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‘It’s time to be thankful’: How a local Potawatomi leader is recognizing Thanksgiving


Forest County Potawatomi Chairman Ned Daniels celebrates Thanksgiving like most Americans — surrounded by family and heaps of food.

“To us, Thanksgiving has always been a beautiful, big meal day,” he says. “It’s the day we’re all going to get fat and sleepy. Everybody is going to sit on the couch and unbuckle a couple notches on the belt.”

When Daniels was a kid, his mother would prepare a wild pheasant instead of turkey and his father would make everyone at the table say what they were thankful for.

At school, he was taught a familiar Thanksgiving story about pilgrims and Indians joining hands to give thanks for a bountiful harvest.

But the fall feast, he says, was a tradition for the Potawatomi long before the Mayflower landed at Plymouth Rock.

“We had a feast on every season — spring, summer, fall and winter,” Daniels explains. “And we would have those four ceremonies because that’s when our creator was doing things in the world. We recognized when all those times are to change, and we get ready for the next season. So, we always had a harvest like that.”

In fact, only after the European colonialists settled and spread out across the country did the celebration become fraught, as a new U.S. government exploited and killed its native occupants.

“You know how they had the Trail of Tears, well the Potawatomis had what they called a Trail of Death,” Daniels says.

More than 40 people died as the tribe was pushed onto reservation lands.

Later, the government took Potawatomi children away from their families and forced them into boarding schools. Daniels’ mother was among them.

More recently, the Forest County Potawatomi Community has faced newer challenges like opioid addiction, Daniels says.

But the tribe is overcoming these challenges too. This November, Daniels is celebrating 11 months without a single opioid-related death in his community.

That’s a lot to be thankful for, he says, and that’s what he’s asking his community to remember this Thanksgiving.

“On days like this,” he says, “I don’t want to teach my tribe all the hardships and bad things of the past. It’s good to remember that, but I don’t want them to live it. I want my people to move on now. Arm my kids with that education, and let’s go forward.”

Erin Gottsacker worked at WXPR as a Morning Edition host and reporter from December 2020 to January 2023. During her time at the station, Erin reported on the issues that matter most in the Northwoods.
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