What does it mean to be a “nation,” particularly in today’s hyper-connected, hyper-mobile world? Is it shared language and culture? A common political structure? Geography that supports a centralized, unified state? It’s a question Associate Professor of Sociology Chris Wetzel delves into in his new book released earlier this month, Gathering the Potawatomi Nation: Revitalization and Identity (University of Oklahoma Press, 2015), uncovering some surprising answers.
The Potawatomi are a Native American people who were once concentrated in the lands around southern Lake Michigan. Following the 1833 Treaty of Chicago, the Potawatomi dispersed, eventually dividing into nine separate bands across four states, two countries, and a thousand miles. Then, in the 1980s, these scattered people began to take steps toward reclaiming their common cultural heritage, which led to the recent reforming of the Potawatomi Nation.
“It’s notable that they chose ‘nation,’ rather than ‘tribe’ or ‘band,’” says Wetzel, “particularly in an age when nations seem increasingly impermanent. The Potawatomi national renaissance is all the more incredible when you consider that they have been separated for nearly two hundred years across such a wide geographic region.” Despite this segmentation, which continues today, Wetzel notes, “the Potawatomi people with whom I spoke readily recognize and value the enduring ties linking the bands into a larger nation.”
In the book, Wetzel analyzes how and why this happened specifically for the Potawatomi—as opposed to other tribes—and articulates a more general theory of nationhood that reflects the experiences of Native communities.
“You don’t need common land to be a nation,” Wetzel explains. “The definition I use is that nationhood is an ‘intentional definition of the community in terms of shared social, cultural, and ceremonial bonds, as well as a rejection of the distinctions between bands as defined by non-Native governments,’”
Wetzel’s perspective on recent developments in the struggle for indigenous sovereignty goes far beyond current political, legal, and economic explanations. For example, in the case of the Potawatomi, he finds that so-called “national brokers” were key to the process. These are respected and influential women and men who travel between the bands, sharing information, and encouraging tribal members to work together as a nation.
Revitalizing their own language proved to be another critical factor in nation building for the Potawatomi. This deliberate program serves as a vehicle for “the exchange of specific cultural knowledge, affirms the value of collective enterprise, and reminds people of their place in a larger national community,” Wetzel notes.
At the annual Gathering of the Potawatomi Nation—the event from which the book takes its name—participants draw on this common cultural knowledge to integrate the multiple meanings of being Potawatomi. Fittingly, the Potawatomis themselves have the last word in this book: members respond directly to Wetzel’s study, providing readers with a unique opportunity to witness the conversations that shape the continuously evolving Nation.
Wetzel has spent a decade studying the Potawatomi, which has included attending their annual Gathering, hosted each year by a different band. Gathering the Potawatomi Nation is his first book. Teaching at Stonehill since 2009, Wetzel received the College’s Louise F. Hegarty Excellence in Teaching Award in 2014. The Hegarty Award honors faculty “whose teaching has had a marked influence on the lives of Stonehill students.” For more on Wetzel, visit here.