Note: Georgie “Dolly” Potts was selected from a number of nominations to be this semester’s Commencement Speaker. As COVID-19 postponed the University’s plans to celebrate with the Fall/ Winter 2020 graduates until Spring 2021, Potts’ speech was recorded and will be released on what was to be 2020 Fall/Winter Commencement, Saturday, Dec. 19, 2020 at news.uwgb.edu.
LIFE AS A STORY
Georgie “Dolly” Potts is a firmly grounded person. That includes in this present moment of celebration at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay, as well as her past and her future.
As a member of Prairie Band Potawatomi from Kansas and a graduate receiving a bachelor’s of arts in First Nations Studies, Pott’s achievements transcend academics. In her nomination, Mai J. Lo Lee noted, “Dolly is an exemplary UW-Green Bay student because of her love for learning, compassion to listen and her ability to connect life to learning.”
When asked about her “special” ability to connect life with learning, she says simply, “I’m good at telling a story.” Even more remarkable is not just her talent in telling, but retelling stories. “These stories come from my ancestors. We pass them down to our children, to our grandchildren.”
And her journey to today is a story few others could tell.
In just two years, after transferring from College of Menominee Nation, Pott’s stature among students, faculty and the First Nations community on campus has grown through her words of encouragement, empathetic listening and a unique life perspective influenced by Potawatomi traditions.
“We believe in the seven generations. I am in the middle. I learn and listen to my ancestors from the past three generations and I look to the future three generations,” Potts explains. “These stories come from my ancestors. We pass them down to our children, to our grandchildren.” She recognizes this is a concept that doesn’t always fit neatly in a Western worldview. But she adds, “If you talk of the seven generations to a native, they know exactly what you’re talking about.”
These “native” traditions she describes simply as “choosing the way of the earth.” And it’s not just all talk. Potts travels throughout the region to participate in teachings from tribal Elders (a title of respect that also applies to her), from her community and others. She uses these learning experiences, to directly impact the students and colleagues on campus and in the community through teaching, demonstrations and celebrations.
Every question she is asked comes not with just an answer, but also a story—including her name Dolly. “My oldest sister named me Dolly. When I was born, there were 10 years between us, so I was her dolly. Georgie’s after my father.” Addressing her as Koya (Grandma) Dolly is also acceptable—especially considering she has three sons, one daughter, 13 grandchildren and number 14 on the way.
Potts describes herself simply: “I’m a traditional native. I grew up with my ways.” Her “growing up” included life on a Kansas reservation and attendance at a Catholic boarding school in South Dakota. Her love of Wisconsin began in her teenage years, traveling to the Green Bay-area to take part in tribal pow wows. Potts remembers “We would all get together to sing and dance.” The purpose of dancing? “For joy.”
Beyond her naturally fun-loving nature, Potts’ achievements within the University and community have been impactful and transformative. First as an intern in the Education Center for First Nations Studies, where she worked with the local indigenous community. During that time, she arranged for several Elders and knowledge-keepers to present to campus on various topics. Her nomination as Commencement Speaker noted, “As an undergraduate student and tribal Elder, Dolly’s skills and abilities surpass those of many professionals already working in a higher education setting.”
Potts’ activism and community outreach has extended state-wide to Madison, where she shared her research on Act 31—a requirement that all public school districts provide instruction on the history, culture and tribal sovereignty of Wisconsin’s 11 federally-recognized American Indian nations and tribal communities. In true “Koya Dolly” fashion, she met with Wisconsin Superintendent of Public Instruction Carolyn Stanford-Taylor and established a “grandma-to-grandma” connection.
But most of all Potts enjoys being herself. “I love who I am. I’m very proud of being native.” Essential to her identity is a tribal oral tradition she explains as “telling stories about our ancestors, or the world around you that helps explain human nature.”
The unique quality of “Koya Dolly’s” power to connect with others is that it comes from her giving nature. She shares that power freely in the form of her stories. Lisa Poupart, director of the First Nations undergraduate and doctoral programs, describes her as a role model for all students and community members. “She embodies the commitment to lifelong learning and service to others,” Poupart said. “We will all benefit from her wisdom and shared words at commencement.”
As for her Commencement Speech, she’s got a story to share and offers this hint: “It’s about a bear and about power. Because many of the students that are graduating will go into positions of power.”
And as for plans beyond graduation?
“I’ll use my education as a pillar to support the foundation of my people.” And for Potts, that foundation stands on a love of learning about the past, present and future.
Her story continues.