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1998 Kansas Humanities Council Grant Proposal


Nineteenth century missionaries to the Potawatomi worked hard to learn the language of their clients and to bring the Gospel, the Word of God, to American Indians in their native language. We propose to mine these scriptural translations for Potawatomi words and grammatical forms that may have fallen into disuse, and present our findings both in lecture programs and on our website on the Kansas Heritage Server. Our objectives are two-fold: to restore some of the power of this endangered language to its people, and to enable other Kansans, and people throughout the world, to better appreciate the rich cultural heritage of their Native American neighbors, as it is expressed through the Potawatomi language.


Every culture expresses its values, its problems, its way of life through its language. Modern American culture is changing rapidly and with those changes have come remarkable changes in our vocabularies. Consider "CD-ROM" "arms inspectors," "sexual harassment," "snowboarding," "beef libel."

We can look at another culture, from the inside out in a sense, by looking at its language. Most of its words will parallel our own, of course, but many will not. These differences are the gateways to insight. By examining the words and grammatical forms that differ from English, we can better understand how another people, separated from us in time and culture, lived and thought.

We propose to explore the language and through it the world of the Potawatomi Indians who emigrated to Kansas in the first half of the nineteenth century, and present our findings both in lectures and on our website on the Kansas Heritage Server. In doing this we hope to achieve two goals:

  1. To expand contemporary knowledge of the Potawatomi language by recovering words and grammatical forms that have fallen into disuse. In this, our focus will be on the Potawatomi people and our desire to preserve and revitalize our language and culture.

  2. To give people interested in the history and cultural heritage of the state of Kansas an opportunity to learn about one of its immigrant groups in a manner that we believe will bypass the usual stereotypes and thus provide fresh insights and clearer vision.


The Potawatomi emigrated from the Great Lakes area to Kansas in the first half of the nineteenth century, bringing with them a centuries old, rich and cherished culture and a language noted for its poetic quality. Today that language is endangered. Speakers for whom it is their first language are few and aging; even they use English for most of their everyday communications. If the language dies, the Potawatomi culture, which is part of every American's heritage, will die with it.

Several language preservation projects are underway, on the Prairie Band reservation and within other Potawatomi bands in Wisconsin and Michigan. Ours, however, is unique in its focus and its accomplishments.

BWAKA received its first real momentum when Kansas Humanities Council awarded it a grant to videotape Potawatomi speakers in 1994. Much has been accomplished since then:

Kansas Humanities Council's contribution to our organization was invaluable; it got us started. Our website credits KHC in several places, giving permanent testimony to our gratitude.

Our mission is primarily educational in nature, and our efforts always include Potawatomis who live far from their roots on the reservation but who wish to learn more about their heritage. Furthermore, we are happy to share the fruits of our labors with people who are not of Potawatomi descent, asking only that they treat our language and culture with respect. What we learn we make available to all.

Our current project

The current project will utilize 19th century missionaries' translations of the scriptures to explore the Potawatomi language as it was spoken 150 years ago. We expect to recapture important data about the Potawatomi language and to enable guests at our lectures and website to better understand and appreciate Potawatomi heritage. The project involves a large research component as well as lectures and a full Internet exposition.

Two groups of missionaries joined the Potawatomis when they resettled in Kansas. Johnston Lykins, a Baptist minister, founded a school and mission near Topeka in 1843, after working with the tribe for years in Michigan. Jesuit priests, primarily French, began St. Mary's mission in 1848.

Both the Protestants and the Catholics used the Potawatomi language in their work. Lykins' TRANSLATION OF THE GOSPEL ACCORDING TO MATTHEW AND THE ACTS OF THE APOSTLES was published in 1844. This book is on our website (http://www.ku.edu/~kansite/pbp/books/lyki ns/l_intro.html) with the Potawatomi and King James English versions side by side. Maurice Gailland, S.J., translated all of the Gospels used in the Catholic Mass on Sundays and feast days such as Christmas. Never published, this manuscript contains large segments of the GOSPEL ACCORDING TO MATTHEW. The Midwest Jesuit Archives has graciously given us permission to publish it on our website.

The correspondence that has come down to us attests to the fact that the Catholic and Protestant missionaries fought one another vigorously. They did not collaborate on their translations or confer on language problems. Thus we have long scriptural translations where the source document is the same and the translations were made at about the same time but independently. The Lykins translation will be our primary text; the Gailland manuscript will be used to complement it. Data derived from these translations, if found in both, are much more credible than if they are observed in a single source.

The Jewish world in which Jesus lived and taught was much different from a nineteenth century Kansas reservation, and from today's world, as well. Just as today's Bible students, whether young or old, must learn cultural context to fully appreciate scriptural meaning, so missionaries had to communicate complex ideas as well as translate words. Often there was no Potawatomi word for a Biblical term or even a more commonplace word. In other cases, meaning was best expressed by a Potawatomi word for which there was no direct English equivalent.

We will work with Dr. David Costa to examine the translations word for word, making special note of words that provide unique insights into the Potawatomi culture. Dr. Costa is a linguist from the University of California at Berkeley who specializes in the study of old Native American documents.

We do not expect to complete our research into these Potawatomi documents before the end of the project that we are asking KHC to fund. We hope to examine 300 to 500 words as part of the project, and continue our efforts into the future until we feel that there is no more information about the language to be gained from these sources.


We will present our findings in two lecture programs, one at Haskell Indian Nations University in Lawrence and the other in the Mayetta area. In each program, Dan Wildcat, a member of the Haskell faculty, will discuss the relationship between culture and language. Then Smokey McKinney will describe briefly the present condition of the Potawatomi language, efforts to revitalize it, and the place of this project within those efforts. He will present the methods and results of our research, emphasizing the more interesting findings. The insights that the words give into the life, values, and culture of 19th century Potawatomis will be explored.

Because a lecture presentation limits the amount of material that can be absorbed by the audience, those present will be referred to the BWAKA website for more detail.

Website Presentation

A fuller exposition of the study will be possible on our website, and it will remain permanently available. The website presently has a section on the Potawatomi language and another on Potawatomi culture. We envision adding materials from the study to both sections.

In the language section, we will describe the methodology used and present our findings in detail. This data will be of interest primarily to Potawatomis who are students of the Potawatomi language.

In the culture section, we plan to provide essay material exploring the relationship between language and culture, as well as the historical context of the scriptural translations. We will present any culturally significant findings, together with interpretive remarks. Only a few of our findings can be presented and absorbed within the time constraints of a lecture; all of them will be available in this setting.

We hope that people who attend the lectures and visit the website will gain a greater appreciation of the beauty and depth of Potawatomi language and culture. We trust that members of our audience will find cause for reflection in contemplation of the language that grew out of a culture and life style largely unknown, even by the most conservative of modern American Indians.

Our greater contribution will be contained within a linguistic framework, however. The research that will go into this project, and will continue long after it has been completed, will add significantly to the body of generally available knowledge about the Potawatomi language, and will be made available to those most interested in it: the Potawatomi people.

There has been little, if any, published Potawatomi linguistic research utilizing the missionary translations. We hope that availability of the documents used in our research as well as our detailed findings on the Internet will provide an important resource to all students of the Potawatomi language.

Potawatomi beaded belt

BWAKA - about us
bode'wadmimo speak Potawatomi
nIshnabe'k The People
eagle aloft 1994 Grant ­ final report
mzenegenek books
nizhokmake'wen resources/help
Homepage: news & updates

We welcome your questions and comments.

Text and graphics copyright © Smokey McKinney 1998

A Kansas Heritage Group site.