Learning by Observation: Teaching the Menominee Language to the Youngest Tribal Members

October 1, 2018
Members of the Menominee Indian Tribe of Wisconsin Canoeing with Infants

Several years ago, the Menominee Indian Tribe of Wisconsin’s language recovery group took a hard blow when it lost the last fluent male speaker of Menominee, Lawrence Tomow. There was then only one female elder left to work with the tribe on revitalizing their language. So the group went to the Chairman, Tribal Administrator, Tribal Legislature, and the Menominee Language and Culture Commission (MLCC) with an idea: develop a language nest and train early childhood language teachers. The plan was met with approval from all sides, and that is how Kaehkēnawapatāēq also called the Menominee Language Revitalization Program was born.

A newly funded Esther Martinez Immersion project, Kaehkēnawapatāēq   means “We learn by observing” and is a reference to the traditional way members of the Menominee tribe learned language and skills through observation. As Joey Awonohopay, (MLCC Director), explained the origins of this method which has special meaning for his people, “Like early age when babies are in the cradle board learning from observing.” Some of the projects young participants will still be the cradle board age and observing the language nest with the age range currently set from birth to two years old and hopefully extending that to five years old over the duration of the project.

The project is actually a way to expand the Menominee Language and Culture Office’s initial language nest daycare. There will be a minimum of 5 immersion teachers at the daycare for the 8-16 children with the opening of a second room for the older kids. The ANA-funded project also means that the daycare can open a second room.

Overall, project staff see Kaehkēnawapatāēq  as a positive expansion of their initial shared goal of training tribal members to become functional language speakers and teach in an immersion setting. While they are still building the capacity of Menominee language teachers, the project allows them to provide an important service to the communities. It is more than simply providing child care and language training, but adapting these services to fit with Menominee culture and re-instill who they are as Woodland and Indigenous people. For example, project staff pointed out that something as simple as being outside with the children in the sunshine is important. It makes their daycare a unique program that respects who the Menominee are.

Perhaps the fact that the daycare and new language immersion project are based on Menominee values is what made it so easy to bring community leaders into agreement on the idea. The determination of Joey Awonohopay and Ron Corn Jr. both of whom were successful participants of an earlier ANA language grant as project leaders and language preservers is also a key factor. These two gentlemen learned the language after work and on the weekends and forged ahead towards the goals they wished to achieve without a clear idea of how to get there until they brought everyone to the table.

Their efforts and the beginning of this new phase under Kaehkēnawapatāēq are already paying off with a great deal of pride and excitement about the project circulating through the community. They hope to see more results in the future as they display their values to the children and have them reciprocate. The ripples of this learning by observing and reclaiming of Menominee identity will be felt throughout the tribe.

Having worked on revitalizing the Menominee language for years, Joey and Ron emphasized the importance of building partnerships and friendships (Waadookodaading, Inc.) with others who share your goal if you want to revitalize a language or culture. They also emphasized that it is important to view these partners as relatives rather than colleagues who will help celebrate your achievements, help you during hard times, and encourage you to never stop moving forward.

Perhaps their best advice to communities with similar challenges is this: To take comfort in the knowledge that if you speak your words now they (the words) will start teaching you in the future. The Menominee are working to revitalize their language and are just beginning to find new meanings, and gain understanding, for the way they say things. As Ron Corn Jr. put it, language is in your “ancestral DNA. It’s hard to understand what you’re building every day, but if you keep going, these are the things in store for your tribal nations.”