Revitalizing the Menominee Language

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.

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Last updated: February 25, 2004