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Canku Ota

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(Many Paths)

An Online Newsletter Celebrating Native America


December 14, 2002 - Issue 76


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Tribe Fights for Its Identity, One Word at a Time

by Keith Uhlig Gannett Wisconsin Newspapers
art: Children Seeking Peace and Understanding by D. Morriseau
Children Seeking Peace and Understanding by D. MorriseauKESHENA, WI - In soft, staccato syllables, a student at the Menominee Indian High School read the tribal pledge in her native language over the public address system on Thursday morning.

At the same time, across town at the Menominee Logging Camp Museum, a half-dozen young adults gathered around a large table in a log building, armed with a dictionary, a tape recorder and various notes and papers. They listened intently to two Menominee Nation elders speak the language, trying to soak up the rhythms, nuances and flow of the words and sentences, so they can in turn teach others.

Welcome to the front lines in the battle to save the Menominee language.

Today, the Menominee tribe claims about 8,800 members, but only about 40 can speak the native language fluently, said Alan Caldwell, director of the Menominee Culture Institute at the College of Menominee Nation in Keshena. The college is about 70 miles east of Wausau.

Others say not even 40 people can speak the language fluently. Nobody younger than 50 years old grew up speaking Menominee as a first language.

"Needless to say, our language is in a crisis situation," said John Teller, 48, a Menominee language teacher at the high school, and chairman of the Nation's Menominee Language and Culture Commission.

The Menominee Nation isn't alone in this battle. Other Indian tribes in Wisconsin and across the country are working to preserve their languages, and people from all over the globe - including parts of Europe - have let some tongues lapse into extinction.

The world has 5,000 to 6,000 languages but could have only hundreds a century from now, said linguist Anthony Woodbury of the University of Texas in Austin.

Generation gap
Ron Corn Jr., 20, who is studying to become a Menominee language teacher through a federal grant, said those who are working to preserve the language are fighting history.

Their elders were threatened with punishment at boarding and tribal schools when they spoke Menominee. After they grew up, those people neither taught nor spoke the language, and that led to a knowledge gap that now includes several generations.

Corn is doing his part to help catch up.

"It's not like we just quit speaking," he said. "I know elders who still don't want to speak the language."

Lillian Nelson is one of those elders, but she worked and still works to preserve her native tongue.

"They kind of knocked it out of us," she said. "They took soap and put in your mouth for talking it. But we still found ways to speak."

Linguists studied and recorded the Menominee language as long ago as the 1920s, Teller said, but to him and many others on the reservation, the effort to save their speech is personal and spiritual.

"There's no question there's a link between the language and culture. And tribal identity factors in there also," he said. "It mainly rests on the prayers that are necessary to maintain a high level of spirituality. ... The Great Spirit - Creator, God - listens and understands more clearly the native language."

"The language is something the Creator gave us. It is sacred, and it's only for us," said David Grignon, 51, the tribal historic preservation officer.

Because they consider the stakes so high, tribal leaders passed an ordinance in 1996 called the Menominee Nation Language and Culture Code. Among other things, that law spurred the formation of the Menominee Language and Culture Commission and requires all schools on the reservation - from preschools to colleges - to teach the language.

The tribe also instituted higher standards for teachers of the native language. Eleven tribal members have gone through the Menominee certification process, which includes written and oral tests of the language, said Caldwell, 54, the Menominee Culture Institute director.

Grignon also has garnered a three-year federal grant from the U.S. Administration for Native Americans, which is paying six people to study the language for 2 1/2 years to become teachers.

Terry Wescott, 38, who is learning to teach the language, said the effort is about more than simply relating to others.

"It is an obligation that we carry on the language because it is our identity," she said. "It is our cultural identity and our spiritual identity."

Wescott didn't grow up with the language, but, she said, "I think we always were aware of it. We always were aware of this special place in our hearts that was bare without speaking the language. Personally, I felt lost without it."

Caldwell said he sees renewed signs of vigor in the Menominee language. When he walks into the high school, students greet him in Menominee. The signs in the school are in English and Menominee, and so are some of the street signs in Keshena.

But he said he thinks it will take several generations and plenty of time before the language is fully recovered. It depends on younger people carrying on the tradition.

Joseph Waupekenay, 15, a sophomore at the Menominee Indian High School, is one of about 40 of the 350 students at the high school taking one of Teller's language or culture classes. He said he feels the responsibility.

"People wouldn't really be Menominee if they didn't know the language," he said.

Keshena, WI Map
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