Potts, Maynard .... A humble Spiritual leader and combat veteran

By Gary Mitchell
Special to News From Indian Country 5-08

As with most obituaries, most of a person’s life is left out for reasons of space and cost, and this is true with the Maynard’s Potts obituary. Here is an account of what could have been included if we lived in a perfect world.

He was part of what Tom Brokaw called the “greatest generation.” Brokaw said they survived the Depression; served the country during World War II; and become involved in their communities as volunteers, elected officials or church leaders.

Maynard did exactly that. During the Great Depression, years of hardship had taught him and the people on the reservation to depend on important survival skills, such as an uncanny ability to improvise. Not to be overlooked were a few welcome federal work programs that became the key to managing in a severe economic period of this country.

How did Maynard and the Potawatomi people weather these hard times? They only had to look to the not-so-distant past and remember the removal period still fresh in the minds of many elders by virtue of tribal stories preserved by the oral history tradition.

The lessons of the past would help the Potawatomi overcome adversity. Inner strength and character would help the people on the reservation cope with the trauma of the times.

Yes, adversity has a way of building character, but it also prepared men like Maynard and many others who would serve in the upcoming war. Surviving the Great Depression was just one chapter in his life and it did a fair job of preparing him for the next huge event in his life.

His ascent into World War II started when he left the United States from San Francisco January 23, 1943, aboard the troop transport Nordom. As they passed under the Golden Gate Bridge, a man in the back of the boat shouted, “Golden Gate, Golden Gate, be back in ‘48.”

Of course, the war didn’t last that long, but it seemed like an eternity for these young men. The troop transport traveled one month and one day to get to the war zone in New Guinea, a tropical island in the Pacific north of Australia.

The unit aboard the 532nd Amphibian was attached to the Ninth Division of the Australian Army which had just returned from two to three years of combat in Africa.

It was because of the bravery of the Australians on several occasions that Maynard was able to survive the war. They were ready to fight under any circumstances and showed no fear. In April 1943, the American unit went to Milne Bay, New Guinea.

During the first two weeks of which they went through 118 bombings by the Japanese. The bombing started at six a.m. and ended 20 hours later at two a.m. Because of the lack of air support, many Americans died during those initial days.

After the Allies finally wrested New Guinea from Japanese control in March 1944, Maynard boarded a boat to the Philippines in what was called “island hopping,” or seizing key islands in the southwest Pacific Ocean.

With this strategy, the Allies used each island as a springboard to attack the next island. The Philippines had been under Japanese control since May of 1942, and the Allies hoped to recapture it, cut off Japan’s lines of communication with its overseas bases, and set up bases from which to attack Japan.

While on this first “island hopping” boat ride, Maynard saw Japanese suicide planes take out three American ships one day and seven ships the next.

Throughout the war, Maynard was to see men wounded and killed, and he was to experience countless nerve - wracking bombings. But the hardest part was the fear and never knowing what would happen next.

His life after the war was far from easy. He struggled with the aftermath as is the case with many combat veterans, their actions are never fully understood and for some people who could never fathom the scars of war, it is simply too easy to judge. Today it is called post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

For Maynard Potts, there are more accomplishments in his life, although being a combat veteran would have defined his life by itself; there is more to his life than that. Again those accomplishments never make an obituary.

Maynard and Coralene Keesis married on October 2, 1942, and raised a large family in definite hard times. To cope with those hard times and the nightmares of war, one of the constants in both their lives was their absolute dedication to the Indian religion of the Potawatomi.

She cooked at home and at the services themselves. As she once said, “Being a member of the religion involves more than sitting there looking pretty,” and she was right. There is so much work to be done and it has to be shared by all to make it work.

For years, Maynard went over to the Drum Building and cleaned it up before the services or went out and cut wood. As a respected elder, he didn’t have to do that but he did.

Maynard had a gift and that was the ability to sing the songs of the religion; he worked tirelessly with younger members to learn the songs and help others learn the Potawatomi language.

Both he and Coralene led a long life and will be remembered for their work to make the Potawatomi religious life better. Maynard had a gift and that was the ability to sing the songs of the religion; he worked tirelessly with younger members to learn the songs and help others learn the Potawatomi language. Maynard once said that when he survived the war, he was going to dedicate his life to his mother’s religion and he did.

Maynard made a point to attend every religious service he could on the reservation, rarely missing until he became sick in the winter of 2007-08. That is called dedication in any circle.

He believed in the power of prayer and when he was close to leaving this life a couple of times during his hospital stay, his family held a prayer service for him. He pulled through those two critical times. The power of prayer made it possible for him to stay with his family for a few more precious days.

He also had an extraordinary memory and told of events long ago and could remember so many names. Many young people, and some not so young, would find their way to his door to seek out advice on religion, Indian names and maybe to hear the stories of old.

When he passed away in April of 2008, after surviving 92 winters, Maynard had one of the largest funerals ever on the Potawatomi Reservation.

The Drum Building was full with people paying their respects to a man who helped others aplenty in his life. Many positive words were spoken about his life-long dedication to the religion and it was all true. During some funerals, it is rare for people to get up and talk to share their feelings, but not this time.

This was an indicator of the influence Maynard Potts had on the people of the Potawatomi Reservation. He deserved the positive service.

It wasn’t all serious though. Maynard was remembered for his baseball abilities, being a number one fan of the local fast-pitch teams, and to see his granddaughter Tara play basketball in high school and her first year in college.

Maynard was the Number One fan of Kansas University Basketball. He stayed home and watched every one of those game on T.V. He often talked about the young Winnebago pitcher Joba Chamberlain of the Yankees and the Navajo infielder named Jacoby Ellsbury of the Boston Red Sox.

Maynard passed away a few days before KU beat Memphis 75-68 in the National Championship game. In fact, the wake occurred at the same time as the big game. The large crowd at the wake were huge KU fans too, but they went to the funeral instead of watching the game. This showed the deep respect Maynard had in this community. Of course, that didn’t prevent people from checking their cell phones for updates when they went outside.

All in all, Maynard and Coraline left a legacy that their children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren can be proud of and an example to follow. Neither will be forgotten.

Gary E. Mitchell is a member of the Prairie Band of Potawatomi Nation in Kansas. He holds a bachelors degree in political science and a master’s degree in history. He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. for comments.

 

 

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