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Heritage Grant Potawatomi Language Project Proposal

Submitted by project director Smokey McKinney, October, 1994

We suggest the on-line reader also read the final report that followed our carrying out the activities proposed here.

Sponsoring Organization

The name of our organization is BWAKA, a group interested in preserving and furthering Potawatomi culture and thought. The group is currently comprised of James McKinney and Smokey McKinney, both enrolled Prairie Band Potawatomis. James is a pastor and district superintendent in the Indian United Methodist church; he is also a fluent speaker of Potawatomi. Smokey is a PhD student (rhetoric and professional communication) at Iowa State University. Although we have been talking about doing something about the disappearing Potawatomi language for about five years, we have only taken action in the last two, and BWAKA was formed this summer for the purpose of making our ideas of language reteaching into a reality, beginning with this Heritage Grant project. We intend to expect to apply for non-profit organization status.

BWAKA stands for Bringing Wisdom And Knowledge About, a phrase which reflects our purposes even beyond the language project. Bringing about implies a circular process; wisdom and knowledge are two important parts of learning and doing that go hand in hand. In this project, both will be necessary to accomplish our purpose: the preservation and reteaching of the Potawatomi language. Bwaka is also the Potawatomi word for "someone who gets things done." We have chosen this title so that we as researchers might stand in contrast to (and cooperation with) the real experts in our project, the nake'ndumwajek, which is in Potawatomi "the ones who know"--in this case, those who know the Potawatomi language.


The scope of this Heritage Grant project consists of collecting and cataloguing linguistic data of the Prairie Band Potawatomi language. However, this Heritage project is just the first stage of four stages in a longer project. After collecting the data and doing some preliminary cataloguing of it (STAGE 1), we will use the video and audio segments to aid in (2) writing down the language and compiling linguistic data about Potawatomi, such as a lexicon; in (3) the production of quality teaching materials, including a multi-media language curriculum on CD-Interactive software, to be used on commonplace (for our day and age) PCs found increasingly in homes and businesses; for the purpose of (4) re-teaching Potawatomi to the Potawatomi people, who reside mainly off-reservation and away from the elders that might teach in more normal fashions. In the long term, we also hope that our language tools will have a greater positive effect on the revitalization of Potawatomi culture.

Anthropologist Alanson Skinner said of the Prairie Potawatomi culture in 1924, "The end is near, and in a short time the student will be obliged to turn to the Museum collection and the printed page for any information as to the ethnology of the tribe" (Bulletin of the Milwaukee Public Museum). Despite stubborn Potawatomi resistance, Skinner's prophecy about Potawatomi myths and traditions is nearly true of Potawatomi language today. Although there are documented efforts at language preservation among Wisconsin Potawatomis and although there is renewed interest in language among Oklahoma Potawatomis, the Kansas reservation is the site of the greatest Potawatomi resistance to white pressure to assimilate and therefore the richest source for original Potawatomi speakers in the present day. But that resource is diminishing; we count about a dozen Potawatomi elders in Kansas for whom Potawatomi was a first language. Out of these come the nake'ndumwajekfor our project. Our Heritage language project seeks to preserve the knowledge of these elders in a modern medium--videotape.

The Heritage project we propose will take place in 1995. Some preparations will occur in the spring months: further collaboration with consultant Akira Yamamoto, more research into the limited linguistic literature, continuing contact with the Potawatomi speakers on and near the reservation, and the formation of summer schedules. But the main data collection--videotaping of nake'ndumwajekspeaking Potawatomi--will take place in July. Jim and Smokey, along with a video camera technician, plan to travel to the Prairie Band reservation just west of Mayetta, KS, for the four weeks of July (100 hours), collecting video data of the Potawatomi speakers. Since teaching materials and CD-Interactive computer software are a goal of this project from the beginning, some attention will be paid to these even during data collection.

We intend to collect two kinds of data. The first kind we are calling open-ended; this collection will pay respect to the nake'ndumwajenby allowing her/him to discuss whatever they wish about the language. This data gathering will provide important contextual elements in the analysis of the language and will also provide video clips for use in the multimedia tools. It is our hope that many important pieces of Potawatomi culture--such as Potawatomi oral history or traditional stories--will also accompany talk about the language. The second kind of data we will gather will be close-ended, or direct responses to questions asked by the researchers. These questions will be tied much more tightly to the process of learning and teaching Potawatomi and will progress along with the project. That is, one day's data gathered and reviewed will produce new insights and questions for the next day's interview. To illustrate: in an open-ended interview, a speaker shares their insights about the effects of boarding school experiences on how often Potawatomi was spoken in the reservation community early in this century; the next day, as a follow-up with more close-ended questions, we ask for a more concise version of the story (to be used as an example or illustration in a pedagogical book or program), for a portion of the story itself to be told only in the Potawatomi language, or for additional terms associated with the subject--such as words for teacher, learning, books, communication, etc., and possible differences between the Potawatomi words for Potawatomi teacher vs. white teacher.

The primary interviewer will be Jim McKinney, since he is something of a nake'ndumwajenhimself and as a speaker will be able to carry on conversations in Potawatomi before the video camera. The camera operator will frame both the speaker alone and the speaker conversing with Jim, whichever is most relevant. Smokey will be present at all interviews and will have some opportunity to interject, though he will not be filmed (due to his age and inexperience with the language); Smokey will play a more active role in the close-ended data gathering.

All interviews will be video-taped by a single camera and also audio-taped, as an insurance measure. The informants will wear lapel microphones for quality of recording. As explained below under "participants," we hope to find four elders (including at least one woman) willing to be videotaped in July, and our desire is to spend about one week with each of the four, though the actual schedule will vary depending on participant availability.

The second stage of the Heritage project we propose--cataloguing of the data collected--will take place in August through October (approx. 200 hours). In this stage, researchers (mainly Smokey) will examine the data and sort it into categories. Records will be created for identifying which tapes hold particular kinds of data. The exact organization of categories will evolve out of the data itself; however, Dr. Yamamoto has suggested a thematic organization will likely be useful. To illustrate: a videotape from 7/??/94 may include discussions on Potawatomi family life and social gatherings, information on indigenous knowledge of medicinal plants, and at the same time contain answers to "close-ended" questions on common phrases and greetings in Potawatomi.

Complete transcriptions will not be made of all the tapes; there is simply not time for that at this stage. However, the cataloguing of the data will make the tapes accessible in later stages of the research, when particular sections may be transcribed for specific purposes.

An additional but important part of this second stage will be word collection and analysis of grammatical structure. Such efforts go beyond the objectives of the Heritage project we propose and into the second stage of the overall project (writing down the language), but are necessary both to creating an accurate record of the tapes and to the consultant's evaluating the success of the project, since the language has no standard form for being written.

Dr. Yamamoto (and also linguist Kenneth Miner) have indicated peculiar difficulties in working with Potawatomi, particularly in sentence structure. For example, word order in "sentences" in Potawatomi is roughly Subject-Object-Verb (SOV; English is ordered SVO); however, verbs show a very complex structure in that information about the subject and object of a sentence, the subject/object's plurality, and also whether that subject/object is animate or inanimate--all very important details of Potawatomi conversation--are encoded in the verb, "marked" as prefixes and suffixes. Information such as this about Potawatomi comes from the few articles in the linguistic literature, such as those by Charles Hockett. Whether our collection supports or refutes current understanding of Potawatomi will be a basis for Dr. Yamamoto's evaluation of the success of our project.

The catalogue record of the collected data and the lingusitic database that results of this second stage of the Heritage project will become wordprocessor files in Microsoft Word, maintained by BWAKA and expanded upon as the long-term research continues. The specifics on the process of reporting the results of our project are discusses below under "sharing our project with the community."

Project Importance

We see a direct connection between language and culture. Preserving the language will have an important role in the maintenance and revitalization of Potawatomi culture. In addition to language tools, we may provide the Prairie Potawatomis with better information about how to interact with mainstream culture without losing their own. In any case, the collected videotapes of Potawatomi nake'ndumwajekwill be a precious resource for both Potawatomis and the Indian language research community.

The collection of both audio and video data for use in multimedia curricular tools is an unusual approach to language teaching. We have seen computer software (such as Hypercard applications) which use multimedia to teach language, but are unaware of a project that has sought to incorporate this purpose from the beginning.

Finally, there is a tremendous urgency to do a project such as ours: the ones who can really speak "good Indian" are all fairly old, as indicated in our discussion of "participants" below. By the time of Jim McKinney's generation (b. 1928), Potawatomis were already raising their children bilingually, and now by necessity, the primary (and in most cases, the only) language of the typical Potawatomi child is English. When we began looking for speaker/participants in the summer of 1993, we found that two of the best speakers had passed away only that year. These speakers are a rich resource, but a limited and fading one.

Humanities Consultant

Dr. Akira Yamamoto, a linguistics and anthropology professor at the University of Kansas, has agreed to be the consultant on our proposed Heritage project. We have discussed the project in detail over the phone and Dr. Yamamoto has submitted to us a written evaluation of our proposal so far. If the project is funded by KHC, we will meet with Dr. Yamamoto later this fall to propose a more specific and exhaustive strategy for our data collection.

Dr. Yamamoto has suggested portions of the linguistic literature we need to read and has also recommended we involve one or two other individuals who have previously worked with the Potawatomi language; he specifically mentioned Kenneth Miner. The cost of an additional consultant is reflected in the attached budget.

The consultant's evaluation of the project is based on the first two of the Heritage project's objectives, which are: 1) collect sufficient data for a linguistic analysis of grammatical structure, in particular, sentence structure; 2) collect data that provides for the formulation of tools for writing down the language of Potawatomi, such as the formation of a Potawatomi lexicon; 3) collect data that provides for the formulation of tools for the basic teaching of the language; 4) collect data that may be used in the formulation of a multimedia, interactive computer software. In order to meet all of these objectives, the data collected will need to be of good quality (videotape clarity, etc.), it will need to be well thought-out and well-directed in its collection,and it will need to cover a lot of linguistic and cultural territory.


Primary researchers and project co-directors: Jim and Smokey McKinney The bulk of their time will be considered local cost share for the BWAKA organization, especially during the data gathering; however, we have written in some pay for them for a portion of the time we think it will take to catalogue the data.

Nake'ndumwajek: at present, we have one firm commitment to participate in this project by a Potawatomi speaker, Lorenzo Mattewaoshe. We wish we could offer more, but the process of securing from elderly Potawatomi the willingness to be videotaped for research purposes is a long and difficult one. In some cases, the ones we have asked--especially women; specifically, Roberta Green and Julia Levier--have declined in modesty. We still hope to have Roberta participate. In other cases, there is skepticism on the part of those experienced in teaching the language and experienced with the cmokmanek (white men's) way of educating. In particular, two relatives--Leonard McKinney and Lucien McKinney, both of whom have independently taught Potawatomi--have displayed interest in our project but an unwillingness to commit to being informants until they learn more. Two other speakers we have yet to contact are Hollis Thomas, who lives on the Kickapoo reservation, and Ray Wahweotten, who is a known expert speaker but at last report was in the VA hospital. The nake'ndumwajekwill be given gifts as honoraria.

Additional consultants: Dr. Yamamoto has suggested securing one or two other linguistic consultants. In particular, he named Kenneth Miner, a linguistics professor at the University of Kansas.

Video technician: we will secure and pay a camera operator for a portion of the time they spend in the field during data collection. Two individuals have asked to take part, Sarah Kay Bissell, an experienced video camera technician and Paul Brook, a temporary instructor at Iowa State University, a Lakota speaker, and a biographer of a Lakota woman.

Data Cataloguing: Mainly Smokey McKinney, but also Jim. Another possibility is Annette White, a Caddo student at Kansas State University who has worked on the Potawatomi language with Leonard McKinney and who has expressed an interest in our Heritage project.

Sharing our project with the community

A report of the project results and a copy of the catalogue files will be submitted at the end of 1995 to three entities: the Kansas Humanities Council, the Prairie Band Potawatomi Tribal Council, and a reputable academic institution interested in furthering research in the Potawatomi language (we have in mind Washburn University, because of its proximity to the Potawatomi reservation). In the report to KHC, we expect to project further research they might fund. In the report to the Tribal Council, we plan to suggest how the data gathered might be used by them in teaching the language. Currently, language lessons are part of the curriculum at the Penoje' Wigwam (preschool on the reservation). In addition to these reports, we hope to write up the results in an article to be published in a linguistic or historical journal, such as that produced by the Kansas Historical Society.

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 1997