Kansas woman seeks to save Potawatomi language

Prairie Band Potawatomi Reservation (AP) July 2010

An 87-year-old woman who is the last fluent speaker of the Prairie Band Potawatomi’s native language living on its reservation has been working on documenting it and hopes to keep it from dying out.

Cecelia Jackson can comprehend four languages – Potawatomi, Odawa, Ojibwe and English – and combine them for use in writing. She has been a leader in developing documents and materials for the Prairie Band Potawatomi Language and Cultural Department to use in preserving the Potawatomi language.

“Almost all the work here has come from her,” said Cindy LeClere, a teacher at the Language and Cultural Department. “The reason we try hard to keep our language alive is because language actually dictates who you are. It’s what makes us who we are.”

The cultural department was established in 1998 to revitalize the Potawatomi language and culture. Jackson and other community members participated in early meetings that eventually led to the development of a strategic plan to help preserve the language and the tribe’s self-identity, LeClere said.

“Twenty-five years ago, I would have never known we’d be without fluent speakers,” she said.

Jackson has helped create a Prairie Band Potawatomi dictionary, two audio/video books and “Stories of the Potawatomi,” a book written in the native language. A grammar book has also been published.

LeClere said Jackson is always willing to help when staff need to hear a word pronounced or have it translated.

“She carries a lot of responsibility with us in the department,” she said. “We respect her and love her and take good care of her. She is one of the most respected elders in this reservation.”

Jackson had some advice for the tribe’s younger members.

“Parents, talk to your children and carry it on,” she told The Topeka Capital-Journal.