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In the early days of the Potawatomi Tribe, long before the Europeans journeyed to the shores of this continent, stories about early history, culture and traditions were told over Winter camp fires, which eventually became known as oral history and remain a strong part of the tribal culture. Stories of the Great Depression are a good example of contemporary oral histories that are just now taking their rightful place around today's "camp fires," and are lessons to live by and to learn from by the many offspring of these elders.
While the rest of the country spiraled into a severe economic downturn in 1929, the Potawatomi, honed by a long hard history, made the necessary adjustments to survive. Years of hardship had taught the people on the reservation to depend on important survival skills, such as an uncanny ability to improvise, but not to be overlooked were a few welcome federal work programs, that became the key to managing in a severe economic period of this country.
How did the Potawatomi weather these hard times? They only had to look to the no-so- distant past and remember the removal period still fresh in the minds of many elders by virtue of tribal stories preserved by the oral history tradition. The lessons of the past would help the Potawatomi overcome adversity. Inner strength and character would help the people on the reservation cope with the trauma of the times. Thus, while the world fell apart around them, the people on the reservation did what they had to do to survive. Adversity has a way of building character and this became evident as the years rolled by for the Potawatomi people.
Surviving the Great Depression was just one chapter in the life of the Potawatomi people for a long eventful history had preceded this event but a history that had done a fair job in preparing the tribe for this moment in time.
Many of the people on the reservation wrote down their expenses, income, deaths, and the recording of the arrival of new babies in little journals or ledger books. This, along with oral history provides an insight on how the Potawatomi lived in those trying times. The Potawatomi have long depended on the wisdom and advice of their tribal elders and this enabled this story to be told for the first time.
Human suffering became a reality for millions of Americans as the depression continued. Thousands lost their homes because they could not pay the mortgage. In 1932, at least 25,000 families and more than 200,000 young people wandered through the country seeking food, clothing, shelter, and a job. Many youth traveled in freight trains and lived near yards in camps called hobo jungles. While this happened to many other Americans, the Potawatomi generally stayed on or near the reservation. A key to staying was the ability to improvise.
In one family journal, for instance, it reveals how Hattie Lasley sold chickens, hens, and one rooster for a pittance to buy food for her family. She sold bushels of potatoes, tomatoes and even helped cut wood for the local farmers. And like so many during this era, she worked a small farm, but it was just enough to make a living.
Luther Wahwasuck, an elderly Potawatomi man, recalled his experience "I was just in my teens. Around home, we had a helluva time and it was hard to do anything to make money. We had to eat hard-tack, a hard cracker, squirrel, rabbit, turtle and had to put up food for future use. We did quite a bit of trapping and skinned out the animals and took them to Topeka and with this money, we would buy .22 ammunition for hunting and Bull Durham."
He remembered that even before the Depression, there was no money for Potawatomis to lose. So they never learned to distrust banks like so many others in America who lost money when they failed. He also related how the Indian people often had no cars, but did have horse and buggies and wagons. There was no electricity or running water in most homes and many people died of tuberculosis.