I am an American, in fact, my genealogy traces back to the original Americans; Native Americans. This is the ethnicity I identify with, but this is not who I am, completely. I am also Mexican-American. This is part of the glory of being an American, diversity allows individuals to choose who they want to be and how they want to be classified. A person may be bred from various races, but may experience only one or two of the cultures of these races. I am Native American, this is part of my race, and part of my culture. The story of my race begins before the arrival of Christopher Columbus and the early Europeans. However, our full story wasn’t documented in the traditional sense until the Europeans came and relocated the Potawatomi tribe to the north part of Michigan, then to the southern part of Wisconsin, until we were divided and finally settled in on the Potawatomi reservation here in Kansas. This is where I will begin the story of my culture, transitioning to the culture of my great-uncle, and finally to the culture of my generation.
I identify as Native American, Prairie Band Potawatomi to be more precise. Tracking the history of the Potawatomi can be difficult. I used a few resources which seemed to have the same general information. According to the website created by the Prairie Band Potawatomi tribe, Potawatomi means “Keepers of the fire,” they originated near and migrated around the Great Lakes. Interactions between other Native American groups and the white settlers of the early 1600’s is what led to the migration of the Potawatomi. Similar to other tribes, the Potawatomi lived off of the land for subsistence. According to a web-based encyclopedia, the Potawatomi hunted, sometimes in large groups and sometimes in smaller groups depending on the time of year. In the warmer seasons groups would come together, during the colder seasons they would divide and split off. The men typically did the hunting, while the women would hunt for more natural food, such as berries, and plants. Both the women and men had a hand in some form of farming, ranging from corn and beans, to tobacco. The early Potawatomi were arranged by clans, and all of which were organized by a patrilineal manner. They were considered exogamous and therefore did not marry within their clan. It is difficult to get an idea about the culture of the Native Americans, since most documentation about the tribes was written by European and American outsiders. To get a better idea of the history, it is best to find an elder and listen to them. It is Native American tradition to have the history of the tribe be passed down in story from the elders to the youth.
Part of the Native American culture stems from the name of which one carries, and in the olden days it was earned. A person’s last name was also part of an identification mechanism to other clans and tribes, your name was not just a name, but it was a description of who you were. The name Wahquahboshkuk originally stems from the name Waboksheik, which means roily water. My uncle speaks of the event when the name transitioned into what it is today. His grandfather was on an outing, “to become a man” when he came across a Pawnee. The Potawatomi were hunter-gathers, but the Pawnee were a war party. It was then that the two began fighting for their own honor, in the middle of a river. Most Native American names are of a description of that person or an event; Wahquaboshkuk means, “they dirtied the water as they fought.” This describes the encounter between my great-great-great uncle and a Pawnee, gave him his name, and has given the name to the generations that have followed (George Wahquahboshkuk, personal communication, March 4th, 2016).
My great uncle was born in 1949, one of 10 children. He fought in the Vietnam war, was the only one in his family to attend college and retired as a political leader for the Prairie Band Potawatomi. As a young boy the dynamics of his family was very traditional of an early Native American, or any early American for that matter. His father was a trapper, while his mother was a typical homemaker keeping an eye on the children and maintaining the home. Their marriage was arranged and occurred while they were both very young. They lived in a two-bedroom home, without electricity or running water. As a young boy my great uncle lived in a time when small Native American children were taken by a government agency called the B.I.A (Bureau of Indian affairs), and was taken away to become civilized by a religious group. This happened to him when he was six years old. My great uncle recalled, “they treat you horrifically, and if you ran away they’d shave your hair and knick your head with the clippers.” (George Wahquahboshkuk, personal communication, March 4th, 2016). As a Native American my great-uncle’s childhood was encompassed mainly with the traditions of his culture. The men were taught more of the spiritual mechanisms and the women were limited in their involvement of the traditions. My great uncle became the father to six of his own children, and took in his great niece, all of whom he would teach these traditions to.
When I was a small child, the Native American traditions were a major part of my experiences. Although we did not attend many pow wows many various “meetings” were held at my childhood home. It is on these occasions that a sheet would be laid out on the floor, with food covered from one end of the sheet to the other end. Those in attendance would be seated around the sheet, a prayer of sorts would be said, food would be eaten, and then the next group of people would sit and the process would take place all over again. This would occur again and again until everyone had eaten. The men would then clear the dishes, and the women cleaned them, any food that was left over, was not wasted but rather used as part of the ritual, and in a way in which I cannot speak of.
I spoke of names being of great importance, mine was given to me at a very early age and although I know what it is I cannot tell you what it means, since the person that gave it to me was no longer alive when I attempted to inquire about it. This is why the passing of traditions is so important to the Native American culture. It is easy to forget one’s culture. The “meetings” are the only spiritual event that I was exposed to as a child. I was taught some our Native American beliefs, but there is not much more to describe other than that. I grew up in a household where much of the culture was lost. I have since birthed a child, married an Anglo descendent, and no longer reside on the reservation. This does not mean though that my interest in my culture has extinguished. I have great respect for my culture and after my daughter had grown for four seasons she was allowed to be given an Indian name, which my great uncle chose for her. For three days I helped with the preparation of food for the ceremony where children, including me daughter would be given their Indian name. It was on this third day that I was noticed in the kitchen, and the chief’s brother, thanked me and semi-joked that “I really know how to earn my name.” It was then during the actual ceremony that I was anonymously acknowledged, for my hard work in the preparation of the ceremony.
The culture of the Prairie Band Potawatomi does not revolve solely around traditions, though. Our culture entails large families, and although many Native Americans believe in the procreation with other Native Americans, this is not always the case. Families are not of the traditional days, but the economy has required that both men and women work at paying occupations.
The Prairie Band Potawatomi of Mayetta, Kansas has become a sovereign nation where the native people govern themselves. Harrah’s casino assisted the Prairie Band in setting up a casino and eventually the native people took it over and any excess revenue from this business is used to better the livelihood of the native people. We have a police station that works in combination with other local authorities to deal with the enforcement of the laws. Housing programs help to sustain our people on federal land. Higher Education programs have been established to help our native people excel in occupations with the hope that they may some day work to help better the tribe. We also have programs that help to sustain our traditional culture; for example language programs where, natives can come and learn the old language,
My race has experienced much turmoil over the last 300 years, but much of who we are stems from that turmoil. We are people with a great amount of pride for being who we are. Our families are important to us, traditions for most of the native people are the core of who they are. Literature of the native people, is informative but lacks in the true nature of who we are. My great uncle, George Wahaquahboshkuk lived part of what you read in books and part of what you will never see on paper. He passed on to me, some of those traditions, and some of which I have passed on to my very own children. This is how it has always been, for many cultures. The passing of knowledge is how cultures are kept in existence, it is when we start forgetting and failing to practice that cultures are lost.
An Elder’s history [Personal Interview]. (2016, March 01).
“Potawatomi.” Encyclopedia of World Cultures. 1996. Retrieved February 29, 2016 from http://www.encyclopedia.com/topic/Potawatomi.aspx .
Tribal History. Retrieved February 29, 2016 from http://www.pbpindiantribe.com/tribal-history.aspx .