Warren named new chairman

Published 8:00 am Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Warren is sworn in as Pokagon chairman inside the tribe’s community center. (Submitted photo)

Warren is sworn in as Pokagon chairman inside the tribe’s community center. (Submitted photo)

Like so many things in his life, John Warren decided to run for the vacant position of chairman of the Pokagon council simply because it felt right.

And like so many of his other decisions, it turned out to be the right choice.

Warren was elected as chairman by citizens with the Pokagon Band of Potawatomi in late January, filling the several month vacancy left by the departure of Matt Wesaw, who retired from the position last October to become the director of Michigan’s Department of Civil Rights. Though Warren was officially sworn in to his position on Feb. 8, he had already been working with his fellow council members to continue the momentum the tribe had gathered over the last several years.

Moving into this position seems like a natural fit for Warren, who has dedicated most of his life to the betterment of his tribe.

Some of his earliest memories are of spending time with his relatives at pow wows and other celebrations of traditional Pokagon culture. However, he really did not become involved with the tribe’s activities until he turned 23, Warren said.

“I had this calling inside me that was very deep,” he said. “I wanted to sing.”

Thus began Warren’s career as a pow wow singer. He became part of the band “White Thunder,” recording a number of albums in the process. The group also toured the country, giving Warren a chance to meet with other Native Americans from various tribes.

Warren continues to sing today with the Ribbon Town Singers. He passed down his passion for music to his family as well, as his son and grandchildren also perform at pow wows.

“I want our tribe to remember our culture,” Warren said.

While his music career has played a large role in shaping his life, Warren has also devoted much of his time and energy to helping lead the Pokagon Band.

“My passion is singing,” Warren said. “But my biggest passion is for the Potawatomi people.”

Warren first joined the Pokagon Council when he was just 25 years old, before the tribe had even received federal recognition, he said.

“During the 90s, I was part of the committee that was in charge of putting our land permits together for our application,” Warren said.

Working together with Notre Dame’s Law School, Warren helped create the Pokagon’s draft application for sovereignty to the U.S. government. In the process of creating it, Warren and the university conducted extensive research on the tribe’s history in the region, discovering artifacts that were previously obscured by time.

“I have to give credit to our early leaders, who seen then what we’re seeing today,” Warren said. “We’re living their dream.”

While Warren would eventually step down from his position on the council to pursue employment in manufacturing, he always remained active in Pokagon affairs, he said. In 2011, he returned to tribe full-time, serving as their treasurer.

Despite his years of service, Warren never considered running for chairman before Wesaw’s departure in the fall. In fact, he was even considering retirement.

“It’s a pivotal time in our tribe’s life,” Warren said. “We have all this momentum going for us and I wanted to make sure we kept it rolling.”

Over the last few years, the tribe made significant economic strides, fueled in no small part by revenue generated by their Four Winds Casinos.

For Warren, the most exciting growth isn’t occurring at any of their three gaming locations, though, but instead with the acquisitions and projects made by the tribe’s economic development firm, Mno-Bmadsen.

“Not all of our citizens want to work in a casino,” Warren said. “With Mno-Bmadsen, we’re starting to diversify our sources of revenue. We want to be known as more than just a gaming tribe.”

Warren is especially excited about the clinic that is currently under construction next to the tribe’s government building on Sink Road, he said.

In addition, he wants to see the council push for more housing developments to follow up the successful construction that occurred last year. In addition, he said he would like to continue to expand education on the tribe’s history and culture.

“I would like to see more people learn to speak our language,” Warren said.

Despite his years of experience and the knowledge he brings to the table, the newly elected chairman is quick to shrug off the suggestion that his leadership will make a significant impact on the rest of the council. Instead, he sees himself as just part of the equation that keeps the Pokagon Band running smoothly.

He also gives credit to past council members who have taken him under their wings over the years, as well as his wife of 37 years, Patrice.

“Serving on the council demands a lot of your time, but she stuck with me through it all,” Warren said. “I wouldn’t be here today without her support.”

While he continues to sing at pow wows and other events, Warren also devotes much of his spare time to another hobby he has developed over the years.

“Some people spend thousands of dollars on a therapist, others hundreds on self-help books. Me, I get on my Harley and all my troubles just fade away.”

Warren said that he and the rest of the council do not have any immediate, earth-shattering plans lined up in the near future, but will instead focus on following through on the success ventures the tribe has already embarked on. However, Warren said that council will never become complacent, and will always work to improve the lives of the citizens it is responsible for.

“Most successful businesses have developed plans that guide the business over the course of two to three years,” Warren said. “We have our own plan as well. However, we think in terms of generations. We think of how things are going to look 20 to 30 years from now.”