Celebrating culture

WILSON – The Hannahville Indian Community strives to bring local cultural awareness about the rich history of the Potawatomi people through its Potawatomi Heritage Center.

The center, located on Hannahville B-1 Road in Wilson, houses numerous photographs and cultural artifacts depicting the history of the Hannahville Indian Community.

A Potawatomi reservation, the Hannahville Indian Community was originally founded in its current location in 1884 under the direction of Methodist Missionary Peter Marksman, according to the Hannahville Indian Community website, www.hannahville.net.

Though the original settlement is believed to have been along the mouth of the Big Cedar River on Lake Michigan, the people of Hannahville are descendants of those who refused to leave Michigan during the great Indian Removal in 1834.

Marksman is credited with finding a parcel of land and moving the Potawatomi people to their current location. Church records indicate the Potawatomi people were very fond of Marksman’s wife, Hannah, and chose to name their community after her – which is how Hannahville got its name.

The Hannahville Potawatomi was officially acknowledged by Congress in 1913. The people of Hannahville have been federally recognized since 1936.

The Potawatomi Heritage Center showcases this history and more with photographs, displays, regalia and other artifacts, and is open to people interested in learning and better understanding the Potawatomi culture, according to Earl Meshigaud, director of the department of language, culture and history for the Hannahville Indian Community.

One particular room in the center features print images of the past and current chairpeople in Hannahville, with each person having their own unique contribution or historical significance to the Hannahville Indian Community.

For instance, back in the late 1960s former Hannahville tribal chairwoman Genevieve Sagataw who was married to Omar “Joe” Sagataw – a former chairperson himself – was the first female tribal chairperson in Michigan.

Henry Philemon, tribal chairman in the late 1970s, was credited for bringing electricity to Hannahville for the first time.

“We had no electricity, no running water, no indoor plumbing, nothing,” said Meshigaud. “If it weren’t for him we wouldn’t have any of that stuff.”

He also noted the current tribal chairman, Ken Meshigaud, who began serving in the late 1980s, is likely the second-longest serving chairman in the entire Potawatomi Nation.

But despite these facts and the long history of Hannahville, the Potawatomi were once in danger of losing their identity.

“At one time we were so far removed from our own cultural spirituality that everything was almost lost and then there was a resurgence of that in 1970 and brought it back to what it is today,” said Meshigaud.

One way the Hannahville Indian Community continues to ensure its cultural identity is never lost is by continued teaching of the Potawatomi language.

“We set up our effort to revitalize our language because our language almost disappeared with my uncle Raymond,” said Meshigaud. “He was the last one to speak the language here and when he passed there was nobody left.”

The Hannahville Indian Community has since used grant funding to build a language lab at the Potawatomi Heritage Center, which stores language materials on a computer so it will not be forgotten. The center also now has video conferencing technology which is used to communicate with the other Potawatomi bands in North America.

Meshigaud said as part of their language revitalization efforts, the center can see approximately 50 to 60 people taking part in language immersion events.

Additionally the entire Nah Tah Wahsh School teaches a language component to its students from kindergarten up through adult education.

Bringing the Potawatomi language back to the Hannahville Indian Community has been a task of monumental importance to Meshigaud, but both the English and Potawatomi languages have had an interesting history in their culture.

According to Meshigaud, the former Chief Simon Kahquados, who was born in 1851 and died in 1930, was more than likely the first Potawatomi to learn and speak English.

“He was also recognized as a Potawatomi chief,” said Meshigaud. “He’s been a hero for many of us because he earned a Silver Congressional Medal of Honor. The president presented that to him because he helped stop bring the Indian wars.”

Meshigaud is quick to point out the irony of the similarities between both him and Kahquados. The two were each born on the 27th day of the month, and Meshigaud nearly 100 years after Kahquados’ birth. Then, of course, there is their linguistic significance to the Potawatomi.

“Ninety-nine years after his birth, I would come and bring the (Potawatomi) language back because he brought the English language here,” he said.

Meshigaud’s pursuit of re-introducing the Potawatomi language to the Hannahville Indian Community has been one of its greatest advancements in the past several years.

However, he also feels there needs to be more culture awareness locally about the Potawatomi people as many individuals believe myths about how the Potawatomi people live or about their beliefs.

“I just think each community should…build a relationship of understanding cultural ways with each other,” said Meshigaud, who welcomes all those interested in learning more about the culture to stop by the heritage center.

For any schools, businesses, or other organizations interested in learning more about the Hannahville Indian Community, tours can be set up Tuesdays and Fridays by calling the Potawatomi Heritage Center at (906) 723-2270.