Community, Culture, and Language Revitalization in the Menominee Nation

Sustaining culture and language is at the heart of the College of Menominee Nation’s (CMN) mission. The college works closely with the local community throughout the reservation to educate, enrich, and maintain the culture of the Menominee people. Recently, CMN has collaborated with the Menominee Tribal School, where the college seeks to make a positive impact by hosting science fairs, after school reading groups, and mentoring programs.

The Menominee Tribal School is located in the village of Neopit in the northwestern portion of the Menominee Nation. Originally founded by the Roman Catholic Church, the school today is tribally controlled and receives grants and tribal funding. The school’s teachers are committed to instilling Menominee language, culture, and tradition in the students. Some teachers travel an hour to the school from nearby Green Bay in hopes of making a difference in the lives of their students.

As part of my study at CMN, I visited the Menominee Tribal School. I had enrolled in “Introduction to Native American Cultures,” a required course at CMN, and chose to conduct an ethnological study of my son’s first grade class at the tribal school. The class I observed consisted of twenty-two students. Being in a firstgrade classroom and seeing the world through their eyes was a rewarding experience. How are relationships formed? How is the culture integrated into the first grade curriculum? How does language play a crucial role in the identity of the Menominee people? These were the questions I hoped to answer.

I spoke to an elder from the village who attended the school when it was under church guidance. She stated that when the nuns were running the school, they had tight control over the children. “Children were slapped if they used the Menominee language. . . . Students who didn’t speak English were punished. English courses were given to the children because they didn’t know the English language,” she maintained. Although the school’s appearance hasn’t changed much since the Menominee Nation assumed control of it, the curriculum has.

Menominee language and culture is rich inside the school’s walls. I had the opportunity to ask one of the teachers how the school integrated tribal beliefs into course curriculum. She replied, “Each individual teacher tries to incorporate tribal beliefs and behaviors into daily routines. Grandfather teachings are referred to regularly.” She went on to note the importance of family traditions, community, and helping one another.

Teaching language is also approached differently at the Menominee Tribal School. In most schools across America, language classes are not taught until high school, and even then they are only recommended for college-bound students. This has led to a broad misconception that two years of high school language study is adequate for language learning. I was transfixed when I stepped into a first grade class where no English was spoken for the first 30 minutes of class. The school’s morning announcements, the pledge of allegiance, and even local weather reports are recited in Menominee. Hearing the language spoken so widely, I felt as if I had arrived in a different world.

The Menominee Tribal School has become a hub in the community that not only works to revitalize language and culture, but that also strives to nurture Menominee children. For the most part, the children resided in the Neopit vicinity. However, some traveled up to fifteen miles from their homes to attend the school. All of them were excited and eager to learn and to use the Menominee words and sentences they knew. The children seemed to forget about every outside distraction while school was in session, making learning the central event of their day. The school also serves as a refuge for the students. Some of the children have endured traumatic events at home and would relate them in class to the teachers and other classmates. In this regard the school offered a stable environment compared to the chaotic world which they must go home to everyday.

At the Menominee Tribal School, the Menominee culture and language are enriching students’ lives, giving them knowledge of their heritage. If traditions and heritage are the center of one’s being, the Menominee Tribal School is fulfilling this need as these children make their footprints in the world.

Burton Arthur was born on the San Carlos Apache Reservation in Arizona. Adopted by generous parents at age one, he grew up in Rolla, Missouri. He attended Haskell Indian Nations University and the University of Kansas.  He is currently working toward a public administration degree at the College of Menominee Nation in Green Bay, Wisconsin.

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