NATIVE AMERICANS: THE PRAIRIE BAND OF THE POTAWATOMI
Gary Mitchell: I've done a lot of traveling in my time. I go to a lot of reservations. I see a lot of Indian people in the cities -- they have no connections. They don't know what the religions are; they don't know what the traditions are; they don't know their language ... and they're lost out there. And we have that here. So the answer isn't out there. It was always here. Any number of people can tell you -- that they've went off and they've looked for things, and it wasn't there; it was here.
Narrator: Although he was sent to an off-reservation boarding school when he was young, Gary Mitchell has lived on the Prairie Band Potawatomi Reservation in northeastern Kansas most of his life. A few years ago, as he pursued a college degree at Washb urn University, he became inspired to write about his tribe's history, eventually publishing a book on the subject.
Mitchell: I guess what happened was I was studying all the politics and history of the white civilization, and it occurred to me one day, I said "well, I don't even know anything about the history of my own tribe." So that was another reason that I got i nto that -- I wanted to do it for my own benefit. As I started writing the book and the articles on the tribe, I wanted my grandchildren some day to be able to read about what happened to our tribe.
Narrator: In his book, Gary tells about how his people once lived in small villages around the southern reaches of the Great Lakes.
Mitchell: The Potawatomi Tribe at one time owned 28 million acres ... or controlled 28 million acres in the Great Lakes. Then when the Manifest Destiny policies started kicking in, then we were pushed westward and our land started diminishing.
Narrator: In 1833, the Potawatomi signed a treaty giving up claims to their ancestral lands in return for 5 million acres in northwestern Missouri. That treaty was soon followed by another that moved them on north into Iowa.
Mitchell: Well then they had another treaty where we came to Kansas in 1846. Then we had 576,000 acres. So all the way through the process, we lost land.
Narrator: Within fifteen years, still another treaty reduced the size of the Kansas reservation from a 30 mile square down to a square of eleven miles on each side. Although the boundaries remain the same today, the Prairie Band and its members control only about a third of this area. Most of it was sold to non-Indians long ago as the federal government continued to implement policies that separated Indians from their land, if not from their traditional culture.
Mitchell: That's been one of our strong points -- we've always been able to adapt to a situation. When we were in the Great Lakes area, when we started to move westward, we've always adjusted. We've tried to keep our traditions, our language. A lot of tribes -- they don't have what we have here. They don't have their languages; they don't have their religions; they don't have any of their traditions or their culture, so we've been real fortunate in that area. That's because of those older people and what they've done for us.
Narrator: Like Gary Mitchell, Jim McKinney was born on the reservation and sent away to a boarding school when he was young. He now lives in a country home not far from the reservation, following a career in the Air Force and a number of years as a Metho dist minister. He continues to work on a Potawatomi language project that he initiated several years ago.
Jim McKinney: I don't remember exactly when it was; I didn't write it down -- I'm thinking about six or seven years ago, I approached my son about the project -- with our speakers fast disappearing, that there was a need to preserve it somehow. And I tho ught, well maybe we can get it on tape or get it written down ... better yet, get it on videotape. So with that idea in mind, I approached my son and said 'with your expertise' ... because his master's was in rhetoric and composition. So with his expert ise in the language, perhaps we could get together and with the fast disappearing of our people, because I think once the language is gone, the culture pretty much is gone with it.
Mitchell: The language is the basis for our prayer. And that's how we communicate with our creator. And that's how we look at it. That's how the elders have always looked at it. And that's I think the key ingredient to all of this. We have to teach t he language in order for us to improve our lives or improve the lives of our children . That's why I've always believed in that strongly .... that we have to maintain those traditions and our language is part of that.
McKinney: We talked about a name for the project -- what would be a good name for it -- preservation and propagation or some such. I hit upon the idea of a Potawatomi word. And that word in Potawatomi is Bwaka. Bwaka means a person who has specific kno wledge in a given area. Also it is used as an acronym for our project here -- Bringing Wisdom and Knowledge About.
Narrator: Jim's son -- Smokey McKinney -- has been his partner on this project. They've taped conversations with native speakers and collected various written materials, with the intent not only of preserving the language, but perpetuating its use. Wit h a small core of collaborators spread across the country, they've established a site on the Internet, which includes such things as an online dictionary. They also intend to develop multimedia software that can be used to teach the language.
McKinney: Then eventually as we teach our children, then we find that there are other folks who have not had the exposure to the language because of the relocation efforts of the early '60s, where they were relocated into the urban areas ... relocated the m just like they relocated us into the boarding schools. Some of them have not had access to their native roots. Some of those are third generation Native Americans or Indians or Potawatomis living in the urban areas that have no idea at all ... about t he language, about any of that. All they read is what has been written in the history books.
Mitchell: A lot of them are coming back now because of a lot of the economic development that's happening. But ... now that the perceived riches of the casinos are coming in, now you have a lot of people wanting to migrate back to the reservation, wherea s before, they all wanted to leave because there was no jobs here.
Narrator: After Congress approved an Indian Gaming Act in 1988, the Potawatomi and other local tribes entered into compacts with the state to bring bingo and casino gambling onto their reservations. In January of 1998, Harrahs opened a new casino and hotel complex on the Prairie Band Reservation.
Mitchell: A man told me once -- he said "I wish we could do it another way." But we've had all these years -- nobody's ever come up with a solution to some of the problems that we have on the reservation. We've never been able to make any improvements to our roads or our buildings cause we never had the money. But now we have that opportunity. And if we do those things, it'll help. But it's not the total answer, again.
McKinney: Many of our people see casino gambling as the panacea -- that's the cure-all; that's a Utopia. That's going to solve all of our problems. It is not.
Mitchell: I don't think that's the answer to all our problems. The answer's always been here. It's been our religion and our tradition and our people. That IS going to be one of our answers in the long run ... not money. So, it'll be a short-term sol ution, and somebody needs to come up with a vision of what are we going to do after? That has to be done -- our vision, however you want to say it. That's what we need to do.