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Heritage Program
Project Director Evaluation Report

submitted by Smokey McKinney, 4/7/96

(NOTE: the on-line reader is directed to the original grant proposal for background/context for this report.)

Did the project meet your goals and expectations? What were your biggest successes? AND How many of the activities in your work plan were you able to complete during the grant period? If additional work remains, how do you plan to complete the project?

The project far surpassed our expectations, but not in the ways we either expected or planned. We have learned that good ethnography adjusts its methodological assumptions and objectives along the way, and we have certainly had to adjust. We made changes in the scope of our data collection and in the manner we approached the folks on the reservation.

What didn't work out. Our stated plan was to collect data in four subsequent weeks of July 1995. But our project director contracted lymphoma in the spring of 1995 and was in chemotherapy and radiation therapy until the second week of July, so we spent the last two weeks of July in the field instead of all four. We made up this time later in the fall with more visits and by attending the Traditional Gathering of the Seven Bands in Mayetta (Sept). Four full weeks turned out to be unfeasible anyway, because of the unique position of our research team. As enrolled and personally known members of the Potawatomi nation, we had a great advantage (we believe) over non-Indian researchers, but also found ourselves limited in interesting ways by social protocol. For example, Potawatomis just don't ask for something (such as running videotape) the first time you visit. While some were willing to be videotaped, this was always due to prior contact. For the most part, we found we had to be satisfied in July with making initial contact, informing the People of our work, collecting whatever materials they were willing to share, and building good will for future participation. And this is what has transpired.

In our proposal, we said we wanted to collect materials for building basic linguistic tools (such as a dictionary), since those tools didn't yet exist. We additionally said we were looking ahead to multimedia applications (such as interactive software), so we hoped to collect traditional tales and other contextual artifacts. While we did videotape one traditional story told entirely in Potawatomi (Wiske' and Why the Cicak[Crane]'s Eyes are Red), for the most part we found it necessary to narrow our focus in our collecting efforts, and especially subsequent work with the data in the fall, to the first objective. This outcome was predicted by both the research consultant and the proposal evaluators at KHC. The fact of the absence of basic knowledge of written Potawatomi postponed anything more sophisticated. But, as a direct result of the work we have now done, this limitation will not be true in the future.

Similarly, our dual approach ("open and close-ended questions") seemed more to interfere with than enable our data collection. For example, when interviewing Meeksokwe, Sarah Patterson and Jane Puckee (they only allowed us one half hour), the conversation seemed to take off when they were allowed to follow their own "thread" of thought (open-ended), but our attempt to return to our planned word list (close-ended) seemed only to end the creativity and produce uncomfortable silence. We will still pursue specific and directive threads (close-ended) in order to substantiate findings and provide multimedia pedagogical examples, but will use this format only with nake'ndumwajek who have made it clear to us they are willing to give the time and have the patience for this slower and more demanding work.

What did work. Despite the methodological problems we ran into, and although it was not all in the form we proposed (videotape), we did collect a formidable array of data, including video, audio and printed text. Several nake'ndumwajek ("ones who know") shared with us audiotapes they had previously made for teaching Potawatomi. We collected numerous documents, and, late in the fall, our activities surfaced an envelope of about one hundred pages of handouts and notes from a series of Potawatomi lessons given in Topeka in the 1970s. Our collection of data continues to grow as initial contacts lead to more, and as word gets around what we are doing.

Perhaps our biggest success was the establishment of a "presence" on the reservation. We contacted nine nake'ndumwajek, twice what we expected. Though they were typically reserved at first, we are convinced repeated contact (which we have made and continue to make) will convince these good People that our project is a long-term one (a major reason for Potawatomi skepticism is the fly-by-night nature of past researchers and data collection). The ball is now in our court. We have promised a basic dictionary this year; such a document will not only be useful to Potawatomis and show a benefit from initial contributions (of the nake'ndumwajek), it also provides a perfect format for continued data "collection." The People will get texts, be reading and using them, saying things like, "that word should really be..." OR "that word reminds me of another one..." The (re)generative nature of this process is exciting to think about.

The form in which we have been representing our collected data is also exciting to think about. Readers with access to the world wide web should take a look at http://www.public.iastate.edu/~jsmckinn/. These web pages, a primary feature of which is sound files of our nake'ndumwajek, were begun in mid-fall of 1995 and have already been revised twice. We are in the time-consuming process of digitizing tape, organizing a multimedial database, and composing internet applications/text to access that database. In only six months on the web, we have been contacted by over thirty Potawatomi individuals that have offered encouragement and support, and made requests for additional materials. These Potawatomis include officials from the Citizen Band in Oklahoma and in the northwest region of the United States. Also in that time period, we have established firm contact with a linguist at Stanford University who has not only been advising our project but has volunteered to utilize a summer 1996 research fellowship to work on the project full-time. The looming challenge is to provide Potawatomis with access to this technology, which will be the primary focus of future granting requests (we are looking at National Endowment for the Humanities "Teaching with Technology" and Department of Health and Human Services "Survival and Vitality of Native American Languages" grant RFPs).

What format did you use to share the project with the community? Were any public meetings held, and if so, how many people attended? AND Which state repository has been notified of your project, and are they interested in making copies of and/or storing the results of your project?

Our primary audience in this project were Potawatomis themselves. We made two presentations on the reservation, both in November of 1995. One presentation was made to the seniors at the meal site (about fifty attended this session), demonstrating the results and progress of our project and honoring our nake'ndumwajek. The other was made before three members of the Tribal Council, demonstrating the same things and soliciting their endorsement and support of the project. It was (is) our intention to place the primary copies of our data with the Prairie Band Tribal office, but, no, they have not yet indicated to us they would be willing to make copies for general public consumption. If KHC wishes, we will contact the Kansas State Historical Society to place a second copy there for this purpose. However, the materials we have collected will be made increasingly and significantly available to the public (internationally!) over this next year via the internet/world wide web. A new challenge we face is how much of our cultural "data" is of a private nature and perhaps should not be published at large. For advice on this matter, we are looking to the tribe.

Describe any kinds of followup activities that you anticipate in your community.

At the end of May 1996, Jim McKinney, Smokey McKinney, and linguist Rob Malouf are meeting for ten days in Horton, Kansas, for the purpose of planning next steps to be taken this summer and this year. We anticipate several trips to the Potawatomi reservation during that time; we also have been invited to Oneida Wisconsin for a language efforts conference (Wisconsin Potawatomi project, who are in the process of making a dictionary, are also supposed to attend). We are in the middle of the process of incorporating BWAKA as a not-for-profit rganization on the state and federal levels. We have added to our team two more of Jim McKinney's children, Darlene Young (who will be an organizing force for our project and our primary grant writer) and Rebekah Gaines (who will act as treasurer). We have begun soliciting Potawatomis to comprise an advisory board; two have already agreed to sit in such a role.

The primary goal for this summer is the construction of a well-designed and useful multimedia database of collected data (however, serious data collection will be an ongoing process (for example, we just learned of a Potawatomi dictionary by Jesuit priest Gailland that is available from Indiana Historical Society). Student volunteers from Smokey's school (Iowa State University) have contributed much time to the process of data entry. Smokey will be conducting a class on Indian languages and technology this summer, one project of which will have students collaboratively producing a Potawatomi text (such as a children's book or pages on the www).

Future activities seem to be many. We plan to make application for a major grant this fall, to begin work in Spring or Summer of 1997 and to be conducted for 1-3 years, the objectives of which will include more data collection, language teaching tools (software) development, and/or establishing computer and internet access in the Potawatomi community. From the Prairie Band Tribal Council we are requesting space and support to establish a cultural "center" on the reservation that would provide Potawatomis access to our data and function as a tool to educate visitors about Potawatomi culture and language.

Finally, we have begun working on an interactive multimedia language teaching tool we have been calling the Potawatomi Home. It combines a graphic game environment (such as that used in computer games, such as Myst) with an interactive script that is based on the Potawatomi language, with lots of attention given to a created environment reflective of Indian culture. Through multiple visits to a Potawatomi residence, basic and conversational Potawatomi is learned. Each room is a topical lesson. As in a game, ability (in our case, the ability to speak Potawatomi) allows users to move to increasingly difficult levels. This concept is only in the idea stages, but it is one of our primary goals: using technology to teach Potawatomi.

Summary of Project Findings. Tell what you learned about the topic you researched; describe the contents of the collection you catalogued or preserved, and how it adds to our understanding of local history and culture, rather than the methods used to conserve, etc.

This question needs to be answered from two directions. First, what have we learned about modern Potawatomis and the process of entering the reservation to do research? This information will be important to our future work, and could significantly aid other researchers interested in the Prairie Band Potawatomi people. Second, what have we learned about the Potawatomi language?

Researching Potawatomis. Historically, the Prairie Band have been the conservative Potawatomi people. Their neighbors, who became Citizen Band at the time of allotment, were not only removed further from Kansas to Oklahoma in the 19th century, but are at present quite removed from traditional Potawatomi cultural facets, such as language. Now that the national social climate toward Indian people has changed, Citizens are quite anxious to recapture such aspects of culture, and the Prairie Band becomes an important resource for these efforts. Not that the Prairie Band escaped the historical assimilative influence. The years have had their toll, and little Potawatomi language is spoken in Kansas as well as Oklahoma. But that reality is changing along with attitude. We met many young, middle-aged, and senior Potawatomi people interested in learning and teaching the Potawatomi language. The desire is evident, but the tools are still missing and desperately needed. We believe that makes our project an important one.

Yet modern Potawatomis are not quick to accept either technological advantages (such as computers and multimedia) or good-intentioned off-reservation academics who say they want to help. Potawatomis have seen such "solutions" come and go in the more-than-a-century they have resided in Kansas, and have almost never realized benefits from such efforts. We were not surprised to meet resistance to, suspicion of, and reluctance toward our project. It will take many years and concrete results/benefits to the nation to prove the worth of a project like ours. However, that our project is one grown from within instead of without carries great merit among Potawatomis, we believe, and will make a significant difference over the long run. One of our researchers' main struggles has been in determining lines of demarcation and loyalty between interests on and off the Potawatomi reservation. As a result of conducting this research, I have written a paper on the topic of this movement between the traditional academic and research roles of Researcher and Research Subject; I'd be happy to share that text with interested readers of this report.

In light of this history and present reality, we believe the following to be true about research among the Prairie Band Potawatomi people: Indian people (Potawatomis) need to be involved and invested in any such work, from the start and all the way through, and not just as the objects of study. It is not enough for an outsider to come in and "research" the People; indeed, it may not even be allowed. We found our nake'ndumwajek making a signficant impact upon our objectives and agenda, in the form of what they wanted to do and how they chose to cooperate, and also in a more subtle way—the social rules which govern interactions among Potawatomis. Being Potawatomi, we felt obligated to work within these "rules," and will continue to do so. We will allow our nake'ndumwajek to guide us instead of vice versa, for they are the real bwaka ("knowledgeable ones"), not us. Similarly, we hope to establish a working (rather than only endorsing) relationship with the Prairie Band tribal council and with Potawatomi people (on and off reservation) interested in teaching and learning the language. We acknowledge the unique nature of our situation, but we still encourage any future researcher, Indian or not, to approach the Potawatomi people with respect and patience, and to be willing to collaborate rather than simply study.

The Language. We were at first discouraged to find what seemed to us to be so few first speakers of Potawatomi. But that only reaffirmed our conviction regarding the urgency of our project. Here is a list of the nine nake'ndumwajek that have helped us so far in our data collection: from the McKinney family, James McKinney Jr. (member of our research team), Leonard McKinney, Luetta Jessepe, and Joe Lewis. Others include Meeksokwe, Jane Puckee, Sarah Patterson, Maynard Potts, and Lorenzo Mattawaoshe. Julia Levier (another McKinney) provided the copy of the 1970s Potawatomi class handouts and notes late in the Fall 1995.

We are quite happy to have found people on and off the reservation who are sincerely interested in teaching and learning the language. We met at least five individuals (and have heard of more) who had made audiotapes of words and phrases for the purpose of teaching their children. Copies of some of those tapes are in our collection. We have met (mostly through our world wide web pages) about thirty Potawatomis interested in using the web pages or getting tapes to learn the language. They live in these states: Kansas, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Oklahoma, Florida, California, North Carolina, Hawaii, Ohio, Oklahoma, and in the NW Coast. We had hoped that a long term effect of the project would be to reach out to our dispersed Potawatomi population.

We know of a language project being conducted in the great lakes area by Forest Band, Hannahville and Canadian Potawatomis. We hope to soon meet and share data with this group, who has been working with a linguist named Laura Buzsard-Welcher (Chicago, IL), who plans to publish a Potawatomi dictionary in about four years. Yet we believe study of Prairie Band (Kansas) Potawatomi is justified because we see clear differences between Wisconsin and Kansas Potawatomi, perhaps due to the 150 years of geographical separation. One possible explanation for differences is that Wisconsin Potawatomi may be more like its contemporary neighbor Ojibwe, and Kansas Potawatomi may have been influenced by its neighboring Kickapoos. There is an early indication that Kansas Potawatomis use more k's where Wisconsin Potawatomi's use g's; similarly, p's and t's for b's and d's. (Note: Interested readers should read Hockett who shows that unlike English, differences between these stops are not due to voicing.) We have also noticed that Potawatomi, when compared to its sister language Ojibwe (Chippewa), shows elision or the dropping of vowels (or perhaps Ojibwe has added vowels). An example of this can be seen by comparing the word for Great Spirit in Ojibwe (Gitchi Manidou) and Potawatomi (Kshe'mnito). Further work with the data and comparisons to other Potawatomi dialects as well as other Algonkian tongues should provide interesting insight on the relationship of Prairie Band Potawatomi to other native languages. Further work should also significantly add to the published linguistic literature on Potawatomi (there is not a lot extent) and perhaps even challenge some notions in the present literature. We won't predict what those challenges might be, but continued work with authentic speakers of the language (from within instead of without) can only strengthen understanding of the Potawatomi grammar.

We have found there is a desperate need for basic linguistic tools in Potawatomi, which includes published studies and reference materials such as a dictionary or lexicon. Coming into the study, we had found no published comprehensive dictionary on Potawatomi. Buzsard-Welcher's work will be very important here. But we are unwilling to wait four years, so we have pursued the collection of linguistic artifacts and the construction of this collection into a database. This database, currently under design, will be the first significant achievement of our project and will provide the means for producing numerous printed and electronic documents that will make teaching Potawatomi possible. Indian people, including Potawatomis, are great adaptors; we plan to use technology, cautiously, but after that, to the full extent that we are able. Our vision is to "publish" a combination of printed texts (such as a basic dictionary that will do until Buszard-Welcher's work is completed, children's and adult literature, and newsletters or newspapers) and of computer texts (hypercard stacks, world wide web pages, interactive multimedia reference materials, language lessons). We have been cautioned (including by the KHC Heritage Grant proposal evaluation team) that our stated goal of reteaching and reviving the language is perhaps an unrealistic objective, but we are as yet unwilling to surrender that ideal.


We would like to close this report by extending a warm iwgwien! to our friends at the Kansas Humanities Council for helping us get started on this project, turning it from talk into reality. It is unlikely we will apply for another Heritage Grant; we are moving on to bigger kigosuk (fish), you might say. And we have a feeling this is exactly what you hope might happen to projects such as ours.

Potawatomi beaded belt

Original grant proposal
BWAKA - about us
bode'wadmimo speak Potawatomi
nIshnabe'k The People
eagle aloft mzenegenek books
nizhokmake'wen resources/help
Homepage: news & updates

We welcome your questions and comments.

Text and graphics copyright © Smokey McKinney 1997

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