Potawatomi tribe teaches language to keep culture alive

MAYETTA, Kan. — The Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation is running a program for kids, teens, and adults who want to learn the tribe’s language. But with only 5 or 6 fluent native speakers left, tribal members worry the language will be lost.

Dawn LeClere, the Language and Cultural Department coordinator, said, “To become a federally recognized tribe, we have to have a distinct dialect.”

According to the U.S. Department of the Interior, a federally recognized tribe is eligible for funding and services from the Bureau of Indian Affairs. They also have certain rights of self-government, or tribal sovereignty.

But for LeClere, it’s about more than government recognition; it’s about keeping the culture alive.

“You can’t have culture without having a language. So if our language dies, then our culture begins to die,” said LeClere.  “And with an extinct language, we become an extinct people.”

Becoming “extinct” is an everyday worry for LeClere and the rest of the language department.

“We work tirelessly trying to grow speakers.”

LeClere says  having so many kids come to kids night is rewarding.

“Sometimes you catch one, and you know you’ve got them hooked,” she said.

Saida Mahkuk, a senior at Kickapoo Nation School in Powhattan, Kan., recently began volunteering with the language program.

“I like seeing the kids being interested in their language.  It’s really important to me that they learn this early,” said Mahkuk.

Mahkuk says she might like to teach the language someday too.

“It’s just going to be there all their lives and it’s something they can always fall back on.”

LeClere said her connection to her language and her culture is strong.

“Language as part of your culture gives you a separate type of identity I’m not sure other people have,” she said. “It ties you to the earth. It makes you whole.”

The kids program meets every other Wednesday from 5:30 to 7:00 p.m. It alternates weekly with the teen program.

Adult classes are held on Monday nights from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m.

Classes are held at the Language Department building in Mayetta (15372 K Rd. Mayetta, KS).

All classes are free and open to anyone who wants to participate.

For more information, visit the Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation website.

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