From the South Bend Tribune:
Language is among the most important symbols of a culture. And while there may be as many as 50,000 Potawatomi Indians living today in North America, as few as 60 speak their native language. Just five to seven are able to teach it.
The urgency to keep the language from dying away is at the heart of the Pokagon Band’s participation in a federally funded program that now involves between 25 and 30 adults in Lower Michigan.
The area group meets for two hours every Thursday, alternating between classrooms in Dowagiac and Mishawaka.
Their goal, says Matt Morsaw, language specialist, is to produce three semi-fluent speakers over the next three years.
The Pokagons share funding for the program with the Gun Lake and Huron bands. A $175,000 a year, three-year grant started the project. Last September marked the beginning of a second round of funding, amounting to $200,000 split among the three bands over three years.Morsaw said the groups hope tribal funding can continue the effort after the current grant expires.
Frank Barker, who lives in Dowagiac, teaches the classes here and for the Huron band. Because many of the oldest tribal members had been educated at boarding schools that punished them for speaking their native language, they refused to pass along any language skills they had retained, to keep their children from similar discrimination.
Morsaw says children in the Pokagons’ Head Start classes now learn to speak basic Potawatomi words, such as the names of numbers and colors. The tribe hopes to establish a school for older children three or four years from now, and would include native language in the curriculum.
The uphill battle to restore Indian languages is being waged all across North America. The Program in Ojibwe Language and Literature at the University of Michigan is among the largest of its kind in the nation.
Morsaw reports that Pokagons are practicing their new skills via video and instant messaging with groups that share their ancestry in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, Oklahoma, Kansas, Wisconsin and Canada.Their success is critical. If they lose, their language will be gone forever.