Save the Words

Lorraine Boissoneault
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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.

The words feel like smooth pebbles in the mouth, but some of them are so long that they tumble out. Like many other languages in the Algonquian family, Menominee is polysynthetic: words are built of multiple parts that reflect not only tense but also whether the noun is animate or inanimate, if a verb is transitive or intransitive, if an object is one person or two or many. A theme of today’s lesson is the difficulty of wrapping an English-language brain around Menominee.

At the conclusion of the two-hour lesson, one woman asks how to say “Merry Christmas.” Joey nods and gets up from his seat. At the whiteboard he uses a brown marker to write in a sideways scrawl: Onānekosenon sāēsōs kēs otahtaset: “Be happy Jesus was born.” It’s a makeshift translation by elders who didn’t traditionally practice Christianity, he explains.

The class is just a small part of the full-time work that occupies Joey and his colleague Ron Muqsahkwat Corn Jr. In a single week, their small office has hosted guests from the Bad River Ojibwe tribe; worked with language immersion trainees who are finishing their eighteen-month program, which includes lessons on history, culture, and education, as well as speaking the language; helped local teachers create lesson plans around the cultural history of deer processing (“Two of my kids have deer fur allergies,” one teacher noted); provided a demonstration of VR headsets that will be used by students to play Menominee language games; and agreed to give a presentation at a school located nearly an hour away.

“We’re like the bottleneck,” Ron tells me during a rare quiet moment in the office. At one point, Menominee was spoken by thousands of people throughout the region that came to be called Wisconsin. Now it’s a Herculean effort to teach the language to a new generation before the last fluent speakers die out.

Known to his coworkers and friends as Ronco, the charismatic thirty-seven-year-old may be the most visible face of the Menominee language revitalization effort. He appeared in a PBS Wisconsin Education video series in 2012, talking about his effort to raise his youngest daughter entirely in Menominee. That particular undertaking proved challenging to do on his own; the language changes dramatically depending on who is speaking to whom. His daughter became proficient in nouns and commands, but she really needed a whole group of people speaking the language to understand the fluctuating verb forms. More recently, Ron gave a TEDx Talk about his work. And in mid-2019 he was the keynote speaker for the Indigenous Language Institute’s tenth annual symposium, held in Santa Fe, New Mexico. But all of these efforts are just what the outside world sees. Here on the reservation, Ron, like Joey, is sending emails, teaching classes, building lesson plans, finding publishers to print Menominee-language books, looking for ways to update Menominee vocabulary to reflect climate change, and being hospitable to visitors who drop by—including journalists.

“If we didn’t do what we’re doing now,” he says, “the language would’ve effectively died with us.”

“The first step . . . towards teaching the Indians the mischief and folly of continuing in their barbarous practices is to teach them the English language.” Former congressman John Atkins was the commissioner of Indian Affairs when he offered this assessment, in 1887. He added, “The impossibility of civilizing the Indians of this country in any other tongue other [sic] than our own would seem to be obvious.”

Before Columbus arrived in the Caribbean and initiated centuries of genocide, before foreign settlers carried new diseases across a continent, before warfare and subjugation and broken treaties and forced removals, North America was filled with languages. Scholars estimate well over two thousand were spoken, and they fell into hundreds of different families. Just as French and Italian and Portuguese are Romance languages—descendants of Latin—Menominee shares roots with several dozen other languages in the Algonquian family.

Algonquian languages would have been among the first encountered by Europeans. In the seventeenth century, their speakers stretched from the East Coast; to the south, to what later became North Carolina; to the north, to what would be named Canada; to the west, beyond the Great Lakes. There was Shawnee and Mi’kmaq and Massachusett and Powhatan, Blackfoot and Miami-Illinois and Cree and Ojibwe. For someone to be multilingual was the norm, not the exception.

Today, Canada, the United States, and Greenland are home to 256 languages collectively. According to data from the Catalogue of Endangered Languages, about 200 of these are endangered. A precise definition of endangered is complicated; a language can have several hundred thousand speakers above the age of sixty, such as Breton, a Celtic language spoken in France; or it can have a handful of speakers who are actively transmitting the words to the next generation, like Menominee. In both cases, the languages in question are considered at risk of disappearing, and so are classified as endangered.

The circumstances that led to so much language loss in North America vary from one tribe to another, but there are common threads. Discrimination and disenfranchisement led to cycles of poverty. A concerted effort by the federal government to assimilate Native people into the dominant culture was espoused by Richard Henry Pratt in the late 1800s, who preached “kill the Indian in him, and save the man.” Pratt founded the first residential school in 1879, which led to a countrywide system of boarding schools filled with Native children who were often stolen from their families and forced to abandon their languages and cultures.

For the Menominee, this particular form of trauma arrived in 1883, with the Saint Joseph’s Indian Industrial School, operated by the Bureau of Catholic Indian Missions and the Bureau of Indian Affairs on the edge of the reservation. School policy dictated that the students be kept from seeing their families, such that even siblings were separated in different wings of the building. Many tried to run away, since the school wasn’t far from their homes. Those who spoke their native language were punished with soap in the mouth or physical abuse. The school remained open until 1952; it wasn’t until 2012 that a memorial was finally held for one twelve-year-old girl who was beaten to death by a nun when the school was still up and running.

Ada Deer, a Menominee elder and activist, recounted her experience of wanting to learn the language from her father and not understanding why he wouldn’t teach her. “He wanted to protect me from the bad experiences he had had in boarding school when they tried to make the children stop speaking Menominee. So in his mind, the language was tied to the pain he had known. He thought if I spoke it, if people knew I was Menominee, they might hurt me like they hurt him… It was so painful for the older generation that they wanted to spare their children what they suffered, all because they could speak their own language.”

Cherokee Nation activist, writer, and language apprentice Rebecca Nagle notes that the United States government spent nearly three billion dollars on the national Indian boarding school infrastructure over four decades. Today, it offers only twelve million dollars annually in language revitalization grants that tribes can apply for. This is how it says, We’re sorry.

Where does language go when it isn’t traveling through the air? Sometimes its speakers carve its words into stone or shell or bone, and time buries those traces beneath layers of earth, to be found centuries later by people who won’t know how to read them. Other times it’s passed on in stories, words from new languages patching the gaps between what has been remembered and what has been forgotten. And still other times the language is preserved in the parchment documents of settlers, stored like botanical specimens so it can be studied and pulled apart.

All those words in their many forms are shadows of the living language.

A few months before my trip to the Menominee Reservation, in July 2019, Miami University, in Oxford, Ohio, hosted the National Breath of Life Archival Institute for Indigenous Languages conference. That weeklong workshop marked a moment when those shadows of language began obtaining solid mass. The conference, co-directed by linguists Daryl Baldwin and Gabriela Pérez Báez, welcomed fourteen people from five Native communities—the Menominee; Oneida; Hanis, Milluk, Siuslaw; Nisenan; and Numa—to learn an innovative new software program built to help with language revitalization. While Joey and Ron were working in Wisconsin to spin the thread of their language through speaking workshops, other Menominee speakers had traveled here to complete a different kind of work: organizing documents, vocabulary lists, stories recorded by linguist Leonard Bloomfield, and audio recordings of elders. If language is a phoenix, these types of documentation form the ashes from which the words can be reborn.

Around the room, conference participants sat before computer screens, toggling between Excel spreadsheets and the database they were attempting to use. A whiteboard by the door featured greetings in the participants’ languages—Pōsōh from the Menominee team. Round tables shared by professional linguists, indigenous language learners, and a handful of proficient speakers were covered by laptops and software manuals.

The story of every language is different: some have dozens of living speakers, or hundreds, or none. Whatever the state of their language, here all were engaged in a headache-inducing struggle to keep the languages from disappearing: poring over old texts and audio transcripts to transfer vocabulary into the new database. Some wore headphones. Many paused from time to time to confer with their neighbors.

The challenge of rebuilding a language that’s been suppressed for decades is not simple. It is something of a Hydra, but its ravenous heads must be nourished rather than massacred. First, you have to assess the state of things—how many people speak the language, and at what level. If any speakers remain, you rush to record their words. Next comes the work of exhaling those words back into the world—training new teachers to educate young students, producing lesson plans, crafting multimedia resources, like books or smartphone apps. Then you have to enlist linguists to provide grammatical analyses and produce dictionaries. And if no one speaks the language anymore, you must excavate archival materials to provide the foundation for the language’s renewal. All of this work must be done by individuals who often have little training or financial support.

Daryl Baldwin, director of the Myaamia Center at Miami University, is intimately acquainted with the beast that is language revitalization. (The university takes its name from the traditional territory of the Miami tribe of Oklahoma, with which the school now has a strong reciprocal relationship, thanks in part to the Myaamia Center acting as a home base for tribal students.) A member of the tribe, Baldwin had access to the Myaamia language only in the form of old family records and letters. There are no audio recordings of past speakers, the last of whom died sometime in the middle of the twentieth century. It was considered “dead” by linguists (thanks to successful revitalization efforts like Baldwin’s, the term used today is dormant, to reflect the possibility that people will begin speaking it again). Bringing back Myaamia was a combined effort by Baldwin, linguist David Costa, and Miami Tribe elected official Julie Olds, as well as many others. The revitalization work required poring through grammars and dictionaries assembled by French Jesuit missionaries of the 1700s and amateur ethnographers of the 1800s and 1900s. The manuscripts were mostly handwritten, and all the transcribers used their own idiosyncratic spellings to encode Myaamia. Reading the oldest papers also required a knowledge of archaic French.

“Those pages are so scary to look at,” Baldwin told me. But he and all the others bent themselves to the task.

To make the unwieldy information more manageable, in 2012 they began working with computer engineers at Miami University to develop the Miami-Illinois Digital Archive (MIDA). They sought to eliminate the need to work directly from the manuscript pages themselves, which were often organized in such a way that valuable information was lost. For example, one word recorded in the 1700s by French Jesuit priest Jean-Antoine Robert LeBoullenger was alaamatayi, described by him as meaning “before being born in his/her mother’s womb.” Modern linguists realized the word was an adverb meaning “in utero.” But in LeBoullenger’s dictionary, the word didn’t appear anywhere near the word for “womb.” Instead, it was listed under the word “before.” “This is a fairly typical example,” wrote Baldwin, Costa, and computer engineer Douglas Troy in a 2016 article for the journal Language Documentation & Conservation. “Hundreds of interesting vocabulary items often lurk in places where they cannot be ‘looked up’ in any way until the manuscript is available in a searchable database.”

As more manuscripts were transcribed onto spreadsheets that could be uploaded to MIDA, the database became a tool not only for piecing Myaamia back together and studying its complex grammar, but also for learning the language. Community members could use the archive almost like a dictionary.

As the Miami tribe embarked on its quest, many other language groups around the country were engaged in similar work. By the mid-1990s, the National Breath of Life organization was hosting multiday workshops in California and Washington, DC, offering indigenous people the opportunity to access records stored in old archives at different institutions. These pages held the words of their ancestors—and also offered a way to move forward with their language revitalization. Pérez Báez, who was working for the Smithsonian Institution at the time, hosted a Breath of Life 1.0 conference on four occasions, welcoming 117 community researchers from fifty-five language groups into the museum’s stacks.

But as it had for the Miami tribe, organizing all of the archival information into a database remained a problem each group had to solve for itself. Having seen the benefits of MIDA, Baldwin wondered if they could make the database applicable to any indigenous language. This was the inspiration for Breath of Life 2.0; the summer of 2019 marked its debut. Participants were learning to use a modified version of MIDA called ILDA: the Indigenous Language Digital Archive. Over the course of five days, they moved data into spreadsheets, then into the database, where it would be accompanied by the digitized original sources: a JPEG of an old manuscript page, a PDF of a vocabulary list, an MP3 of elders speaking. All the forms a language can take were organized in one place, and all of them were easily searchable.

Pérez Báez recently conducted a survey on global language revitalization efforts. The 245 responses she received revealed that one-fifth of the languages being worked on were dormant. For Baldwin, this comes as no surprise: more than half the world’s known languages are spoken by fewer than five thousand people each. In the coming years, ever more people will need archive-based revitalization tools like ILDA. With the Breath of Life 2.0 conference, they’re laying the groundwork for future learners and researchers.

At the end of five long days participating in Breath of Life 2.0, the participants assembled, looking tired and triumphant. They had wrestled with intractable software, chased down words, cut up sentences, and filtered them into spreadsheets. Now came the chance to share what they had learned and what remained opaque.

Daniel Grignon, Luke Besaw, and Monica Macaulay went to the front of the room to discuss their progress on Menominee documents. Back in Wisconsin, the two young men had been trainees in the language immersion program. Daniel was set to graduate at the end of 2019, and Luke had finished the program a couple years earlier, and had recently earned a BA in linguistics from the University of Wisconsin, Madison. Monica, a linguist who has worked on Menominee for more than twenty years, planned to use ILDA for organizing all the past ethnographic work done on Menominee.

Luke began the presentation with a long speech in Menominee. Tall and thin, with long, dark hair, he spoke with the quiet confidence of someone who feels comfortable in his own language. Switching to English, he told the audience about the issues of orthography they had run into: a word written as metartar had all of them stumped for a while. There are no r’s in Menominee. Once they listened to the audio file alongside the written record, the answer emerged. Whoever had transcribed the word metātah—“ten”—must’ve heard an r where none existed. This became something silly to riff on throughout the week. “Sahkow is nine, so ninety is sarcow metartar,” Luke explained, to laughter.

Such levity was welcome amid the frustrations and challenges of the week. So much of revitalization requires burrowing into near-indecipherable documents, wondering if anyone will ever really speak the language again, if the possibility of language renewal is worth the thankless effort. There are so few resources available. Forget being paid wages: plenty of people engaged in this work don’t even have office space. But at this conference, attendees were united in some version of the same battle, even if the words were different and each circumstance unique.

One breath is a tiny unit of life, taking perhaps ten seconds on the long end. One word is a tiny fragment of language. But each word that’s moved from a file into a spreadsheet and then onto ILDA contributes to a larger landscape, one in which a language can become vibrant again.

Three months later, back on the Menominee reservation, Luke finds himself wrangling toddlers rather than morphemes. Despite his excitement over ILDA, after returning to the reservation he was asked to replace another teacher in the immersion day care. The job entails feeding, cleaning, teaching, and playing with a pack of two- and three-year-olds, conversing with them exclusively in Menominee. If all goes well, this will mark the first time in ninety years that children will grow up bilingual in Menominee and English.

The work is a daily challenge, but it becomes especially complicated on Halloween. By midmorning, the ten children are already dressed in thoroughly modern costumes—Disney princesses Anna and Elsa, Captain America, Spider-Man, Sheriff Woody from Toy Story. They bundle into jackets and hats to walk into the frigid air. A few blocks away from the day care is a parking lot filled with cars decorated with streamers, and adults are passing out candy. Some of the adults are costumed as well: Dracula and skeletons and one in an inflatable T-Rex suit next to a Jurassic Park display.

I can’t help but wonder if there’s a word for “dinosaur” in Menominee.

For Luke, the creativity necessary for this kind of outing is part of the fun of the job. Throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, fluent Menominee speakers invented words for “blacksmith” and “automobile” and “refrigerator.” Luke especially appreciates the word for “giraffe,” which translates as “animal with long neck and spots.” Living languages constantly evolve in response to the environment in which they’re spoken; maybe someday one of these little kids will be so proficient in their language that they’ll have no problem coming up with vocabulary for a world saturated by new technology: translations of “meme” and “tweetstorm” and yet-to-be-invented slang.

Kids from the nearby elementary school slowly filter through the parking lot, hefting grocery bags of treats. The toddlers from the immersion day care cling to their trio of instructors, jamming mini Snickers and Capri Suns into their jacket pockets. Noses running, cheeks turning pink, the kids are mostly quiet as they take in the brightly colored chaos. Adults wish the kids “Happy Halloween!” and inquire over their favorite candies. Out here, there’s no avoiding the fact that their world is Anglophone.

But once everyone has been herded into the day care classroom, they transition back into Menominee. English-speaking teachers who work in other parts of the building must knock on the door and wait if they want to speak to the day care teachers. One poster in the room shows the Menominee alphabet; another has illustrations of clouds and sun and rain, labeled with the terms in Menominee. Unlike in many day cares, there are few books to be found; one is a laminated collection of color words. Every bit of multimedia the teachers want to use, they’ve had to make for themselves.

Luke helps to get the toddlers out of their winter gear while his two colleagues divvy up the candy and instruct the children to take their seats around a table. One of them, a young woman named Naneque Electa Jo-Marie LaTender, with dark hair and a horseshoe crab tattooed on her chin and throat, is especially animated in talking with the kids. She addresses each individually, asking them to point to different body parts before handing them juice pouches. Luke passes out popcorn that’s been stuffed into plastic gloves, pretending each package is his own hand and asking the kids for a high-five. Not a word of English escapes anyone’s lips, including the toddlers’.

Soon, Luke plans on applying to become the curriculum director, who oversees all the Menominee language teachers, from the immersion day care to high school. But for now, there are so few who have gone through the language-trainee program that everyone has to be willing to jump into the day care classroom at a moment’s notice.

This means lots of chasing down kids and playing games, but also talking to the other day care teachers exclusively in Menominee, so the children can hear how grown-ups speak to one another. In this kind of classroom, something like ILDA would certainly come in handy. Just think: if Luke had an app on his phone, he could pull up the database to look up anything. But there’s so much else to do each day; only a handful of people even know how to use ILDA, and they’re all too busy to upload more records to the database. Bringing ILDA into the classroom is a dream for another day. Opportunities to introduce the toddlers to new vocabulary slip by constantly.

My visit coincides with the second anniversary of the first Menominee immersion classroom, which opened its doors in 2017 with eight babies ranging from six weeks to ten months old. In the beginning, Ron and Joey both helped out, assisted by the first batch of language trainees, who had just finished their eighteen-month course in language, history, Menominee culture, and education. Luke was among that group, and for everyone the pressure was enormous. Not only did they need to learn a new set of vocabulary—words for “poop” and “diaper” and “breastfeeding”—but the staff was still so small that no one could afford to take time off or even sick days. Almost as soon as the second group of trainees began their classes, they were tasked as subs in the day care.

That’s when Naneque found herself in the classroom, armed with the fragments of Menominee she’d learned over years of sporadic language education. Teaching was the one profession she’d always said she would never enter. But at eighteen, when she was home from college, at the Institute of American Indian Arts in New Mexico, Naneque applied for the second cohort of language immersion trainees. Being accepted to the program transformed her life. Here she is, three years later, working to teach small children their language—though she considers herself more an auntie than an educator.

“Our room is chiefly getting them to be physically, emotionally, mentally independent,” she tells me later, in the teachers’ lounge. “Children haven’t been raised in their traditional languages, especially indigenous people, for a long time. So there’s no question as to why this is important on a lot of different levels.”

Even more important than language proficiency is adaptability, because there’s no clear plan for what they’re doing besides to “keep moving forward.” She’s picking up more and more of the language each day, learning how to interact with the babies as they grow into toddlers, hearing them say their first words in Menominee, teaching them to mimic longer phrases, then listening with astonishment and delight as they assemble grammatically correct sentences all on their own. More recently, the explosion of words and independent thoughts comes so regularly that the teachers can’t take note of everything. On the rare occasion when she’s accidentally slipped into English, the children go quiet. They don’t understand her in that context. To them, she is only a Menominee speaker—despite having studied the language intensively for just three years.

At the end of 2019, there are two day care rooms, with sixteen children in all: one for babies, one for toddlers. A third cohort of language immersion trainees finished their work at the end of November and will help to open a third room. The new group is nervous about the responsibility they’ll soon be shouldering—what if they forget a word? What if they accidentally speak English in front of the kids?—but all along they’ve been repeating the mantra “fun and easy,” they tell me. Of course, it’s not easy, but if they think too hard about the stakes, it feels overwhelming. By the time this next class graduates, twenty-two adult Menominee tribal members will have gone through the language training program. Two more eighteen-month programs, taught by Ron, are still being planned. Once those are done, Ron hopes to change the instruction method to something less intensive and more like an internship. They plan to keep expanding the immersion day care and maybe even open a dual-language elementary school. The project can seem daunting, and everyone I met seemed to be constantly alternating between feeling invigorated and exhausted. But in the four years since Ron was hired to help Joey rebuild the language, their progress has been notable, especially among the toddlers who are now growing up with the language. 

Recently, one of the language trainees created a lesson plan that involved teaching the toddlers to identify four local fish by their Menominee species names. Ron remembers thinking, OK, well this might be a little advanced for babies, but he simply reminded the trainee to have his teaching outcomes in mind. Sure enough, within two days the children could point to pictures of the different fish based on commands given in Menominee. Then they could say the words themselves and use them correctly within sentences.

“I came to the conclusion that the only thing that really limits these kids is us, by what we expose them to,” Ron says.

Something similar occurred earlier this year, when Joey was out in the woods with his granddaughter, who attends the immersion day care. As they walked around the puddles of snowmelt, past some trees that had been cut before the winter, they saw a green-brown blur. “Look at the frog!” Joey said to her in Menominee. She looked at the creature, looked back at him, and tugged on his shirt. “No, Papa,” she corrected him. “That’s a bullfrog.” She had identified the proper species, in Menominee, at age two.

How do you quantify the value of speaking your own traditional language?

Ron told me that throughout his adulthood, people questioned his commitment to what seemed to be a dying language. He had learned Menominee through happenstance: meeting the right elders as a child, then in high school through another elder. He’d eschewed a postsecondary education to keep studying the language. Friends and family worried it was a waste of time. How was learning Menominee supposed to get him a job, or pay his bills, or allow him to support his kids?

And yet it has. It has brought him to teaching positions at the high school, and then at the local college and the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay.  It has earned him his current position at the Menominee Language and Culture Commission. It has given him an identity, a life’s purpose. He shared the language with his five children as they grew up, although they didn’t become fully fluent; languages are reliant on an entire community of speakers. But now his grandson is in the immersion day care; every day, he speaks Menominee with his friends and teachers. 

“In our communities, we hear a lot of these ideas like historical trauma,” Ron says. “I want to see the other side, where we don’t have to hold that up, where it’s like a scar gone by.” An elder once explained the importance of the language using the actual structure of Menominee as a metaphor. There are animate and inanimate nouns, and the body is animate—but only because it holds a soul. Without the soul, there is no animacy. Language, this elder instructed, was the soul of the Menominee people. Without it, they would become inanimate.

One of Ron’s friends from another tribe had his own way of putting it: They aren’t the ones saving their languages. Their languages were saving them.

At the Breath of Life 2.0 conference in Ohio, an attendee had reflected on the same question. Jerome Viles, a member of the Confederated Tribe of Siletz Indians who’s working on the Nuu-wee-ya’ language, helped other participants learn how to use ILDA. He had been training himself on the software for a year already, as his language had been chosen as a test case to see if the database could work for languages other than Miami. Quiet but self-assured, Jerome spent the week hopping around the conference room to answer questions and monitor the participants’ work. He is a linguist, doing the type of grammatical analysis that a layperson may never understand but which informs education efforts. 

“The world that our community’s language [Nuu-wee-ya’] was used in has been under attack for one hundred and fifty, one hundred and sixty years,” he explained. “So I’d like to see a world where people see the value of speaking their language, have the resources to speak their language, have the physical places to speak their language: the community support.”

So many people talk about “dead” and “endangered” languages, but those terms have never felt right to him. They’re just another way of feeding into the stereotype of the “disappearing Indian.” But Native people are still here, and their languages still exist. Jerome thinks linguists should also forgo the term “endangered.” Instead, he prefers “waiting language.”

“It gives you an action to do,” he said. “The language is waiting. What I need to do is pick it up.”

This story has been supported by the Solutions Journalism Network, a nonprofit organization dedicated to rigorous and compelling reporting about responses to social problems.

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