Val Niehaus | Crandon, WI
My girls are Forest County Potawatomi, like their father. I am not a tribal member, but a lot of the community members know me, not only because I grew up here, but because my girls are tribal members. They attend powwows, have learned the dances, and I make sure that they go and listen to the elders in the community speak their stories and listen to their teachings.
I grew up here in Crandon. My family has been here since 1900. I went to elementary school here and graduated from Crandon High School in 1999. I was always the art kid: painting, photography, printmaking, ceramics. After graduating from UW-Stevens Point with an art degree, I went back and forth from Madison to Crandon, but I came back home finally in 2007.
My main thing is photography. That’s my passion. That’s what I know I was put on this Earth to do— capture a photo of someone, capture that moment and memory, and make them feel good in that photo.
The tribe, Forest County Potawatomi, owns the Potawatomi Traveling Times (PTT). We focus on positive news to help educate, enlighten, and challenge stereotypical ideas of what Indian Country is. I applied to work at PTT three or four times before I actually got hired. I knew I wanted to use my photography and art background. I got my foot in the door in a different department before I was finally hired as a photographer and writer.
We are a small paper. Our circulation was about 2,500, but in April, because of Covid, we went digital-only. PTT issues can be found at fcpotawatomi.com. It feels important to be a part of a publication tied so closely to my community, where people can see themselves accurately portrayed, their issues reflected, and their stories told.
One thing that gets me excited is writing about the history of the elders here. Their family history, what they went through, like when they had to hunt and fish to survive. And the boarding schools where they were persecuted for who they were, and almost extinguished, honestly. It’s hard speaking to some of the elders, because they really keep that to themselves, and I respect that. I also love reporting on any story about the tribal youth here, because there are so many negative stereotypes, but they’re an amazing group of people, so I like to do anything to highlight tribal youth, whether it’s education, or sports, or their artistic abilities.
The biggest series I wrote was in 2014-15, on Native Americans in the U.S. military, from the Revolutionary War all the way up to the Vietnam War.
I also cover a lot of powwows and the dance competitions that are done during these powwows in our community. I’ve gotten to travel around the U.S. and Canada to the annual Potawatomi Gathering, which is held at one of the thirteen bands of the Potawatomi Nation, and the Native American Indigenous Games. At times we’ll have maybe eight to fourteen tribal youth go to these games, and I have to make sure I get a photo of each one. I just want to do good for them, because not all their family can go. I take a lot of care in making sure that they’re highlighted and that their story is told right.
The elders love seeing their grandkids in the paper. They call me up and ask, “Can I have a print of that photo?” I’ll say, “Yeah, you can. I’ll get it for you right away.”
As a journalist, I also pay attention to the cultural teachings of the tribe: maple syruping, elders telling winter stories, drum making. I felt honored to do a story on our chief judge, who passed away a little over a year ago. He was the man to get a deer hide from if you wanted to make moccasins or any piece of regalia. He let me into his home and showed me the steps of tanning hides, including the cultural and religious beliefs.
We also cover environmental issues, making sure the environment’s safe and clean, and stays that way up here. Alcohol and other drug abuse has been a huge issue. Opioid abuse is a huge pandemic up here. There were some months there where we were losing three to four people a month from drug overdose. But the tribe is working hard to address these issues.
We have lost a lot of people to Covid, especially recently, and just had a very significant elder pass from Covid at the end of November. I’ve been gathering photos I’ve taken of him in my whole time of working here, to give to his daughter. He was a fluent Potawatomi speaker, and there are very few speakers left. He held a lot of the teachings here and said the prayers during important times. To not be able to go to his services was terrible. We had to say our goodbyes in different ways. My boyfriend laid down his sema (tobacco), and said a prayer for him to have a safe journey on his way.
I love my community. I was raised in the same house as my Irish great-grandfather, who came here from Chicago in 1900. The connection with the roots here is what brought me back. I’m glad I came back to show my girls that. It just feels right working for this publication for that reason.
Val’s story was produced by Catherine Capellaro and is part of Love Wisconsin’s Democracy and the informed citizen series. You can read her article on Native Americans in the military here.
This series was funded by the “Why it Matters: Civic and Electoral Participation” initiative, administered by the Federation of State Humanities Councils and funded by Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.