing years struggled living with abject poverty and racism however, because of strong leaders, were able to survive something close to termination. It took time to regroup as a tribal unit. Government programs came and they helped, but never were the true answer. The introduction of gaming activities has initiated an improvement in social, educational and cultural leadership programs which has led to improvement in the quality of life among our people.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Lessons in Life

When I occasionally get to read the Kansas City Star, I make a point to read Jason Whitlock’s column. He’s a pretty opinionated black guy and I’m surprised he hasn’t been run out of town yet, but you don’t have to like a guy when he can write some great stories. One of these days I might send him an email and tell him that, but I probably will never get around to it.

Well anyway the other day, Whitlock wrote about Brian Waters of the K.C. Chiefs winning the Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year Award. Waters has done a ton of work for the KC community during his nine year career and is a respected man. The Chiefs have gone through some lean years lately so they fired their general manager and head coach and hired in some new people. That didn’t seem to help much.  I guess there's always next year. I personally don’t give a damn if they win or lose because of the way Indians are portrayed in their stands during games, but that’s just me.

Oh for the longest time I was a baseball fan.  We did our best to go to watch the KC Royals play every year.  It was always an adventurous drive going through Kansas City.  But I essentially gave up on the Royals because of the major league baseball strike in 1994. I’ve only gone to one game since and that’s because it was a free ticket. At the time the average major league salary was about a million dollars a year and that wasn’t enough for them, so I said they don’t’ need me hanging around Royals Stadium any more either. Again that’s neither here or there.

Back to the story: Waters, being a good guy, reached out to the new management and was greeted with a “breathtaking level of disrespect and contempt.” Why? Who knows and cares? Maybe, they felt a need to belittle the players who were losers in their eyes. Waters asked to be traded as a result but all that did was alienate the fans who wanted to “blindly believe in the new men.” He chose to ignore the treatment and devote his time to making the Chiefs better.

Whitlock said young people can learn a lesson from the Waters treatment, “If your goal is to rise above your circumstance, never answer disrespect with disrespect. Don’t answer at all. Another person’s behavior should not dictate your behavior. Someone –a peer, a friend, a teacher, a boss – might verbally assault you or challenge you in an unfair manner publicly/privately. Don’t respond, Whitlock said, it’s a trap, a ploy to prevent your elevation to higher station in life.”

Waters did exactly that and won a prestigious award and as Whitlock said “success trumps disrespect.”

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

KU basketball big on Potawatomi Reservation

On most reservations there are some real differences on topics especially political ones, but on the Prairie Band Potawatomi reservation there are some unifying aspects going on and that’s a die-hard fan-base for Kansas University men’s basketball.

A few games back, KU lost to Tennessee in their house and yes they did take it on the chin, but they slowly started to develop and went through some growing pains. Before that loss, KU barely get by Cornell in one game 71-66. It was a damn good thing that the boy from the streets of Chicago decided to show up those rich kids from the Ivy League or KU would have went down for the count earlier. The other night they beat Baylor, a pretty fair team. Sherrod Collins is real, the twins are asserting themselves and as soon as that thing called chemistry starts clicking watch out America.

In the daily rag, the writers were saying KU escaped being beat by KSU in another game. Hell, that ain't the way I saw it. They gutted out the win and were tougher in a tough game. KU has to win games like that to be fully appreciated on the national scene, because it ain't all east coast basketball and if we don’t watch out KU will put Kansas on the map. KU won, but the difference between KU and KSU is Sherron Collins. It was a hell of a game. KU did their damndest to throw the game but straightened up in overtime. They had all the big-time announcers for this game including Erin Andrews on the courtside mike.

KU also struggled against Colorado, missing free throw after free throw and throwing the ball away at crucial times. That cussin you heard on the reservation was me, but they decided to play ball in overtime and beat those mountain people 72-66.

Later KU put it on Nebraska in a tune-up for those Texans. KU and Texas think about each other so much that they almost forget to take care of the business at hand, and that’s why in my estimation, KU has had flat games and Texas has taken it on the chin regularly. Oh, well it could be worse -what about those Tarheels, already losing ten games this year. Ol Roy is probably crying in his spilled milk and wondering why he snuck out of Lawrence on that jet plane a few years back.

But KU during this time finally started to look like the team everybody said they would be. It really helps when those McDonald All-Americans come off the bench hitting all those threes, plus that defense is clamping down. X Henry is looking good. If KU would turn him loose then you would see a tremendous player reach his potential. I don't think he will be a "one and done" player because he could use some more experience. With that said, this is Sherron Collins team, but it will only get better for KU, when the rest of the bunch decided to help like they are starting to do now.

And the stepping stone to greatness happened at Texas. KU established itself as the big dog in NCAA basketball last night whipping those Texas pretenders 80-66. Their “stifling”defense was huge factor and made the game a runaway. I believe it was the best overall game KU has played this year. They are back in the national discussion, for sure!

The experts are predicting KU to be the #1 seed in the St. Louis region with Kentucky, Villanova and Syracuse as the other #1 seeds. The other night the announcers said Syracuse is playing the best in the country now, but I guess they haven’t seen KU play. KU, under this format, would play their first games in Oklahoma City.

In a nut-shell this is what occupies the time of many on the Potawatomi reservation during this cold snowy winter.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Winter Storms

The winter storms of 2010 spared our reservation. They hit south and north of us. Those folks were without electricity and had to deal with ice galore and snow, but we are no strangers to natural disasters. Back on December 12, 2007, the reservation, or a good portion of it, did not have any electricity. In the area, there were 21,442 Westar Electric customers out of electricity.

Before that day though and with the storm fast approaching, we got a room at the casino. Our daughter Martie and the grandchildren went over and stayed, but Voncile and I stayed at our house. I woke up a couple of times during the night and seen that we had lights yet, but in the morning it was dark so I knew it had gone out and it did at 6:15 a.m. It lasted six longs days and some went 11 days without electricity.

We stayed at our home, using the heat off the kitchen stove during most of that time. It sure was an inconvenience for sure. We modern Indians have become used to creature comforts such as propane heat, lights, showers and television. It sure is rough going with electricity. I’m guilty too! In the old days, you had to get out and cut wood or you would freeze or you had to put up food from the garden or you would starve in the winter.

Anyway, outside the ice had formed on the trees and branches started to break off. It sounded like a gun going off. I stood in front of the house and that sound repeated many times, mostly because we live near a large timber. Then the trees in my yard started breaking off and that made me feel bad. I’ve planted many trees over the years and now they were damaged. The only thing left to do was to pick up the branches when this storm broke, access the damage and start over. In Sabetha, up the road, some trees 3-4’ thick were up-rooted, so I guess it could have been much worse.

All of the senior sites were without heat since their systems are all electric. Eventually, over 300 people from the rez stayed at the casino and another 100 stayed at the bingo hall. Many didn’t have any money. They should have delivered the per-caps there and the casino would have profited off this natural disaster. Tribal funds picked up three meals a day and the rooms for the people, which was good. It eventually worked out on our reservation that year as it will for people having it rough this year.

Thoughts on Indian gaming

I view Indian gaming as a historical accident. In our case, we were “poor as the day is long,” and in retrospect that’s probably an understatement.

There were a few circumstances that fell into place to make it easier for gaming to come to our reservation. In the early 1990s, the State of Kansas built a new $55 million dollar four lane highway that went right by our reservation. This made it only a 15-minute drive from Topeka, Kansas with a population base of 150,000 people and a 1.5 -hour drive from Kansas City, which has a population of over a million people.

In 1995, the State of Kansas approved a Tribal/State Compact but only after years of litigation that was costly to both sides. Fortunately for us, it passed without a sunset provision. The good thing is that we don’t have to renegotiate the terms every few years and give the state a cut of the action, as is the case with many tribes.

The tribe started a small casino shortly after this compact was approved and now we have a top of the line casino –1,043- machine facility - capable of creating significant wealth for the tribe to use in righting the wrongs of the past. We went through a couple of expansions to our facility and are debt-free. We all know gaming may be only a short window of opportunity and we have taken full advantage of this economic windfall. I’ve been around for a long time and have seen the poverty on our reservation, so the transformation is gratifying to witness.

To give a few examples of this transformation consider these improvements: We have concentrated on improving our infrastructure. We have poured millions of dollars into our people with jobs and services, buildings, roads, housing and park development. Today, we have a new government center, clinic, a new senior citizen center, Boys and Girls Club, Police Station, water treatment plant, a new Fire Station and state of the art equipment. In addition, we funded a new addition to our Childcare center. Gaming money has made it possible for more tribal members to attend the college of their choice. It’s an investment that will pay dividends in the future.

Once we had horrendous roads where we would literally get stuck in the middle of the main- road during rainstorms, but today we have many miles of blacktop road. In addition we have built many houses, 16 apartments, and duplexes for our people –both young and old. This will improve the living conditions of our tribal members. The last homes built on the reservation were with HUD development money in 1977 and 1985. A recent article said the only way tribes can make lasting change on reservations is to provide housing for its people and how can you not agree with that statement.

I’m a student of history and have seen many federal programs come to our reservation and nothing, and I mean absolutely nothing, has had the impact on our reservation as gaming has done. I don’t mean to paint a perfect picture because we have had dissent on our reservation, just like all reservations, and we will have it in the future because people’s opinions and individual priorities can vary. We can live with arguments about money rather than one about having none to help our people.

I think how a tribal member who hasn’t been here for years would be amazed at the total transformation of the reservation and it is a direct result of the gaming revenues we have coming in today. We know it won’t last forever but we can show positive change to what once was a poverty-stricken area. My closing advice is for all tribes to tell their economic success stories because no one else can convey the true positive impact gaming has had in Indian Country.


Many years have passed since the Vietnam conflict, but the passage of time doesn’t diminish the memories for many veterans.

As a young man, Eli Wabnum wanted to join the army to participate in the Korean War. His mother, Edna, discouraged the idea of her son going to war. Eventually despite his mother’s protests, Eli joined the army. He completed two tours in Germany and one tour in Korea, before serving as a sergeant to 33 men in the Vietnam conflict. Before leaving for Vietnam, he told his mother he would still serve in wartime.

Experiencing the horrors of war are part of the inner workings of a veteran and unimaginable for the rest of us. But listening to Eli describe his harrowing past paints a clear picture of the pain and hardship of war.

Eli tells of an event he remembers from the Vietnam Conflict - he stepped on a land mine. “The only thing I remember is a flash of white as I got blown into the air. When I came to, I looked and saw another man lying nearby. I crawled to him to see what I could do to help. My men said, ‘Eli, you’re bleeding.’ Blood was coming out from the bottom of my shirt. They tore off my flak jacket and saw that I was hit in several spots with fragments from the mine.”

Eli was flown out in serious condition and underwent surgery. Post surgery, the Doctor told Eli he was going back to the United States. Eli had another agenda. He wanted to go back to his first responsibility - his men. After he recovered he was allowed to return to the battlefield. Looking back he proudly states, “Of the 33 men I led as a sergeant, 30 returned to the United States alive.

Even so, his accomplishments on the battlefield will never be fully told. Eli for the most part remained a private man who kept so much inside. But if you ask him about his musical background, he’s quick to share. He played the steel guitar while attending Haskell Institute and later while stationed in Germany. Eli smiled and said, “The girls hollered for me before they hollered for Elvis!” He was a descriptive story-teller.

Eli remained a respected member of the Potawatomi reservation until his death May 31, 2007. The war will no longer torment this old veteran.