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If you ask a group of people what it means to be an American, you might get a different answer from each person. For instance, responses based on someone's political beliefs, family history, military record, or other life experience.But what does it mean to be an American for people from underrepresented groups in an era when civility and tolerance are sometimes in short supply?WUWM's Race & Ethnicity Reporter Teran Powell is exploring the topic in our new series, called I'm An American.

'Recognizing Process & Change Would Do Every One A Bit Of Good': Michael Zimmerman

Teran Powell
Michael Zimmerman takes a photo near the pond outside the Urban Ecology Center at Riverside Park where he teaches Ojibwe language classes.

Since the beginning of the year, our I’m An Americanseries has featured the stories of Muslim, Hispanic and Hmong people, who’ve talked about how the label “American” fits into their identity. Now, we hear from a Native American man who offers another unique perspective.

I first met Michael Zimmerman at the Indian Community School in Franklin, where he was teaching a biweekly Ojibwe Language course.

LISTEN: Ojibwe Language Classes Hope To Help Revitalize Native Languages In Wisconsin

I had never been to a Native American language class before, but the students said the course helped them get more in touch with their culture.

So, I asked Zimmerman to talk about his culture, and the label he uses to describe himself.

"I identify predominantly as Native. And the Native side isn’t just one thing. So, my fifth great-grandfather was Ojibwe and Odawa ... His mother was Odawa and his father was Ojibwe. But his children were with Potawatomi women, so all of the descendants are Ojibwe, Odawa and Potawatomi," he says.

Zimmerman was born in El Paso, Texas, the oldest of three siblings. His family moved around a lot due to his father’s work, but he grew up primarily in Niles, Michigan. He’s lived in Milwaukee now for 6 years.

Zimmerman says his father’s side of the family is Native American and German, and his mother’s side is Mexican. But, he says he’s always embraced his Native American identity.

"My father made a point to say at a very young age that we were Potawatomi, and that we were Native. Even though we weren’t necessarily living in areas that we would’ve been able to connect with that heritage — because geographically it just wasn’t in the Great Lakes region — we were very keen to know that we came from a place and that we were very specifically Native and a specific kind of Native," he says.

Zimmerman is federally enrolled with the Pokagon band of Potawatomi in Michigan. He says he can trace part of his father’s Native American ancestry back 10 generations — one of his great-grandfathers even fought during the French & Indian War, also known as the Seven Years’ War.

It was the North American conflict between Great Britain and France that latest from 1754 to 1763.

But what I found most interesting as we talked, was what Zimmerman said about the role labels for groups of people play, and the connotations those labels carry.

Zimmerman brought up the subject when I asked him to discuss misconceptions people have about the Native American community, he says: "I think that right there in and of itself is an example of that; it's not a Native community, it's really Native communities."

WUWM's Teran Powell has an extended conversation with Michael Zimmerman.

Zimmerman says he thinks both Native and non-Native people tend to homogenize too much, putting everyone under one umbrella.

And, he says the word "American" has different connotations, based on the languages Native American tribes speak.

Zimmerman says the words that some tribes use stem from their interactions with European settlers: "When you look at Potawatomi or Ojibwe or any of those, they call them Chimookmon or gichi-mookomaan, and what that means is a really large cutting tool or large cutting knife ... There’s two thoughts of where that came from, one is referring to the bayonets at the end of the guns when they used to have them on their muskets. But another one is the Bowie knife from the 19th century, late 18th century. But again, it’s always associated with weaponry and it’s always associated with warfare."

While those languages reflect the warfare that took place, he says, tribes also have had non-Mative allies since the beginning.

Zimmerman says if people take anything away from hearing him talk about Native American culture and language, he wants it to be this: "There are still speakers of the language that walk this earth, and you should seek those people out in the time that you still have with them." 

Support for Race & Ethnicity reporting is provided by the Dohmen Company.

Do you have a question about race in Milwaukee that you'd like WUWM's Teran Powell to explore? Submit it below.


Teran is WUWM's race & ethnicity reporter.
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