Revitalizing the Menominee Language

This is an archived copy of the Fall 2003 CSUMC Newsletter.

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Photo of "Land of Menominee" sign

Photo by Monica Macaulay

Linguists work with Menominee people to preserve the tribe's language.

A language cannot be saved by singing a few songs or having a word printed on a postage stamp. It cannot even be saved by getting “official status” for it, or getting it taught in schools. It is saved by its use (no matter how imperfect) by its introduction and use in every walk of life and at every conceivable opportunity until it becomes a natural thing, no longer laboured or false. It means in short a period of struggle and hardship. There is no easy route to the restoration of a language. (Ellis and mac a’Ghobhainn, cited in Nettle & Romaine, 2000, p. 176).

Only about 600 of the 6,000 languages spoken in the world in the twenty-first century are ‘safe’ from the threat of extinction over the next century. The rapid endangerment of these threatened languages is due, in large part, to linguistic and cultural assimilation. Language revitalization is the process of reversing that endangerment by increasing both the number of speakers of the language, and the places where the language is used. Over the past twenty-five years, the Meno minee Nation put into place language and culture programs with a goal of revitalizing the language and maintaining cultural traditions.

In 1977 the newly formed Menominee Indian School District started a language and culture teacher-training program. Because of past US policy of assimilation and English-only boarding schools, almost all of the students and teachers were monolingual English speakers, so fluent elders facilitated the training programs. These elders taught adult language learners who eventually were certified as Menominee language, history and culture teachers. Both elders and these newly certified teachers taught in the sch ools. Then in the 1980s the school district hired a linguist, Dr. Timothy Guile. Dr. Guile studied the structure of Menominee, working with and taping the elders, and wrote curriculum for K-12. He also taught Menominee grammar to the teachers. Dr. Guile was not, however, a fluent speaker, so selected fluent speaking elders continued to facilitate training programs.

LCC governs tribe language preservation, education on reservation

In 1996 the tribal legislature passed ordinance 96-22, the Menominee Language and Culture Code. The ordinance makes the Menominee Language the official language of the tribe and states that the language should be taught in all the schools on the reservation and should be used in tribal business whenever possible. This ordinance also created the Language and Culture Commission (LCC), “comprised of nine Menominee persons, five of whom are eminent persons or Kaeqc-Kehkenamok acknowledged to be fluent in Menominee language and that are deeply knowledgeable of, and are practitioners of Menominee culture, traditions, values, and ceremonies.” The LCC oversees all language activities on the reservation, including licensing teachers of the Menominee language, recommending teaching materials for the schools, approving language and/or cultural research projects, and developing community based language and cultural activities.

To fill the need for Menominee teachers created by the ordinance, a Mentor-Apprenticeship program was funded by an Administration for Native Americans (ANA) grant to train adult speakers of the language. The Mentor-Apprenticeship program is an immersion program that pairs each learner with a fluent elder. Since 1998 seven new teachers have been certified, with three currently in training, thanks to a Mentor-Apprentice immersion program funded by the Administration for Native Americans.

As a result, the language is now taught on the reservation at Head Start, the public schools (K-12), the tribal school (K-8), Native American Educational Services (NAES) College, and the College of the Menominee Nation. Language classes are also offered free to the community through the LCC. The elementary and secondary schools also promote the language in other ways. Native American art is displayed in the hallways, and Menominee vocabulary is posted throughout the schools. And a video screen in the lunchroom provide images, an English word (fork, glass, milk, plate, meat, potatoes), then its Menominee equivalent in big letters.

Teaching the language in the schools is an important step toward revitalizing the language. However it must be spoken outside the classroom as well. Thus, the tribe holds language and cultural programs outside the schools. The LCC periodically sponsors an immersion breakfast or dinner where the elders and interested adult and student learners can meet and speak Menominee. Traditionally, legends can only be told when the ground is frozen. So, in the months of January and February, the LCC holds weekly Roundhouses where there is traditional storytelling, drumming, and dancing. Family classes, where parents and children are invited to learn the language together, have been offered. Elders also meet with teachers once a week throughout the year to answer questions and help them develop materials. Additionally, students from both the tribal and public schools participate in a week long summer language and culture camp where elders come to tell stories at night and the students participate in cultural activities, like making birch bark baskets, during the day.

Linguists help preserve language

Dr. Monica Macaulay, a linguist at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, and Marianne Milligan, a graduate student in linguistics, have been working with the elders for about five years. As part of their agreement with the tribe, they may do linguistic research in return for assistance with the tribe’s language programs. They provide copies of tape recordings to a number of tribal institutions, and have created materials for use by the teachers, such as tapes of stories with accompanying text, tapes of vocabulary items, and grammatical lessons. Recently, they have embarked on a Menominee-English dictionary project, funded by the National Science Foundation. This is an urgent need for the tribe, since there is no adequate Menominee-English/English-Menominee dictionary available for use by language teachers and learners.

Christine Lemley, a graduate student in Curriculum and Instruction from UW, has been working with the Menominee language teachers in the tribal and public schools. She co-facilitated a language workshop with the district curriculum director for the public elementary and secondary Menominee language teachers to provide an opportunity for professional growth. She has distributed curricula from another Algonquian tribe to all of the teachers and provided this curriculum to the tribal school principal who is reworking the present curriculum. She has interviewed elders and teachers about their experiences in school and on the reservation to identify what is important to each educator in teaching Menominee culture and language. Her goal is that this information will inform future language training programs.

Languages promote diversity, express identity, function as repositories of history, and contribute to the sum of human knowledge. Most Native American languages are endangered and will be lost by the end of the twenty-first century. The languages of Wisconsin are no exception. However, the tribes, as evidenced by the Menominee, are making huge strides toward making sure their language, their heritage, and their culture is maintained and preserved for future generations.

Christine Lemley is a graduate student in Curriculum and Instruction and Marianne Milligan is a graduate student in Linguistics. Both attend UW-Madison.


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