In the interview series Meet Native America, the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian invites tribal leaders, cultural figures, and other interesting and accomplished Native individuals to introduce themselves and say a little about their lives and work. Together, their responses illustrate the diversity of the indigenous communities of the Western Hemisphere, as well as their shared concerns, and offer insights beyond what’s in the news to the ideas and experiences of Native people today. —Dennis Zotigh, NMAI
Please introduce yourself with your name and title.
My name is Kenneth Meshigaud. I am tribal chairperson of the Hannahville Indian Community.
Can you share with us your Native name and its English translation?
My Native name is Ogeema Muckwa, which translates in English to King Bear—I am of the Bear Clan.
Where is your community located?
Our tribe—a band of Potawatomi—is located in the south central part of the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. It's best described as approximately two hours north of Green Bay, Wisconsin.
Where was your nation originally from?
The great nation of Potawatomi once called the areas of southern Michigan, southern Wisconsin, northern Illinois, Indiana, and Ohio our ancestral homelands.
What is a significant point in history from your tribe that you would like to share?
It is difficult to define any particular event, but I believe the Trail of Tears was a significant part of that history, as for almost every tribal nation across the country. In 1834 the people of Hannahville refused to leave Michigan in the Indian Removal. As tragic as that was, I believe it defined and strengthened us as nations of people. And although it split us from our brothers and sisters, it caused us to develop the tenacity, strength, and familial bonds that would carry us through those tough times and instill in us the desire to carry on as the proud and strong nation that we are.
How is the Hannahville Indian Community government set up?
The Hannahville Indian Community Tribal Council governs the community. We also have other elected boards for various areas of the community government. That includes a Health Board, School Board, Adult/Child Welfare, Housing, and a Gaming Commission. These elected boards have responsibilities to oversee their respective departments for administration and oversight of policies adopted by the Tribal Council.
Any disputes or interruptions that the board cannot settle are referred to the Tribal Council for final action.
Is there a functional, traditional entity of leadership in addition to your modern government system?
Although there is no functional traditional leader of the community, we rely on the wisdom, general practices, and recommendations of persons who are knowledgeable in these areas to offer their suggestions when the Tribal Council meets to make and enforce the laws for the people of the Hannahville Indian Community.
How often are elected leaders chosen?
The Tribal Council is elected for a three-year term as defined by our constitution and by-laws.
How often does the council meet?
Tribal Council is bound by constitution to meet at least once per month.
How did your life experience prepare you to lead your nation?
I don’t think I was ever prepared enough to have this awesome responsibility. I don’t think anyone ever is. What I do know is that I grew up with some awareness in myself that I would one day help and contribute to my community in some way. Knowing this, as I grew up and got to the age when I could be employed, I worked in many areas of the community to gain a basic knowledge of how each department functioned on a day-to-day basis. I knew that one day it would help me to oversee and steer the community in what I think is the right direction.
What responsibilities do you have as principal chief?
I have administrative oversight responsibilities for all governmental, educational, health, welfare, and gaming activities in our community. The responsibility of overseeing the general welfare of our community is perhaps the toughest responsibility. To act as a leader, spokesperson, and advocate for the people is the highest honor, knowing that it is their lives and the lives of their children that I am ultimately affecting.
Who inspired you as a mentor?
I’ve had many mentors over the years from administrators who were my bosses or supervisors when I entered the workforce in my community to teachers and community members. But the person I consider my greatest teacher and mentor was my brother-in-law, Jake McCullough Jr. When I was three years old, my mother passed away, and the state welfare department felt it was in the best interest to place my younger brother and me in foster homes; they felt my father could not handle such young children.
Well, my family would not have it. So my older sister, Marylou decided to take us in. Her husband, Jake, acted for a time as my father. He, along with my sister, raised my brother and me during those very formative years and taught us life lessons that I still cling to today. The lessons of self-respect, thinking before acting, and caring for your brothers and sisters are the greatest teachings he ever gave me. He later became the tribal chairperson for our community and inspired me to do the same. Not by his saying it in words, but by my watching his actions and role modeling I later came to realize that I wanted to follow in his footsteps.
Are you a descendant of a historical leader? If so, who?
I am told that I am a descendant of Chief Simon Kahquados, who I am told was the last heredity chief of the Potawatomi. Best known as the Great Communicator, he would regularly travel to cities and towns outside the community and speak to non-Indian people to educate them about the community in hopes that it would build trust and foster good relationships.
Approximately how many citizens are in your community?
There are currently 905 enrolled members of the Hannahville Indian Community.
What are the criteria to become enrolled in Hannahville?
Every person who wishes to be an enrolled member of the community must be half or more Indian blood. Our constitution and by-laws spell out membership criteria and, and as for many communities, the criteria are each unique to our tribe.
Is your language still spoken on your homelands? If so, what percentage of your people would you estimate are fluent speakers?
The Potawatomi language was recently ranked among the ten most endangered languages on the planet. Very few people speak fluently, and of those who do, the average age is at a point where we are loosing many of them.
The Potawatomi nation as a whole, including bands outside of Hannahville, has come together to create language programs that will sustain and preserve our language for generations. Through our efforts and along with the assistance of professional linguists, the Potawatomi language dictionary is very close to publication, another tool we hope will preserve the language for the future generations.
What economic enterprises does your community own?
Hannahville Indian Community currently owns and operates the Island Resort and Casino, the Sweetgrass Golf Club, the Island Oasis Convenience Store, the Potawatomi Heritage Center, and a waste water treatment plant that provides service to the neighboring non-Native community for a fee.
What annual events does your community sponsor?
Each year the community hosts the Annual Great Lakes Area Pow-Wow, now entering its 38th year. We hold various charitable golf tournaments. In June we will host the L.P.G.A. Symetra Tour's Island Resort Championship for the fourth time at our top-ranked Sweetgrass Golf Club at the Island Resort and Casino, a relationship that has been extended through 2017.
What other attractions are available for visitors on your land?
Aside from the casino, the Potawatomi Heritage Center is available to educate and inform the public on who the Potawatomi people are and what our community is all about.
How does the Hannahville Indian Community deal with the United States and Canada as a sovereign nation?
Like many tribal nations across North America and Canada, the relationship with our sovereign-nation neighbors is sometimes a contentious and difficult one. We have put a lot of energy into building good relations with our neighboring county and state governments. Disagreements are bound to happen, and they do, but we have been able to overcome a great majority of them to ultimately benefit both the tribe and the surrounding non-Native communities. We may have philosophical differences, but mutual respect and cooperation can go a long way in closing gaps that prevent our communities from moving forward.
What message would you like to share with the young people of Hannahville?
My advice to the youth of Indian Country is to stay away from alcohol and drugs. The scourge of alcohol and drugs and the ill-fated results have been the most debilitating factor in the erosion of our families, our communities, our culture, and our Tribal ways. Dealing with these problems on a daily basis, especially when they are associated with young people, has been the most difficult and heart-wrenching problem that I've faced. Seeing our people spiral out of control and watching their light fade to almost nothing should tear at anyone’s heartstrings, as it does at mine.
It is much better for the youth of our communities to realize that there are countless opportunities to live better lives and that the possibilities of creating that good life exist.
Above all, the self esteem that you build within yourself from positive personal accomplishments is by far a greater thing to manifest and learn from than having to struggle and dig your way out of negative and nonproductive actions that have consequences that will follow you through the majority of your lives. Always look up and make the choice to see the good road ahead that you can walk on. It is there, and your community is there to help you.
Is there anything else you would like to add?
I have seen our community arise from a time when we had no running water and electricity in our homes to a community owning our own multimillion-dollar resort and golf club. We’ve gone from unpaved two-lane roads, garbage dumps in our backyards, from a time when the surrounding non-Indian communities thought less of us as fellow human beings, to becoming a thriving community with a modern infrastructure and an economic force not only in the surrounding counties, but regionally.
In my almost 29 years as our community's chairperson, over half my life has been dedicated to steering this community in what I think is the right direction. Sure, we’ve got a long way to go, and we’ve not always been perfect, but the positive things we accomplish—the successes I witness from our tribal membership and see in the hope and determination on their faces—is the driving force that keeps me enthused and energized, and provides the gratification in an otherwise mundane and boring job.
Photographs above courtesy of the Hannahville Indian Community. Used with permission.
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From left to right: Representative Ponka-We Victors (Tohono O’odham/Southern Ponca) taking the oath of office in the Kansas House of Representatives; photo courtesy of Kansas Rep. Scott Schwab. Bird Runningwater (Cheyenne/Mescalero Apache) at the Sundance Film Festival; photo courtesy of WireImage. Sergeant Debra Mooney (Choctaw) at the powwow in Al Taqaddum Air Force Base, Iraq, 2004; photo courtesy of Sgt. Debra Mooney. Councilman Jonathan Perry (Wampanoag) in traditional clothing; photo courtesy of Jonathan Perry. Suzan Shown Harjo (Cheyenne/Hodulgee Muscogee) at Blackhorse et al. v. Pro Football, Inc., press conference, U.S. Patent and Trade Office, February 7, 2013; photo courtesy of Mary Phillips. All images used with permission.