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Recapturing his culture

John Miller leads a Pokagon band
no longer fearful of making connections to its roots

H-P Region Editor

JOHN MILLER, tribal chairman of the Pokagon Band of Potawatomi Indians, sits at the new sacred fire pit on the grounds of the tribal headquarters on Sink Road near Dowagiac. About 2,500 tribal members are coming for the Gathering of the Nation held July 27-30. The theme of the gathering is Honoring Our Youth.
   'Its not like being on a school board.  When you get involved in tribal politics, you actually devote your entire life to it.

Photo by John Madill /H-P staff John Miller - Tribal Chief of Pokagon Band of Potawatomi Indians 7-2006

I was raised in an era of assimilation. My siblings and I would ask our grandmother and other relatives to teach us the (Potawatomi) language and culture. They refused. ... They were afraid the Bureau of Indian Affairs would come in and remove the children from the families.

DOWAGIAC As a young man growing up in Hartford, John Miller, the son of a Potawatomi mother and a father of English and German descent, struggled to find his identity.
When youre growing up in that situation, you dont know where you fit in, recalled Miller, who is now the chairman of the Pokagon Band of Potawatomi.
I was raised in an era of assimilation. My siblings and I would ask our grandmother and other relatives to teach us the (Potawatomi) language and culture. They refused.
They said, Weve lost you once and we dont want to lose you again.  The statement is a reference to the fact that many Potawatomi children had been removed from their homes after their elders had began to teach them their native language and sent to government boarding schools where speaking Potawatomi was prohibited.
They were afraid the Bureau of Indian Affairs would come in and remove the children from the families, Miller said of the elders.
As a result, everything went underground. Whenever there was a gathering they (the elders) would be speaking Potawatomi. But when the kids would come in, they would stop. So how did he find his own identity?
What you do is resolve it. You find a way to submerse yourself into it. I started traveling to powwows with family and friends. Along the way, he gained a strong sense of the Potawatomi culture and heritage.
I feel I have a strong foothold in both (communities),  he said, while admitting he wont feel completely comfortable with his Potawatomi side until I have a strong sense of the language.  The tribe has been trying to help its younger members by providing language classes. Unfortunately, a lot of our elders that were fluent have passed away,  Miller said during an interview at the tribes headquarters on Sink Road in Pokagon Township.
  The tribe has also been encouraging the culture by stressing traditional activities such as making baskets and the regalia used in the powwows, and encouraging drum groups, he said.
  The band has more than 3,000 members in Allegan, Berrien, Cass and Van Buren counties and six counties in northern Indiana. Many live around Hartford, Dowagiac,
Benton Harbor and South Bend, according to Miller.   Theyre your neighbors, he said.
    In a little over a year, Miller, 41, will take on a new role as the CEO of one of the largest employers in the area. The tribe is scheduled to open its $ 400 million Four Winds Casino on 675 acres in New Buffalo Township in August 2007.   It will have 124,000 square feet of gaming space and a 160-room hotel.


  He estimates no more than 200 tribal members will work at the casino, which will employ 2,000. Most members are already well established in other jobs.
  Miller said the national average for most American Indian casinos is that tribal members make up only 3 to 5 percent of the workforce.

Youre going to see not just the 2,000 jobs were creating, youre going to see 2,000 additional spin-off jobs,
 Miller predicted.   For the surrounding communities, revenue sharing from the casino will help pay for such things as school additions, baseball fields, and road and water system improvements, he said.
  He expects the tribe will be able to invest in more land and continue to work on restoring its culture, language and spirituality. And he thinks it will diversify economically by investing in other businesses.
  Miller and his wife, Angela, who is also a Potawatomi, continue to live in Hartford. They have three children, Steven, 7, Isabella, 8, and Kathryn, 12.

Shes a heck of a softball player,
Miller said of his eldest daughter.
  After graduating from Hartford High School, Miller had a business manufacturing toy cars. In the early 90s, he went back to college, getting a degree in hospitality management from Lake Michigan College. He took a job as a food commodities supervisor for the tribe.

Some of the elders asked if I would consider running for the tribal council.
  It was a big decision. Its not like being on a school board. When you get involved in tribal politics, you actually devote your entire life to it.
 He was elected vice chairman in 1996, then became interim chairman a few months later when the chairman, Bob Moody, resigned because of conflicts with his regular job.
Miller was elected chairman the following July. He has held the position ever since, except for an 11-month period in 2001-02 when he was removed by the tribal council. He blamed it on an internal struggle, which he attributed to the fact the tribe was undergoing growing pains.  He has continued to hold the office since being re-elected in 2002.
    The Pokagons now own property in the Hartford, Dowagiac, New Buffalo Township and North Liberty, Ind. areas.
We went from owning a half acre to 6,000 acres in a couple of years,
Miller said. In a sense, that becomes our sovereign land again.

John served as tribal chairman of the Pokagon Band of Potawatomi for approximately 11 years through August, 2009.

John is a 1983 graduate of Hartford High School, Hartford MI.

Information for this web site was gathered from personal interviews, newspaper articles, scrapbooks, personal photo albums, and other documented materials - many available to the public at the Hartford Public Library or Van Buren County Historical Museum.  Please report any typographical errors, updated information, or incorrectly stated information to the webmaster for correction.  Reprinting for personal and instructional purposes is permitted, however, unauthorized commercial reprinting of this information or unauthorized linking to photos-pictures on this site is strictly prohibited without written permission from the webmaster. 

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A Pictorial History of Hartford, Michigan
Emma Thornburg Sefcik,
Competent Secretarial Service
Copyright 2000 - All rights reserved.

Revised: May 27, 2015