Justin Neely dances during the Grand Entry of the 2014 Citizen Potawatomi Nation Family Reunion Festival. Credit: Bo Apitz

Gneshnabem ne? Do you speak Bodewadmimwen?

Once widely spoken in the Great Lakes region, Bodewadmimwen, the language of the Potawatomi Nation, is slowly inching away from the brink of extinction thanks to new learning initiatives—including an interactive dictionary, the first of its kind.

Chances are you already know a few words of this 1,000-plus-year-old language.

Pecan means nut. Kibmosabe—a common expression used by the character Tonto from The Lone Ranger, identified in some stories as a member of the Potawatomi Nation—translates to “Take a quick look!” Chicago is “place of wild garlic” for the abundant, yet fragrant Allium tricoccum that grew along Lake Michigan and on the banks of the Chicago River.

Last month the Citizen Potawatomi Nation’s language department released a pair of tools to help preserve its highly-endangered language: an online searchable dictionary and a series of free online, self-paced Bodewadmimwen language courses for both adults and children.

The Potawatomi—who call themselves Bodéwadmi, or keepers of the fire—migrated to the Chicago region from what’s now Niagara Falls in the late 1600s, settling along the Calumet, Chicago, and Des Plaines Rivers. At the start of the 18th century, their territory stretched westward from Lake Michigan to the Fox River Valley and south all the way to Lake Peoria.

Andrew Jackson’s Indian Removal Act of 1830, followed by the Chicago Treaty of 1833, ultimately removed thousands of Potawatomi from their homes and forced them onto the “Trail of Death” from the Great Lakes region to reservations beyond the Mississippi, in Missouri, Iowa, and Kansas. Citizen Potawatomi Nation is now based in Shawnee, Oklahoma.

Today, only ten native fluent speakers of Bodewadmimwen remain. They are all over 70 and most of them live in Wisconsin.

“After taking our lands the government began a policy of forced assimilation,” explains Justin Neely, Citizen Potawatomi Nation’s language department director and the force behind the new interactive dictionary. “What better way to force a people to assimilate than to take away the children and raise them in boarding schools, teaching them the dominant culture, devoid of our language and cultural ways? Our elders had to overcome countless struggles to maintain our language.”

The dictionary features more than 8,500 words, their definitions and pronunciations, as well as audio recordings so you can hear exactly how each word is pronounced by a native speaker and video clips that highlight their cultural significance. Click on bezgwabote, maple syrup, for example, and you’ll be directed to a video showcasing the traditional process of tapping trees for the sweet sap; tap winagé and you’ll hear a traditional story centered upon a wily buzzard.

“The ultimate goal is to make the language accessible to everyone,” says Neely. “We created this as a tool for helping folks to learn and start using our language.”

Adds Jennifer Bell, director of public information for Citizen Potawatomi Nation, “People who are not of Potawatomi heritage can learn the language to learn more about the culture and history of the tribe. By learning the language they can help preserve a part of not just Potawatomi history, but the history of North America. I think it’s a way to enrich their lives.”

The dictionary will be continuously updated with new words, images, and audio and video clips. The CPN language department team is also hoping to create an app.

Neely himself didn’t learn his ancestral language until he was an adult.

“Growing up [in Kansas City, Missouri],” he says, “I always knew I was Potawatomi. I knew some of our history and culture, but didn’t know our language. One day when I was about 18 years old, I attended a meeting where an old man stood and prayed in the language. Once I heard the language, I was hooked. I always told people I was Potawatomi and was proud of this fact but wondered, how could I truly say I was Potawatomi when I couldn’t even speak our language?”

Neely dedicated himself to learning Bodewadmimwen. “The language is a living, breathing thing. Once it gets ahold of you, it moves you. It takes you places you never thought you would go. It lead me to interactions with numerous fluent traditional people. It took me to the Hannahville Potawatomi Community, located in the heart of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, where I taught Potawatomi for two school years at Nah tah Wahsh Indian school. I’ve now been teaching my language for over 16 years and have been actively learning my language for over half my life.”

Neely hopes that this dictionary will help resurrect Bodewadmimwen, one of the first languages spoken around the Great Lakes. “It’s through our language we see what was important to our ancestors and what continues to be important. The language is like a portal into the past and at the same time a portal into the future. It’s who we are, it’s who we were, and it’s who we will become. Our language is thousands of years old. We were not allowed to speak our language for many years but still our language continues. It’s the language of the earth.”   v

Correction: An earlier version of this article stated that the current dictionary is the first Bodewadmimwen-English dictionary. This is not the case. This is, however, the first dictionary produced by Citizen Potawatomi Nation and the first searchable Bodewadmimwen-English dictionary.