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
Please introduce yourself with your name and title.
Robert J. Moody Jr., vice chairman of the Pokagon Band of Potawatomi Indians.
What is your name in your language, and what does it mean?
It's Migisi Nag Wiid Disowen, which means My Eyes Are the Eyes of the Eagle, or Eagle Vision.
Where is your tribe located?
Southwestern Michigan and northern Indiana. That area is also where we are originally from.
What is a significant point in history from your people that you would like to share?
Leopold Pokagon negotiated the 1833 Treaty of Chicago, which secured the right of the tribe to remain in Michigan and not be removed to the west. In 1994 the federal government, through congressional legislation, restored all rights to the Pokagon Band of Potawatomi as a federally recognized tribe.
How is the Pokagon Band government set up?
The Pokagon government consists of a legislative branch—the Tribal Council—and a judicial branch—the Tribal Court. Our Tribal Council consists of a chairman, vice chairman, treasurer, secretary, six members at large, and an elders’ representative. We have a total of eleven seats on our Tribal Council.
Is there a functional, traditional entity of leadership in addition to your modern government system?
How often are elected leaders chosen?
As provided by our Tribal Constitution, we have staggered, three-year terms of office. Tribal elections are held every July.
How often does your Tribal Council meet?
Tribal Council meets once a week, generally on a Monday, with an additional meeting on the second Saturday of each month. All meetings are open to tribal citizens. Meetings are also webcast for those who may not have the opportunity to attend.
How did your life experience prepare you to lead your band?
In the early 1980s, I began to be involved with tribal politics along with my grandmother. I served as a Tribal Council member at large until the 1990s. Late in the 1990s I was honored to serve as the tribal chairman. My service was shared with responsibilities and activities on many boards and committees of the tribe. Restoration of our sovereignty provided many challenges as to the proper structuring and implementation of government and government services for our citizens.
Vice Chairman Moody at the opening celebration for 32 new homes built for Pokagon citizens at the tribal village Pokégnet Édawat. October 30, 2013; Pokagon Band Community Center, Dowagiac, Michigan.
What responsibilities do you have as a tribal leader?
As vice chairman, I have the duty, first and foremost, to work for the people, tribal citizens, and for many generations to come. The day-to-day activities consist of meetings, correspondence, giving direction, consideration and development of new legislation, representing the tribe, and fulfilling all duties of the office in the absence of the chairman.
Who inspired you?
My mother and my father, along with my grandmother and my uncle, were all my mentors. Leopold Pokagon and his vision have always been a deep inspiration and guide in my life.
Are you a descendant of a historical leader? If so, who?
My great-grandfather, R. C. Mix, was instrumental in working with the federal government to reinstate our rights. He served on Tribal Council in the 1950s and was an inspiration to me. One of the foremost reasons I got into tribal leadership was to pick up his crusade and continue it.
Approximately how many members are in the Pokagon Band?
As of August of this year, the citizen or membership count is 4,936.
What are the criteria to become a member of your band?
Although tribal rolls are now closed, the criterion for membership is that one must provide documentation of relationship to any of the names appearing on the Cadmun Roll of 1895 or the Shelby Roll of 1896.
Is your language still spoken on your homelands? If so, what percentage of your people would you estimate are fluent speakers?
Our language is still spoken on our homelands. There are a few fluent elder speakers, and although the tribe has many other speakers, we continue working towards making Potawatomi the first language and English the second. Not only do we offer weekly Potawatomi classes in several locations to many age groups—including our Head Start students—we have two language apprentices who live and study with native speakers. Once they are finished with their apprenticeship, the two will be fluent speakers and will teach other Pokagons the language.
What economic enterprises does the Pokagon Band own?
Four Winds Casino, with locations in New Buffalo, Hartford, and Dowagiac, Michigan, provides economic sustainability and fuels the needs of our current citizenship, with the commitment to provide for several generations to come. The tribe's economic development authority, Mno Bamadsen, was chartered in 2007 to diversify economic development opportunities; it is the non-gaming economic arm of our tribe. Currently Mno Bamadsen owns and operates Seven Generations Architecture & Engineering, Bent Tree convenience store and gas station, and Accu Mold LLC plastic engineering. Mno Bamadsen is certified under the Small Business Association 8(a) program and is qualified for other contracting incentives under the U. S. Code.
What annual events does the Pokagon Band sponsor?
Oshke-Kno-Kewewen, our traditional powwow, is held every Memorial Day weekend at our powwow grounds. We host a contest powwow, Kee-Boon-Mein-Kaa, every Labor Day weekend. We also reach out to many surrounding communities and sponsor various charities, events, and causes, like the Four Winds Invitational Ladies PGA golf tournament, which helps support Memorial Children's Hospital in South Bend, Indiana.
What attractions are available for visitors on your land?
Our tribal campuses include a campground, lakes, administration offices, 64 homes, a community center, Head Start facilities, Tribal Court, sports fields, and playgrounds. In November we’ll open a 36,000-square-foot health center featuring a clinic, a pharmacy, behavioral health, dental services, optical services, and a fitness and therapy center. In addition we have the casinos mentioned earlier in New Buffalo, Hartford, and Dowagiac.
How does the Pokagon Band deal with the United States as a sovereign nation?
We utilize and exercise our sovereign in every capacity.
What message would you like to share with the youth of your band?
Be aware and understand tribal issues and the importance of these issues as they relate to your family, your clan, and your nation. You are the leaders of tomorrow.
Is there anything else you would like to add?
Igwein—thank you—for this opportunity to share in a humble manner.
All photographs are courtesy of the Pokagon Band of Potawatomi Indians and are used with permission.
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 photos used with permission.