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 you’re growing up in that situation, you don’t 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, ‘ We’ve lost you once and we don’t 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.
Now, “I feel I have a strong foothold in both (communities),”
while admitting he won’t 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 tribe’s 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. “They’re 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
Miller said the national average for most American Indian casinos is
that tribal members make up only 3 to 5 percent of the workforce.
“You’re going to see not just the 2,000 jobs we’re creating, you’re
going to see 2,000 additional spin-off jobs,”
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
“She’s 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
It was a big decision. It’s 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.”
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
“In a sense, that becomes our sovereign land