Traditionally, clans—groups of families—were what governed the tribal community. Each person and family was a part of a clan, and each clan had its uniquely important role in the community, spiritually and practically. When all the clans played their roles and worked together, it made for a healthy tribal nation.
Children were raised to adulthood by their clan relatives, who made sure to pass on appropriate behavior. No one wanted to misbehave because that brought dishonor to his or her clan. Inappropriate behavior could lead to exclusion, which was akin to death when communal life was the means of survival.
Bear clan traditionally managed security, mediation and collecting medicines for healing. Water clans like turtle clan and fish clan were responsible for caring for earth and water, making sure natural resources were in harmony with the people. Sky clans like bird clan and thunder clan were the intellectuals and spiritual teachers; their ability to oversee a long term project step by step aided community planning.
Each clan would host a ceremony at different times of the year, and who hosted depended on the animal they represented. For example bear and thunder might not be active in the winter, since they were hibernating and it wasn’t their time. But when it was time for their ceremony, the hosting clans would invite the guests and serve the food, organizing all aspects of the ceremony for the other clans.
Today, the three most common Pokagon Potawatomi clans are thunder, bear and turtle. Since community breakdown following European contact and the removal of Indians westward, the clan system—like other aspects of native culture—has been nearly lost.
The Pokagon Band today is trying to reclaim the clan system, and revive the knowledge of clans in a contemporary way. In January several dozen citizens turned out for a clan talking circle hosted by the Department of Language and Culture. From the discussion it was clear that the community would like more information about Potawatomi clans and their roles and responsibilities. At a future gathering community members will build on that interest and circulate more information about clans.