Potawatomi Nations Gather to Celebrate and Embrace Culture After COVID-19 Hiatus

To gather is “to bring together and take in from scattered places or sources.” This year, Potawatomi Nations gathered for the first time since the COVID-19 pandemic hosted by the Hannahville Indian Community at their Reservation and the Island Casino Hotel and Resort in the Upper Peninsula.

The week was jam-packed with conferences, summits, language, delicious food, basketball and volleyball tournaments, workshops, Dancing, and an art show – in which three NHBP Tribal Members won awards and prizes! – and so, so much more.

The week kicked off with Monday, July 25 and Tuesday, July 26, filled to the brim with language and history talks and conferences.

“The language conference was excellent, very informative,” said first-time Gathering attendee Tribal Member Alexandria Sulainis.

Sulainis grew up in Grand Rapids, but has been living in Wisconsin for three years. The 2022 Gathering in Hannahville is her first Gathering.

“It’s great to see everyone I haven’t seen in so long. My biggest takeaway is the food!” she said with a laugh. “No, I’m kidding. Honestly, I think I forget how much is going on all the time, so seeing how much is happening in Potawatomi life with all the Tribes. Everyone’s got something going on at all times, so that was a nice reminder. We get zoomed into our personal worlds, and we forget to zoom out and see how much is happening in each place and how much of an impact it’s having.”

Tribal Member Susan Fierke also attended the Gathering, arriving in time for the Language Conference.

“I’ve been to a Gathering at every Tribe at least once. I love it. I love the people. I came this year for the Language Conference, and it was excellent. I’ll definitely do it again,” Fierke said. “They had history and etymology of Potawatomi words and some Medicine plants, so that was interesting.”

One of the event’s most popular features were the near 20 different workshops available to take, including nature walks, games and instruction sessions on how to make salve, moccasins, Ribbon Skirts, Hand Drums, Dreamcatchers and braided Sweetgrass.

Fierke was able to make a pair of moccasins for the first time.

Tribal Member Lillian Suidema helped instruct a class on making Dreamcatchers.

“I’ve been to five Gatherings. It’s great to see everybody this year,” she said. “I’m happy to be here and teach. I’m not the best teacher, but I’m happy to do it. I make Dreamcatchers at home, mostly for family.”

The popularity of the workshops was universal, with people arriving early to try to claim a spot.

“The only workshop we were able to get into was making the Drums. That was really interesting and fun. I hadn’t done that before,” said Tribal Member Terri Hubbell. “The guy teaching the Drum workshop is 91, and he’s still doing it, making the Drums and helping people make their Drums for the first time. I think it’s great that we’re doing all this.”

Hubbell and her husband Mike live in Grand Haven and like to participate in cultural events as frequently as possible. They recently retired and intend to participate more than ever, she said.

Tribal Member Nat Spurr spent much of his time reconnecting with relatives he hadn’t seen in years.

“I ran into dozens of people I haven’t seen since the last Gathering I went to,” Spurr said. “The Community atmosphere is something we haven’t been able to enjoy since 2019. Seeing relatives of mine that I don’t get to see very often, being in a beautiful location that I don’t get a chance to visit and  seeing so many people engrossed in embracing the culture – it’s not something you see every day.”

Looking to the Future

“When we host next year, I think it would be nice for NHBP to have larger workshops so that more people can participate,” Hubbell said.

“I can’t wait to do ours next year,” Suidema said of the 2023 Gathering – which will be hosted by NHBP. “My brother made salve yesterday, and I would love to do that next year.”

NHBP has hosted three previous Gatherings, and 2023 will be the fourth – a significant number, Spurr explained.

“Next year, when we host the Gathering, it’ll be the fourth time that I’ve attended that we’ve hosted, and each time – 1998, 2005, 2012, and next year, 2023 – will represent a different stage of growth for our Tribe,” Spurr said.

The Tribe had only gained recognition in late 1995.

“You wouldn’t recognize Pine Creek Indian Reservation in 1998. There was one beat-up dirt road and nothing else except three houses and the church, and that was it. It was forest everywhere else,” Spurr recalled. “Right before the Gathering, myself and Dorie Rios and a handful of other Council Members at the time, we were out there with our bare hands, hatchets and axes chopping down the trees to prepare an open area.”

In 2005, NHBP had land-into-trust applications in process and several new departments that all pulled together to host. In 2012, with land in trust and FireKeepers Casino Hotel, NHBP was more developed than ever. And 2023 will show even more growth.

“Much more expansion will have taken place. Four completes the circle, like the four parts of the Medicine Wheel,” Spurr said. “Four is an important number in our culture. You have the four directions, the four seasons of the year, the four Sacred Medicines and the four elements of the earth.”

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