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‘Always a People’ a teaching mosaic

“Always a People: Oral Histories of Contemporary Woodland Indians” is a teaching mosaic related by 40 community-designated elders and leaders of Potawatomi, Delaware, Miami, Ottawa, Munsee-Delaware, Shawnee, Peoria, Oneida, Chippewa, Kaskaskia, Sauk and Fox, Winnebago, Isleta Pueblo and European descent.

The project itself represents many of the values and important issues those 40 emphasized in their interviews.

The book is part of an effort to provide a place for the Woodland People in their ancestral territory of Ohio, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan and Wisconsin, once the Northwest Territory, and includes the Minnetrista Council for Great Lakes Native American Studies in Muncie, Indiana and the Prophetstown State Park project in Lafayette, Ind.

The council could only fund the first five interviews with a grant from the Indiana Historical Society and Humanities Council. The rest were done gratis. Production is of trade paperback art book quality, which gives justice to the oil portraitures accompanying most of the accounts. Reproduction of the portraits was funded by private donations. A major part of the proceeds were earmarked for the Woodland Nations Scholarship Fund at Indiana University.

The four-year interview project was inspired in 1991 by Chief Ray White Jr., who was then a manager for the Miami Nation of Indiana. Chief White wanted original accounts in order to correct omissions and errors about the Great Lakes-Riverine tribes, and the detrimental “Indian as victim” images found in mainstream books.

He also wanted to unite the pre-European confederacies after 150 years of disruption. Chief White passed away in 1994.

While views and histories differ among individuals within tribes and among tribes, the topics agreed upon led to discussions of language, dance, basketry, frybread, independence, economic survival, walking in both worlds, forms of leadership, handling of discrimination, education, educating the non-Native, understanding legal history, living on the land, simple pleasures, surviving boarding schools, business enterprise, heroism, fear, Christianity, childhood homes, grandparents, medicine ways, fighting back, optimism, mounds, identity, prejudice, division, termination, reorganization, removal, resistance, repatriation, land, legislation, legal education, treaties, politics, daily thanks, prophets, sovereignty and truth.

A couple viewpoints are as follows:

“Tribal law is a lot of traditional belief. We still believe in the tribal law, but it doesn’t hold much weight in courts now. There are a lot of things that have been deleted from tribal law.” – Frank Bush, spiritual leader and head veteran dancer, Potawatomi Indian Nation, Inc., aka Pokagon Band of Potawatomi Indians.

“I would like to see the white community learn the truth, the history. I would like this to be taught truthfully. Honesty can be the best answer to all of this. We are all here together. Let’s make it good.” – Rae Daugherty, elder, Potawatomi Indian Nation, Inc.

“I think that the ceremonials associated with the Bread Dance are perhaps even more important than the language itself. To us, this is what keeps the world going.” – Henryetta Ellis, Shawnee.

Almost all of the contributors gave permission for their portraits to be done in oil for the book. Evelyn J. Ritter’s distinctive style reflects each individuals’ vibrance through color, light, background, posture, expression and regalia.

R. David. Edmunds provided a compact history of the Miami, the Delaware, the Potawatomi, the Ottawa, the Peoria, the Shawnee, the Lac du Flambeau Chippewa, the Ho-Chunk, and Oneida and the Sauk and Fox as the introduction.

Input from teachers and students in Indianapolis was also sought to gauge the understanding of the middle school reader, and this book is an excellent example of how Native history should be taught in public schools, through original words.

Hopefully, someday the tapes will become available, but for now they were gifted to each participant, in keeping with the spirit of the project. “Always a People” describes the unbroken channels of knowledge that have never stopped flowing from ancestors to descendants, despite massive attempts to dam them up.