- The future of the Menominee tribal language had just awakened
at a small table, bare except for a label taped to the top that
read atuhpwan - the Menominee word for table - the tiny students
spoke what sounded to an untrained ear like gibberish.
a booklet of flashcards held up by their teacher, the 2-year-olds
pointed and repeated the words kuapenakaehsaeh (cup), aemeskwan
(spoon) and paeces kahekan (fork). At home they've been known to
ask their families for a snack using the Menominee words for crackers
and fruit instead of English.
minds are like sponges," said their teacher Candy Mahkimetas,
after quizzing them on the words for bear, dog and cat. "This
is the crucial age for them to start speaking."
survival of the Menominee language - which has only an estimated
35 fluent speakers - depends on these tots at Menominee Day Care
Center learning the language their ancestors have spoken for centuries.
month, UNESCO, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural
Organization, released a new world atlas of endangered languages
- almost 2,500 that are at risk of becoming extinct or have recently
disappeared. Menominee, along with languages of two other Wisconsin
tribes - Oneida and Potawatomi - is listed as critically endangered.
the Menominee didn't need the United Nations to tell them their
language is at risk.
average age of the few dozen remaining native speakers is in the
mid-70s, and some of the elders who speak the language are in ill
health. However, the tribe has 10 trained Menominee language instructors
who teach in the schools and College of Menominee Nation. The language
is taught in day care and kindergarten through middle school. At
the high school, it's a popular elective taken by three-quarters
of the students.
instruction is also offered to adults at the tribe's recreation
center. It's billed as elder re-learning sessions for those who
grew up listening to the language. Twelve to 15 people show up each
lot who come to the class say, 'Oh, I remember my grandmother saying
that,' " said Karen Washinawatok, 59, director of the Menominee
Language and Culture Commission.
commission trains substitute language teachers, works on language
curriculum and helps with a University of Wisconsin-Madison project
compiling a beginner's dictionary of the Menominee language. The
tribe has also converted hundreds of hours of audiotapes of elders
speaking stories, which were recorded decades ago, into digital
versions that can be downloaded on iPods and laptops.
was the first language Larry Tomow, 74, learned to speak.
grandma and grandpa taught me. My older brothers and sisters could
speak it better," said Tomow. "When I got to school, the
kids said I talked funny, and I stopped."
Tomow continued speaking Menominee at home and never forgot it.
Now he talks to other elders in the native language and goes to
the re-learning sessions with his wife, Ione Tomow, 71, who is learning
to speak it.
words are very long, and the pronunciation is different," said
Ione Tomow. "He speaks it so fast, it's hard to keep up with
what he's saying."
Menominee language wasn't always embraced. Elders remember a time
when they and their ancestors were discouraged and even punished
by schoolteachers for speaking anything but English. Though Menominee
has survived, that attitude is one of the reasons behind the extinction
or near death of many tribal languages in North America.
the 400 to 600 North American tribal languages thought to have existed,
just 175 are left, with only about 20 still spoken and used by all
ages of tribe members, said Inee Slaughter, executive director of
the Indigenous Language Institute in Santa Fe, N.M.
loss of a language is the loss of a nation's culture.
when the last of the speakers are gone, basically that whole library
of knowledge is gone. It's not just the language, but the history,
wisdom, the sciences, the stars and plants - they're all gone,"
decline of tribal languages was hastened in the 19th century when
the federal government systematically attempted to assimilate American
Indians by sending children to boarding schools where they spoke
only was the prestige of the tribal languages lost, but social domains
of language shifted to English, said Bernard Perley, assistant professor
of anthropology at UWM who spoke Maliseet at his New Brunswick,
Canada, home until he learned English in elementary school. If tribal
leaders had to negotiate with the U.S. government, it was in English.
lot of speakers would feel stigmatized when they used their native
languages," said Perley, who earned his Harvard doctorate studying
the causes of language deaths.
Warren Wilber, 62, was a youth on the Menominee reservation, he
had never heard his parents speak the language, until one evening
when an older couple stopped at their home for help because their
car had stalled. Wilber heard his mother speak to the older woman
was so surprised. I didn't know she could speak the language,"
Wilber said of his mother.
is an Algonquian language, which were among the first encountered
by Europeans and because of that, many place names in the East and
Midwest, including Wisconsin and Milwaukee, are derived from Algonquian
words. The Menominee language uses 17 letters of the English alphabet
plus a letter that combines "a" and "e" with
"q" pronounced as a glottal stop, explained John Teller,
a former tribal chairman who teaches the language at the College
of Menominee Nation in Keshena.
are used differently depending on the nouns, which are considered
either animate or inanimate. Animate objects can be something that
non-Menominee speakers would consider inanimate, however. Words
like rock, tree or bread as well as native foods and plants are
considered animate, said Teller, while anything imported, such as
oranges or bananas, would be inanimate.
makes the language unique is that if you're going to eat steak,
you'd use a different word for eat because (steak is considered)
inanimate. If it's apple, which is animate, you'd use another word
for eat," said Teller.
addition to teaching Menominee language at the college, Teller is
also the tribe's language liaison and works with instructors to
improve their teaching and speaking skills.
often difficult to translate Menominee into English because sometimes
one Menominee word can be an entire sentence, Teller said. A word
like waepew means "he/she is running" while naewaew means
"he/she sees him/her." Like many tribal languages, there
are Christian influences, such as the days of the week: Sunday is
called prayer day and Friday is fasting day.
of course there are words for things Menominee speakers centuries
ago could not foresee. A computer is referred to as "metal
that speaks" and pizza is "flour with meat on top."
There's no word yet for iPod, Teller said, but it's possible the
digital recording devices might someday be called "little metal
that speaks" in Menominee.
College of Menominee Nation, first- and second-year language classes
are taught each semester, and when there are enough students, advanced
classes are offered. At the high school, students who study Menominee
can apply their credits to college language requirements. But Teller
noted that, like any second language, fluency depends on many years
school setting provides only a limited literacy rate. It takes a
lot of dedication to become fluent," said Teller, 55.
those hoping to become fluent is Josh Gauthier, 16, a high school
junior who wants to study business management in college. Before
answering questions in Menominee from his teacher Rose Wayka, who
quizzed him on his Indian name, the days of the week and whether
he likes to fish, Gauthier said he has learned enough to speak simple
phrases at home with his grandparents.
need two years of foreign language for college, and I thought this
would be interesting," said Gauthier.