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Menominee language finds new life in schools
by Malavika Jagannathan - The Green Bay (WI) Press-Gazette
credits: photo by H. Marc Larson - Green Bay (WI) Press-Gazette

Tribe committed to preserving conversational skills

KESHENA — Everyone must participate in Margaret Snow's "talking circle" when the fifth- graders introduce themselves using the Menominee language — that's a rule.

Some students easily pronounce the words, repeating their name, clan and hometown as quickly as they can recall it. But it's more of a challenge to others who may not have been as exposed to the native language.

"I just want them to try," said Snow, one of two language teachers at Keshena Primary School. "With these words they can communicate with each other, so it's important they have a chance to show they can remember their introductions."

Snow's third-grade students learn to talk about the weather in the Menominee language, and then recite a traditional prayer. Her fifth-graders focus on their conversational skills.

Like other native languages across the state and the country, Menominee is on the endangered list. Fewer than 20 fluent first-language speakers of the language remain in Wisconsin.

But the Menominee Indian School District, the public school system that serves the reservation, is committed to creating as many second-language learners as they can, superintendent Wendell Waukau said. All elementary and middle school students are required to learn Menominee. In high school, the language becomes an elective.

"We're definitely continually improving but more work needs to be done," said Waukau, adding that funding from the state certainly would be welcome.

State Superintendent Elizabeth Burmaster has requested $250,000 in the 2009-2011 biennial Department of Public Instruction budget to use as grants so Native American languages can be taught in public schools. The money for the program is taken from tribal gaming revenues paid to the state.

"There's been strong support for tribal language programs," said J.P. Leary, American Indian Studies consultant with the Department of Public Instruction. "In a lot of cases there are after-school or community-based programs — this may be an opportunity to take that and bring it to the schools."

While tribal languages often are taught in tribal schools such as the Oneida Nation schools and in community settings, few programs exist to teach the languages in a public school setting.

When Ron Corn Jr. attended Menominee High School, he had a fluent-speaking Menominee mentor who encouraged him to pursue the language beyond what the school offered. Today, Corn is one of two language teachers at the high school, teaching advanced level classes.

"This is the first advanced classes we've offered in years," Corn said Tuesday. "But there is a stigma on carrying the language outside the classroom, which is what we need to encourage."

Like the elementary classes many of them graduated from, high school students focus on vocabulary. For many years, without a teacher at the middle school level, there was a gap between what students picked up in the elementary school and when they entered high school, Corn said.

Corn, whose children have started speaking the language at an early age, finds one of the challenges is in making the language a living product, not just an in-classroom language.

"General consensus on learning languages is that you learn the numbers, animals, a few phrases," Corn said. "I'm trying to buck that trend."

His classes are working on translating English books into Menominee, building up vocabulary and putting together a documentary. Corn also is trying to put together a nonprofit organization in the community to provide opportunities for all members of the tribe to learn about the language and culture.

The tribe already has a language and culture commission that trains teachers, produces classroom material and offers language classes for elders, said Karen Washinawatok, director of the commission.

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