John Dunnagan’s background is almost as complicated as the history of the Miami Tribe in Indiana. The Dunnagan name is related to the Irish side of his family.
But he is also a direct descendent of Frances Slocum, the white woman who was kidnapped by Delaware warriors as a five-year-old in Pennsylvania, and eventually became the wife of the Miami chief Shepoconah (Deaf Man). She lived in Shepoconah’s village along the Mississinewa River near Peru, Indiana.
Many people have heard of Slocum but they may not know her Miami name was Maconaquah (Little Bear), which is also the name of the high school Culver Academies plays in several sports.
When the Miami Tribe was divided in 1845, Slocum and her family were allowed to stay on their Indiana property while approximately half the tribe was moved to the Kansas Territory. That group was later moved to a larger reservation in Oklahoma that also included several other tribes, including those hostile to the Miami.
Dunnagan, who now serves as the vice chief for The Miami Nation of Indiana, said that brief look into history is part of the complicated process the Miami have faced for approximately 180 years. From losing their communal land in Indiana, to losing their federal tribal status, to being denied reinstatement as a recognized tribe, it has been a long, often difficult process.
Dunnagan came to Culver Wednesday as part of Alena Valdez’s senior service project. Valdez (Denver, Colorado) is a member of the Sioux Tribe. She wanted to bring a local Native American speaker to campus to talk about his experiences and answer questions students may have.
A large of part of the Miami’s problems come from simply assimilating. They live in communities like Peru, Marion, and Wabash. The problems being faced by the Miami didn’t even register with Dunnagan while he was growing up – and his mother was on the tribal council and served as the principle chief during the 1990s.
The importance of maintaining tribal records, the culture, and reviving the dialect didn’t become important to him until his mother died, he said. That is when he realized someone else would have to continue the many initiatives and legal work to get the Miami recognized as a tribe by the federal government.
The irony is the Potawatomi, who are officially based in Michigan, were recognized in the 1990s at the same time the Miami were denied. “And they used our petition as a model for theirs,” Dunnagan said. One of the reasons cited by the federal government was the lack of participation, but with 6,000 members it is difficult to bring everyone together. That is why a non-profit entity was established in 1934 to represent the tribe’s interest and the elected council serves as the leaders.
Some speculate the Miami were denied because the tribe would then file to reclaim its trust land, which is not the case, he said. The main reason for regaining federal recognition is making it easier for tribal members to take advantage of such federal programs like specific college scholarships and low-interest mortgage loans, he said. While some Miami people are recognized as individuals, they cannot qualify for certain programs until the tribe has official status. There are two to three other tribes in the nation facing the same situation, he added.
Reviving the Miami language has taken time and still requires more research. Because of assimilation in Indiana, the local dialect was down to just a few words. Now there are classes available at The Dunes National Park and Manchester University. He personally has trouble speaking the language, but he enjoys listening to his grandchildren speak it. The Miami dialect is a derivative of Algonquin with regional words added.
They found family dictionaries in Oklahoma that proved very useful in restoring the language. There is also an extensive dictionary written in the 1500s by Jesuit priests who lived in the area. But it is written in French, so it would have to be translated into English and then Miami. That is where the federal funds for preservation of the tribal culture would be handy, he explained.
Discussing some of the controversy over team mascots and names, Dunnagan said he isn’t as bothered by it as much as others. But he does admit that it bothers him more now than it did when he was younger. He does question if people actually understand the meaning behind the words. For example, Redskins refers to the bloody scalps that were taken during battle. The bloody side is called “red skin,” he said.
The Miami do have two major events coming up. The PowWow is set for June 2-3 in Rockville, Indiana. Miami Days at the Pillars is conducted in August, he added. That is on the shore of the Mississinewa River just below the dam. Details are available on The Miami Nation of Indiana website.