WVPE's Kent Fulmer One-On-One With Kyle Malott During Native American Heritage Month
November is Native American Heritage Month.
It’s an opportunity to celebrate Native American culture and also an opportunity to educate people about it.
When people think about the Native American community in this area, the chances are they are thinking about the Pokagon Band of Potawatomi.
Kyle Malott is a language specialist with the band. He says one only has to look at the names on a map to see the impact of the Pokagon Band on our area.
"If you look at place names around the area, a lot of them actually stem from Potawatomi words. So, this is out of Elkhart here. Elkhart is actually the English translation for what we call the area. We call the area Mzhéwé wdé. Mzhéwé wdé literally translates to “an elk’s heart,” Malott explained. "Now Mishawaka comes from our word Mshiwakwa. Mshiwakwa meaning a big stand of trees. If you go up into Dowagiac where Pokagon Band of Potawatomi is based today, it comes from the word Ndowathoyék. Ndowathoyék. And that means the place of gathering, harvesting or foraging. That was actually the name of a village ran by one of our leaders named Topinabee."
The Potawatomi have lived in our area for hundreds of years.
Some of their legends even say they originated here.
Malott says, "We have stories where we originated in Wisconsin. We have stories that we came out of Lake Michigan. There are stories of coming out of the St. Joe River as well. Now there was a great migration where we went to the east coast over by Maine and we lived among the Delaware and the Abenaki people. Now, later on there become some forewarnings of what was going to be in that area and then we migrated back this way."
And while many of the Potawatomi groups in this area were relocated, the Pokagon band stayed due to the wisdom and forethought of one leader according to Malott.
"We had a leader named Leopold Pokagon, which is who we get our name from. Now there was the treaty of Chicago in 1833. A lot of things were happening at the time, where the government was tricking leaders into signing away their lands. Pokagon saw through that and was able to negotiate on the second day of that treaty that we could stay in the territory of Michigan."
The Pokagon Band of Potawatomi only received recognition from the federal government about 26 years ago.
"So we received our federal recognition in 1994. There was about a 60 year battle with the U.S. government under the, I believe it was the Howard Dawes Act back in the 30's. Because we didn’t have a quote-unquote land base, we weren’t considered to be a federally recognized tribe at the time," Malott recalled.
Malott says the band has made a lot of progress since receiving that federal recognition.
"So, we received federal recognition when I was about four-years-old, back in 1994 and we had nothing before that. Now we are able to give healthcare to our people. We are able to provide services of social services. We have language programs. We have cultural programs. We have housing programs. We have all kinds of stuff that we're able to provide our people these days," Malott said.
A big part of cultural preservation is language preservation, which Malott is involved in. He says that effort came along only just in time.
"So in 2013, the tribe was putting together and starting a program of a master apprentice program. This was in collaboration with the Forest County Band of Potawatomi up in Forest County, Wisconsin. Carla Collins and myself were chosen to go up there for four years and learn under the fluent speakers up there. It was kind of a now or never situation. The speakers up there are all now about the average age of about 84 and there’s only about five left," Malott explained.
The band also has a number of other programs in place to preserve and educate their culture, including pow wows on Memorial Day and Labor Day weekends. Those are open to the public.
When asked what final message Malott wanted to communicate to the public, here’s what he said.
"Just that we are still here. Sometimes when we see people in public, they ask and I say Potawatomi. They say 'I didn’t even know they were still around.' We are still here. We are still prevalent in the community and we’re here to help the community. We’re here to work with the community and just learn all you can about us."