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Potawatomi tribe working to save endangered language

DOWAGIAC, Mich. - With only a handful of fluent speakers left, the Potawatomi tribe is working to save its endangered language from extinction.

From the chairs in which we sat, which were covered in Potawatomi-inspired fabric, to the fire crackling behind the class filled with "Keepers of the Fire", everything has meaning in the Pokagon Band's Language and Culture Center.

But, to them, Bodewadmimwen, the language itself, is their culture.

“That is what makes us who we are, so if our language goes, our identity goes. And we have no right to call ourselves Potawatomi," said the Director of Language and Culture for the Pokagon Band, Marcus Winchester.

“We’re told that if we lose our language, the creator will no longer see us as Indian people, and he’ll look to destroy the world again," said Pokagon Band Language Specialist, Kyle Malott.

That day has been inching closer for years.

“In the whole world, there are less than ten people who are fluent first-born speakers of Potawatomi, all over the age of 70," said Malott. “So we had to uproot our lives and headed to Wisconsin in 2013...to learn from fluent speakers up there for four years so to learn as much as we can to bring it back here to teach.”

“it’s a big responsibility for not even just me, but for everyone to learn," he said.

Kyle's ancestors felt that burden decades ago.

“My great-grandpa was the last fluent first-born speaker, and he passed away in the 80s, and he was making a dictionary before he passed away," he said.

His great-grandpa was resisting what Kyle said the American government tried to do with boarding schools from the mid-1800s through the 40's.

“'Kill the Indian, save the man...They were pretty much beaten or punished for if they spoke any kind of Indian and any kind of native thing,” he said.

“Because of our history of our community, we have a lot of people that didn’t grow up knowing what it meant to be Potawatomi...so there’s an overwhelming majority of our tribe that’s like that now who could care less about our language or our culture, so if we could get more learners out there, more speakers out there, it is my hope that more of our tribal citizens will be proud to be who they are," said Winchester.

The Pokagon Band's two new apprentices certainly feel that way.

“Just preserving our language is such a big deal. It’s very important and it is a lot of pressure. People count on us to push this for our future generations, so just to have that responsibility and to have that power to actually do that to you know help our generation to continue," said Language Apprentice, Dejonay Morseau.

“It is an honor I would say to be a part of it, and to be here and learning the language with them and being able to help the community further with the language and the culture and the history, I feel a part of it," said Language Apprentice, Kendall Race.

“Our language is our culture, and our culture is our language. We can’t have one without the other, so they have to go together," said Kyle.

Anyone can take classes at the Language and Culture Center, and some are now being offered at Hartford High School and Southwest Michigan College to anyone enrolled there.

The Center has developed a new language learning app with over 500 Potawatomi words on it.

You can find out more about the app and language itself by clicking here.

The music is provided by Ribbon Town Singers.

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