“Bozho. Blaire ndezhnekas. Anishinabékwé nda miné Pokégnêk Bodéwadmik ndebendagwes. Mko ndodem. Atlantic City, New Jersey ndotthbya miné Ndowathoyêk, Mzhigénak nde da. Language and Culture Department ethë miktthéwiyan.”
“Hi. My name is Blaire. I’m Indigenous to the Great Lakes region and I am enrolled in the Pokagon Band of Potawatomi Indians. Bear is my clan and where my responsibilities come from. I grew up in Atlantic City, New Jersey but now live in Dowagiac, Michigan. I work in the Department of Language and Culture.” *
Blaire Topash-Caldwell’s approach to leadership is embodied in the way she chooses to introduce herself. This traditional Pokagon introduction demonstrates “where we are centered in the universe in relation to each other.” For her, community, particularly her community, is one of her driving forces.
Blaire grew up in New Jersey but frequently traveled back and forth between here and there because “family is here.” In reflecting on her life and where she is today, Blaire observed that her life has been “really unexpected.” For most of her childhood and into her early twenties, Blaire “never felt rooted.” She felt “lost, frustrated, and disgruntled.” Of her life today, she notes that she is doing “all of the things I thought I’d never do, and they ended up being the best things.” As the archivist for the tribe, Blaire loves the challenges her job presents, even though in graduate school she never wanted to be an archivist.
As a student, Blaire studied anthropology and thought she would end up traveling the world as an archaeologist. Blaire’s study abroad experiences in Greece and Peru continue to influence her work today. While in Greece at the Acropolis Museum, Blaire’s interest in issues of Cultural Resource Management was sparked. The museum hosts a space for the Elgin Marbles that currently reside in the British Museum under the protest of Greece. This empty space serves as an “identity marker of their long history,” and it is their absence that “invites the visitor to ask, ‘where are they?’” Being called to recognize the absence started her thinking about Pokagon “cultural resources and where they are around the world.”
While in Peru, Blaire learned about how the Spanish colonized the area and enslaved the indigenous population to build their Cathedrals. She was moved by the “very sneaky” ways these indigenous groups incorporated their cultural symbols into the columns of the cathedrals. From studying these acts of “internal resistance” Blaire started questioning, “how are the activities of indigenous peoples in this area seen as passive or complicit but actually are strategic?”
For Blaire, “everything in my life is coming together to this land, to these people because this is where my heart is.” As the first full-time archivist for the tribe, Blaire’s goals are to help upgrade storage conditions and collect more items and oral histories. She is also actively working to make the collection more accessible to people outside the community. Her current project is a tiered website that will allow anyone to explore articles, photos, and items that are housed in the tribe’s archives. A second tier, accessible only to Pokagon members, allows for wider dissemination and identification of family photos and artifacts.
Blaire is also working on language revitalization to help ensure that it is not lost as elders walk on. Throughout all this, Blaire is guided by the question of “what can I do to make my community better?”
*Literal translation: Hi. Blaire I am called. Anishinabe woman I am and Pokagon Band I am enrolled. Bear my heart (totem). Atlantic City, New Jersey I am from and Place of Harvesting, Place that has been clear-cut I am now. Language and Culture Department is the place where I work.
Information compiled from oral history collected by The Michiana Women Leaders
Blaire was a 2018 CMWL honoree.