Potawatomi learners: check out the writing system

The Potawatomi Language Program has adopted and will be using an established learners writing system. The writing system, seen below, identifies letters that have a consistent sound to them.

“Mainly we are focusing on the marked ‘e’s’ and the ‘th’ and ‘tth,’” said Rhonda Purcell, language coordinator.

According to Purcell, adopting this Potawatomi writing system acknowledges and honors the work that Jim and Mary Jane Thunder have done in establishing a Potawatomi alphabet and writing system, when for many centuries the language was only learned through speaking. Jim and Mary Jane and their family spoke Potawatomi as children and learned English later, as a second language.

The Thunders are among the last remaining first language Potawatomi speakers. The story of how they established this writing system is fascinating.

“Jim had tuberculosis as a child, and was sent away to recover at a sanatorium,” said Language Specialist Carla Collins. “His dad never spoke English, so when they wrote letters to family while recovering, they wrote in Potawatomi. So their separation created the need to develop a writing system.”

The Thunders have dedicated the second halves of their lives to teaching Potawatomi people how to speak their language. Pokagons Kyle Malott and Collins were apprenticed by the Thunders in Forest County,Wisconsin for four years, and they used this writing system during their language apprenticeships. When the two returned to Dowagiac in April, they recommended the Pokagon language program implement this system. Forest County and Hannahville Indian communities also use this system.

“The marked ‘e’s’ are what makes a difference,” said Purcell. “Every word has an ‘e’ in it, but they each have a different sound, so it changes the meaning. Learners will definitely do better because of this system. This one will last.”

Look for examples of this writing system in signs and other materials throughout the Pokagon community.