Frank Barker teaches basics of Potawatomi language

Published 12:23 am Thursday, April 3, 2003

By By MARCIA STEFFENS / Niles Daily Star
DOWAGIAC -- Many in the audience at Wednesday evening's spring lecture at the Southwestern Michigan College Museum were not surprised to learn there never was a Chief Dowagiac, or Princess Mishawaka, but they wee glad that the native tongue of the Potawatomi Nation is being preserved.
Frank Barker was born in Grand Rapids and his Native American blood came through his mother. She was of the first generation to speak English as a child. His grandfather refused and was locked up as a youth and his grand mother ran away.
In turn, being forced to speak English the native tongue was beginning to be lost and only used by the elders, when they didn't want the children to know what they were saying. But Barker badgered his aunts and uncles to learn.
His father was from Kentucky and could trace his family 11 generations down from England. but that is really a short time.
His grandmother's grandmother and her people have 250 generations in a cemetery between Grand Rapids and Kalamazoo. That was their winter camp, Barker explained and the Gun Lake Band was related to the Pokagon Band most are familiar with in Dowagiac.
A very descriptive language, where we have a word like chair, the Potawatomi word would be "sit your butt gently down there," he said. One word can be used to describe many things and mispronunciation of single syllable can alter the meaning. The third syllable from the end of the word is the one which is accented, so when something is added, the pronunciation changes.
After some basic lessons in how the vowels are pronounced, Barker broke down the word "ndowashyek" into ndo, I shall; owash, poke or prode or scrap with a stick; and ek, locative.
Dowagiac was a place to forage or "where I am going to go poke around."
Barker described how the land where Mishawaka, ind. sits was at one time leveled by a tremendous storm, followed by a fire which left the ground with white stumps sticking out.
Mishiwake came from short hairs or stubble, white and earth or ground put together. Shegagwesh, describing onions became Chicago, where it stinks. After being a summer camp counselor, Barker realized his desire to go into education. he is now a fourth grade teacher at Justus Gage Elementary School.
The lectures are held in the museum's Upton Educational Center on SMC's Dowagiac campus. They are free and open to the public. For more information about any upcoming events, contact the museum at (616) 782-1374 or (616) 687-1600, extension 1374.
The museum's hours are Tuesday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Wednesday, 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Admission is free.