In the interview series Meet Native America, the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian invites tribal leaders, cultural figures, and other interesting and accomplished Native individuals to introduce themselves and say a little about their lives and work. Together, their responses illustrate the diversity of the indigenous communities of the Western Hemisphere, as well as their shared concerns, and offer insights beyond what’s in the news to the ideas and experiences of Native peoples today.
Please introduce yourself with your name and title.
My name is Kenneth Meshigaud. I am tribal chairperson of the Hannahville Indian Community.
Can you share with us your Native name and its English translation?
My Native name is Ogeema Muckwa, which translates in English to King Bear—I am of the Bear Clan.
Where is your community located?
Our tribe—a band of Potawatomi—is located in the south central part of the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. It’s best described as approximately two hours north of Green Bay, Wisconsin.
Where was your nation originally from?
The great nation of Potawatomi once called the areas of southern Michigan, southern Wisconsin, northern Illinois, Indiana, and Ohio our ancestral homelands.
What is a significant point in history from your tribe that you would like to share?
It is difficult to define any particular event, but I believe the Trail of Tears was a significant part of that history, as for almost every tribal nation across the country. In 1834 the people of Hannahville refused to leave Michigan in the Indian Removal. As tragic as that was, I believe it defined and strengthened us as nations of people. And although it split us from our brothers and sisters, it caused us to develop the tenacity, strength, and familial bonds that would carry us through those tough times and instill in us the desire to carry on as the proud and strong nation that we are.
How is the Hannahville Indian Community government set up?
The Hannahville Indian Community Tribal Council governs the community. We also have other elected boards for various areas of the community government. That includes a Health Board, School Board, Adult/Child Welfare, Housing, and a Gaming Commission. These elected boards have responsibilities to oversee their respective departments for administration and oversight of policies adopted by the Tribal Council.
Any disputes or interruptions that the board cannot settle are referred to the Tribal Council for final action.
Is there a functional, traditional entity of leadership in addition to your modern government system?
Although there is no functional traditional leader of the community, we rely on the wisdom, general practices, and recommendations of persons who are knowledgeable in these areas to offer their suggestions when the Tribal Council meets to make and enforce the laws for the people of the Hannahville Indian Community.
How often are elected leaders chosen?
The Tribal Council is elected for a three-year term as defined by our constitution and by-laws.
How often does the council meet?
Tribal Council is bound by constitution to meet at least once per month.
How did your life experience prepare you to lead your nation?
I don’t think I was ever prepared enough to have this awesome responsibility. I don’t think anyone ever is. What I do know is that I grew up with some awareness in myself that I would one day help and contribute to my community in some way. Knowing this, as I grew up and got to the age when I could be employed, I worked in many areas of the community to gain a basic knowledge of how each department functioned on a day-to-day basis. I knew that one day it would help me to oversee and steer the community in what I think is the right direction.
What responsibilities do you have as principal chief?
I have administrative oversight responsibilities for all governmental, educational, health, welfare, and gaming activities in our community. The responsibility of overseeing the general welfare of our community is perhaps the toughest responsibility. To act as a leader, spokesperson, and advocate for the people is the highest honor, knowing that it is their lives and the lives of their children that I am ultimately affecting.
Who inspired you as a mentor?
I’ve had many mentors over the years from administrators who were my bosses or supervisors when I entered the workforce in my community to teachers and community members. But the person I consider my greatest teacher and mentor was my brother-in-law, Jake McCullough Jr. When I was three years old, my mother passed away, and the state welfare department felt it was in the best interest to place my younger brother and me in foster homes; they felt my father could not handle such young children.
Well, my family would not have it. So my older sister, Marylou decided to take us in. Her husband, Jake, acted for a time as my father. He, along with my sister, raised my brother and me during those very formative years and taught us life lessons that I still cling to today. The lessons of self-respect, thinking before acting, and caring for your brothers and sisters are the greatest teachings he ever gave me. He later became the tribal chairperson for our community and inspired me to do the same. Not by his saying it in words, but by my watching his actions and role modeling I later came to realize that I wanted to follow in his footsteps.
Are you a descendant of a historical leader? If so, who?
I am told that I am a descendant of Chief Simon Kahquados, who I am told was the last heredity chief of the Potawatomi. Best known as the Great Communicator, he would regularly travel to cities and towns outside the community and speak to non-Indian people to educate them about the community in hopes that it would build trust and foster good relationships.
Approximately how many citizens are in your community?
There are currently 905 enrolled members of the Hannahville Indian Community.
What are the criteria to become enrolled in Hannahville?
Every person who wishes to be an enrolled member of the community must be half or more Indian blood. Our constitution and by-laws spell out membership criteria and, and as for many communities, the criteria are each unique to our tribe.
To read the full interview, visit the NMAI series here.