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.