Today marks the death of Swiss Jesuit Fr Maurice Gaillands, who dedicated his life to working with Native Americans and First Nations in North America. He was the first to compile a 450 page Potawatomi dictionary and grammar, as well as developing a Latin based alphabet and spelling for them. The Potawatomi were first known to the French (about 1640) on and about the islands at the mouth of Green Bay, Lake Michigan, having been driven there by the Iroquois. Their name means "fire-makers," from having split off from other tribes to the south and kindled a new fire, i.e. formed a separate government for themselves. A semi-sedentary and semi-agricultural tribe in 1641 they followed a clan system, having 15 clans: Wolf, Bear, Beaver, Elk, Loon, Eagle, Sturgeon, Carp, Bald Eagle, Thunder, Rabbit, Crow, Fox, Turkey and Black Hawk. They built communal bark-covered lodges, and buried their dead in the ground or in hollow logs and sacrificed chiefly to the sun. They appear to have been present at the "feast of the dead" attended by the Jesuits Raymbault and Jogues in the Huron country. They would visit missions set up by the devoted Jesuit pioneer Allouez near the head of Green Bay, Wisconsin but the war between the French and Iroquois, in the late 17th Century gave temporary check to all the missions,
In 1822 the first Protestant work in the tribe was begun by the Baptists but was discontinued a few years later. In the meantime, on formal request of the Ottawa chiefs to Congress (1823) for Jesuit missionaries, the old missions had been re-established. Successive treaties had eaten away at the Potawatomi territory until against their will, they were transported to new homes in Iowa and Kansas, beyond the Mississippi. The mission claimed twelve hundred Catholic Indians, including two chiefs, with two flourishing schools, conducted jointly by the Jesuits and the Sisters of the Sacred Heart.
Before Fr Gaillands apostolate, the linguistic material of Potawatomi was meagre, consisting chiefly of a few printed or manuscript vocabularies, the latter with the Bureau of American Ethnology, together with one or two small publications by the Baptist mission board, at Shawnee Mission, Kansas (about 1837). At the beginning of the third millenuium there were fewer than 1300 people who speak Potawatomi as a first language, most of them elderly. There is currently an effort underway to revitalize the language. Many places in the Midwest have names derived from the Potawatomi language, including Allegan, Waukegan, Muskegon, Oconomowoc, Pottawattamie County, and Skokie.