Why We Exist

This colonized world has done its best to rid itself of indigenous people—those who’ve always stubbornly stood in the way of progress, of civilization. Growing up Native in Berks County felt awkward and foreign. Whenever I tried to assert my identity as Potawatomi to my peers, they laughed or thought I was stupid because, of course, I don’t look like an Indian, and there aren’t any Indians around here anyway.

So what did an Indian look like?

Through the course of my schooling and my experience within my own community, I learned I didn’t exist, and I had no right to exist.

My formative years passed with only annual council meetings in our region to anchor me and my family to our Potawatomi heritage, but outside of those times, it wasn’t something I announced with confidence and pride in my everyday life. It didn’t really seem relevant either, as more and more I learned that the only way to achieve success within this society was to follow the dominant power.

When you stand apart, you become a target.

I know this tactic was useful for our survival a long time ago. If you were Native you were lesser, and often a target for hate and injustice. We learned to hide in plain sight. Many of the local Lenape did the same. Those who stayed, who didn’t relocate due to encroaching settlers and government removal, depended on blending in for their survival and the wellbeing of their families. Many hid who they were to avoid the horror of being torn from family and sent to residential schools, one of the most infamous stationed in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. If you lived through the experience, you emerged stripped of your culture and language. This tactic was employed by American and Canadian governments to enact cultural genocide, effectively ridding the civilized world of Native people.

The Widoktadwen Center for Native Knowledge is an answer to this absence of awareness of contemporary Native people. As I see my family growing and the numbers of Potawatomi in our area exploding exponentially, I wonder what I would look like if people could see us, really see us.

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