Low – Symbols of Identity

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Our patriarch [was] Leopold Pokagon, who the government named us after, and then we sort of took on that role as Pokagon’s Band of Potawatomi or the Pokagon Band of Potawatomi. We since the 1830s, we’ve always been organized as the Anishinaabek, the human beings that lived along the St. Joseph River Valley in southwest Michigan and northwest Indiana. With Leopold Pokagon’s advice and mentoring, we Catholicized, we became Catholic. And so we had that double sense of glue or cohesiveness. We were Indian and we were also Catholic. I sometimes think that there was a bit of genius that he chose the Catholic religion, not just that he was familiar [with] “black robes” [priests], that we had a history of being connected to black robes a century earlier. I think also perhaps he chose the Catholics because that was not a very popular religion in the 1800s. There was a lot of anti-Catholic hysteria. And by becoming Catholic, we could say we were Christian, and we could say we were civilized, but we were in some ways doubly marginalized. We’re not only Indian, we’re Catholic Indian and that, by any sense of community, the more that you are marginalized, sometimes the stronger the bonds within become. And I think he laid the foundation for us being very, very connected together. And that remained in that state.

As I mentioned before, tribal members engaged in wage labor early on, but they also participated in traditional ceremonies. And they participated in traditional social practices. The Black Ash basket making, for instance, became very iconic. It was sold not only as a tourist item, but it became a way of the women to come together and to share and to socialize and to communicate and feel that sense of community. And like so many cases with so many American Indian tribes, I think it’s the women that really preserve the culture and were the culture bearers. And so they, they maintain that and they pass that on to their daughters.

And we had a business committee. We’ve had a government ever since our first contact with the United States, and we maintain that government. And we had claims that were going on. We had social things that were going on.

And we had ceremonial things that were going on, we had traditional practices that were going on. All of those things, the spirituality, all of it contributed to a sense of identity and a sense of belonging that people didn’t want to give up, that people held onto and was important to them.

And I remember my grandmother telling me, Goldie, telling me when I asked her how much Indian I was, she said you’re my grandson and any grandson of mine is Potawatomi. And I always remembered that, and so it was very important to me. And so we’ve maintained that throughout. During World War II, we Potawatomi tribal members volunteered and shared that experience. They came home and they continued to advocate for, after our sovereignty had been denied in the 30s, they continued to advocate. We just refused to give up, we refused to be assimilated, refused to forget who we were. And so we held onto that, and we continue.

My name is John Low and I’m an enrolled member of the Pokagon Band of Potawatomi Indian Nation. I was born in Niles, Michigan, near the tribal headquarters in Dowagiac. And I grew up in that community, I [was] raised by my grandmother and my mother, who were Potawatomi. I am a lawyer. Graduated from University of Michigan Law School in 1981. I returned home at the request of my elders and also because of my own sense of responsibility and desire to return home and work in a small town practice and also work as a tribal attorney on behalf of the community and did so. And worked on the process along with many, many, many others who did more work than me on the federal recognition process, which was finally successful in 1994. Since 1994, I’m a co-author of our tribal constitution. Since 1994, I’ve served on tribal council, I’ve served on several committees for the tribe, including the Traditions and Repatriation Committee and the Economic Development Committee as a coauthor of the tribal constitution.

I also subsequently took a leave of absence from practicing law and returned to school. First to get a second B.A. in American Indian Studies at the University of Minnesota and then a Master’s Degree from the University of Chicago in the Social Sciences and now am completing a PhD in Cultural Studies at the University of Michigan in American culture. Currently, I’m employed as a visiting professor [in the American [Indian] Studies program] at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. I live in Chicago and visit often with my relatives and my friends and with my community in Michigan. While I was at the University of Michigan, I also earned a graduate certificate in Museum Studies, which worked well with my subjects that I’m studying for my dissertation, but it also led to employment. I became the Executive Director at the Mitchell Museum of the American Indian, which I served as that director for about almost two years, the Mitchell Museum being located in Evanston, Illinois, and had the opportunity to work with a lot of Native and non-Native people in both curatorial and exhibition and preservation issues.

Production credits:
Executive Producer, Loretta Fowler
Assistant Producer, Brian Mornar
Production by Mike Media Group,

Photo credits:
Leopold Pokagon, ca. 1820s-30s, artist Van Sanden – courtesy of Northern Indiana Center for History
Sacred Heart of Mary Catholic Church, Dowagiac, MI – photo courtesy of Archives of the University of Notre Dame
Basketmakers – Simon Pokagon, Queen of the Woods (Newberry Library, Ayer 439 P7 1899)
Rush Lake Mission, Potawatomi gathering, September 4, 1906, with hereditary leader and pipe carrier John Buckshot in center – photo by T. R. Hamilton, courtesy of Library of Congress (LC-USZ62-132033)

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