The fight to keep indigenous languages alive, through speaking, software, and day care.
Class starts with a prayer, but there’s no Jesus, no Muhammad, no saints or Abrahamic God. And no English.
Reciting “Lavina’s Prayer” requires a handout that everyone falteringly reads from, guided by Joey Awonohopay, the director of the Menominee Language and Culture Commission. A soft-spoken man in his late forties, Joey’s dressed informally for this elders’ speaking class, in jeans and a sweatshirt. He wears rectangular glasses with tiny animals cut out of the earpieces, and his long hair is pulled into a ponytail. Seated beside him is a white-haired woman named Marie, who recently turned ninety-three and holds the distinction of being one of the five people left in the world who grew up speaking Menominee. Marie reads each line out loud for the rest of the class. When she occasionally stumbles over the written words, Joey guides her through the pronunciation.
It’s late October on the Menominee Reservation, in northeastern Wisconsin. Through the windows of the Language and Cultural Commission office, you can see snow crinkle the shadowed edges of the forest. Cars in the parking lot wear icy crusts. Inside, once the prayer is over, Joey announces it’s time to eat. People stand to serve themselves rice casserole and cake and cobbler and ice cream, a plethora of treats for Halloween. The walls and whiteboards are adorned with handwritten signs on neon construction paper, almost all in Menominee, though in one corner, a series of colorful posters with animals features English: wisdom, love, respect, and courage.
Joey grew up with grandparents and great-aunts and great-uncles who spoke the language fluently, but English remained his primary language. It was taught in schools, spoken by his family members, ever-present in the media. After high school, Joey went off to the tribe’s technical college. For almost a decade, he was a metalworker, until he fell off an overhanging conveyor, seriously injuring his lower back.
Although Joey still walks with a slight limp, he did eventually heal enough to get back on his feet. But the injury was life-changing in another way. He realized he’d “drifted further than seemed possible in ten years” from his traditional upbringing, he explained. That was when he decided to stay on the reservation and work for the tribe. His turn toward education began when a local tribal school contacted him to ask if he would teach an after-school program on singing and drumming. Then came an apprenticeship to learn Menominee from elders, then a stint teaching it to middle school students, and finally, his rise to his current position as director of the Language and Culture Commission, where he is charged with overseeing the tribe’s language and culture revitalization efforts.
Which is how, on this snowy late-fall afternoon, Joey finds himself leading twelve adults for the elders’ speaking class—though there’s really no age limit, as participants range from twentysomething to ninetysomething. The attendees, myself included, dutifully attempt to recite the strings of words printed on different worksheets. There’s a “Ghost Supper” story and a “Fall” story and a list of questions and commands and a few phrases for introducing oneself. Mesek —— mamāceqtaw newīhswan: “—— is my Indian name.” Mōhkomān eneq ‘s pas āēc——: “in English it means ——.” I meet a friendly woman named Dolly, who is actually a member of the Prairie Band Potawatomi tribe but attends these classes as part of her coursework on indigenous languages. Seated next to me is Dennis Kenote, an older man in a forest green baseball cap with native veteran navy stitched in yellow above the brim. Dennis taught Menominee in local schools and, eager to help, points out details as we move through the worksheets. He says that adding -saeh to the end of a noun makes it diminutive. Animals, insects, balls, and kettles are all considered animate nouns, and colors used to describe them require a certain form to reflect that animacy. Adding -et to the end of a verb turns the sentence into a question. Kahnap is a term of respect used for people who have passed away and can be used only for this purpose.
Read more: The Believer