When many people hear Madeline Island,
visions of ferry rides, oversized cocktails, vespa scooters and sailboats
are often some of the first things that come to mind. Although the
culture on Madeline Island today is primarily European and definitely
tourist-centered, this wasn't always the case.
first of four dozen bilingual Anishinabe and English way-finding
signs have been posted on Madeline Island. (photo by Amber
Mullen - APG Media of Wisconsin)
Two years ago, Nick Nelson recognized
a cultural rift on the island between its past as a sacred Native
American settlement and its present as a tourist destination. In
an attempt to bridge the "island's past and its future" for a more
inclusive experience for locals and visitors alike, Nelson started
the Madeline Island Bilingual sign project.
Nelson said he believes language
is the easiest and most expeditious way to begin breaking down cultural
"Language is an opener in a lot
of ways," said Nelson. "It's a way to show this very important part
of LaPointe's past and present. That's been a big part of this whole
process recognizing the beauty and cultural significance
of the Anishinabe, with language at the center of that."
As of this spring, the town of
LaPointe started posting the first of four dozen Anishinabe and
English way-finding signs, making Madeline Island the first place
in Wisconsin to have bilingual signs not on a Native American reservation.
"This was a main language to
the entire region for 400 years," Nelson said. "It makes sense to
have that part of the island's history represented."
Nelson said for the first phase
of the project, he decided to focus on translating informational
town and park signs versus road signs because it would help to highlight
the fact that for Anishinabe people, Madeline Island is referred
to as a "spiritual home," having been inhabitants centuries before
the first Europeans.
The Bilingual way-finding signs
represent both traditional and modern place names and are meant
to serve as a reflection of both the history and the future of Ojibwe
language on Madeline Island. Visitors can already see signs pointing
to popular destinations on the island and those that commemorate
the Ojibwe heritage, including the Madeline Island Museum, Old Indian
Cemetery, Ojibwe National Prayer Pole and Memorial Park.
According to Nelson, this project
has been funded in part by the town of LaPointe, the Apostle Islands
Area Community Foundation (AIACF) and Grassroots Digital Media.
At this point, Nelson said the project has cost approximately $6,700
in total for the interpretation, creation and hanging of the signs.
In an article written for NPR
by Miranda Vander Leest in August, Madeline Herder with the Apostle
Islands Area Community Foundation said AIACF decided to fund the
project because it is a positive investment in tourism and will
ultimately help to bring the community together.
"One of our values is inclusivity,"
said Herder in the NPR article. "When we did the Cultural Connections
a couple of years ago, there were elders who literally cried when
they saw the word for 'welcome' in Ojibwemowiin as they got off
Nelson said getting to this point
in the project has taken a lot of work, support and research. However,
he is satisfied to finally see his vision come to fruition. Posting
the signs was delayed several times since the project's inception
because he wanted to make sure the translations were accurate.
"We wanted to make sure it was
perfect," said Nelson. "Anishinabe is a tricky language because
it is very dialect driven... finding exactly what was true to LaPointe
was quite a process."
Nelson said he is currently having
additional bilingual signs made for the Madeline Island Ice Road,
which he hopes will be posted this winter.
Robin Russell, Vice President
of Finance for the Madeline Island Ferry Line, said when she first
found out about the project that she wanted to support the mission
by incorporating the Anishinabe language into the ferry line brochures
and island maps.
"I think it's great," Russell
said. "I believe it will give our residents and visitors a connection
to the past because Anishinabe have been here for centuries."
This winter, Russell started
the process of redesigning ferry line materials and signs with the
help of a local graphic designs and the interpreter from the University
of Minnesota who helped Nelson interpret the town signs. This year's
ferry line maps and brochures now feature Anishinabe names for various
attractions on the island.
Madeline Island Camber of Commerce
Director Max Paap hopes that all area businesses, visitors and local
residents will embrace the bilingual signs and begin incorporating
the history of the island into their daily lives and business operations.
"It's really important for us
to look at it from all angles," Paap said. "Our role is to answer
'Why are they here and what do they mean?' My expectation is that
everyone who works on this island can tell a story, can tell that
Paap added that area businesses
have been generally accepting of the signs. However, he would like
to establish more educational opportunities and distribution materials
on the island to explain to visitors their cultural significance.
"It seems to me there is going
to be more of an emphasis on the island's heritage this year," Paap
In June, project organizers plan
to host an unveiling celebration, discussion and picnic. Nelson
hopes to bring in several presenters to share the history of the
island and to discuss the cultural significance and future of the
bilingual sign project.
"It will be small, but a big
deal," Nelson said. "Whenever people don't understand something,
there is obviously some resistance and fear that creeps in. The
language is hopefully a way to help push the healing process and
can be a connector for the community... We have to get people to
understand the language and see its beauty and significance."
Nelson sees the incorporation
of education about the island's Native American history as a vital
ingredient to the projects ongoing success.
Ultimately, Nelson and Paap hope
that these signs are just the beginning of a cultural shift on Madeline
Island from "simply a tourist destination, to a cultural destination."
"This was originally seen as
a distinct project, but also meant to be done in a way that if it
goes well it could go further," said Nelson. "There is something
to be gained from recognizing that the culture is one of the main
reasons to come to LaPointe."