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SMC hosts Native American panel

Emily Dabish | Tuesday, November 25, 2008

In recognition of Native American heritage month, Saint Mary’s College hosted a discussion panel on the Native American legacy at Saint Mary’s and Notre Dame.

The panel consisted of Native American history experts and Potawatomi elders.

Moderator Ben Secunda began by describing the Potawatomi’s local influence. Potawatomis. Joseph and Madeline Betrand, helped to start Saint Mary’s College by lending out a building to the sisters of the Holy Cross. This early convent helped to serve as a foundation for the college and became its first permanent structure.

“The [Native American] legacy has long been forgotten,” Secunda said. “[There is a need to] restore a sense of native pride because of past friendship with native peoples.”

Currently the Potawatomi tribe is working to regain some of their lost traditions. They are encouraging colleges to offer classes teaching their native language in hopes to regain more fluent speakers.

The panel described ceremonies, feasts, honorings and powwows as the way they keep their identity alive.

“Culture raises eyebrows at times… [The Potawatomi’s are] not just a casino tribe,” panel member Marchell Wesaw said.

In an effort to build welcoming communities, the panel said culture changes as time progresses, as do people and society. However, there are many traditions that remain in tact.

For instance tribal elder Majel DeMarsh described how women in her band, the Pokagons, will sing and pray for bodies of water. In Native American culture all aspects of the land and animals are considered important.

“Water is the life blood of mother earth,” DeMarsh said. “Without water there is no living.”

The panel explained how in the past being Native American was not totally accepted. They referred to themselves as a once “hidden minority.”

Now more Native Americans are proud to embrace their heritage. According to Tom Topash, Potawatomi member, there is a desire to get over “trauma by historical oppression – to heal and move forward.”

Today, because of past efforts by Native Americans, there is a choice whether or not to embrace the culture. Native peoples no longer have to worry about trying to blend in with American culture, since society has become far more accepting.

The panel urged people to talk to Native Americans in their communities at home to learn more and to seek out events like local powwows that exhibit some of native traditions.