Kabl Wilkerson (Citizen Potawatomi) is a doctoral candidate at Harvard University and a fellow at the Newberry’s D’Arcy McNickle Center for American Indian and Indigenous Studies. They represented the Newberry at the annual Gathering of Potawatomi Nations that took place in July near Battle Creek, Michigan. We chatted with Kabl about the experience.
NL: Many people might be familiar with the concept of a powwow, but the Gathering is much more than that, isn’t it?
KW: Yes, Gathering is so much more than a powwow. While culminating in a powwow, Gathering begins with a Potawatomi language conference and is followed by a host of crafting classes, ceremonies, and other opportunities for people to meet one another.
NL: The Potawatomi Nation is vast, encompassing 11 bands across the United States and Canada. How important is it for tribal members to engage with each other and tap into traditional knowledge?
KW: It’s exceedingly important. These kinds of opportunities to see one another are how we perpetuate who we are as Potawatomi people. Coming together to see old relatives and meet new ones, we become closer to each other across the great distances that now separate our bands from Canada to Oklahoma. In our separation, much has been taken from us. From the language conference (open to all interested in bodéwadmimwen, or the Potawatomi language), to crafting classes where one can learn various traditional crafts such as black ash basket or drum-making from master craftsmen, Potawatomi Gathering constitutes an ongoing and mutual effort to reclaim what has been taken from the Potawatomi and Neshnabék [the larger group that includes Potawatomi, Ojibwe, and Odawa people, who share similar languages and cultures] over the centuries."
NL: What were attendees’ reactions to the Newberry collection items that were on display?
KW: People expressed a range of reactions, mostly intrigue, at the materials we brought from the Newberry. I recall a few moments when people came up quietly, admiring the schoolbook photographs, or pictures of smiling families, and would look up from the table to myself or Blaire Morseau [who also represented the Newberry] to say, “my grandmother has photos just like this,” or “this seems so familiar to me.” Most attendees seemed particularly interested in the Newberry’s visual materials, though it didn’t just stop with photographs. We brought an early map of the Great Lakes to show the temporal range of the Newberry’s collections, and the map we brought sparked a few interesting conversations. One gentleman in particular recounted for us how he had saved a map of equal age through a church, and expressed an interest in donating it to an organization like the Newberry.
NL: Was this especially meaningful to you as a member of the Potawatomi Nation?
KW: Gathering is a wonderful time. Speaking as a member of a Potawatomi band that is located today the furthest south of the other eleven, it’s especially meaningful to see family and friends and return to a place that we continue to call home– Neshnabéwaki. There is also so much potential for collaboration, and moments like those facilitated through Potawatomi Gathering have become the catalyst behind our mutual success across the eleven nations comprising the Potawatomi Nation. One can see our history and future, and the multi-generational effort to protect who we are as Bodéwadmik [Potawatomi peoples' name for themselves in their own language] and Neshnabék becomes especially clear each year when we all reconvene.
NL: What will you be working on this fall at Harvard?
KW: In the upcoming year, I expect to work on a couple of exciting projects! The first is a new workshop that myself and a few colleagues have put together called the Harvard Early & Native American History workshop, or ‘ENAH’ for short. It’s really intended to be a venue for students of Early American history as well as Native American and Indigenous Studies (regardless of time period) from Harvard and beyond to workshop and feature their ideas. The second is my dissertation prospectus. I diligently sifted through archives across the United States this summer, and I’m excited to finally put my thoughts to paper. There is much left to be written on the transnational (as well as domestic, frankly) implications of Native American political reconstitution following the 1934 Indian Reorganization Act, and my work will largely concentrate on this when I return to Harvard in the fall. And, of course, I will continue working with the Newberry! Albeit, in far more limited capacity.