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Helping a Language from Getting Lost: Menominee County

The UW is helping to record and save the Menominee language before it disappears.

Joey Awonohopay

The language of the Menominee tribe is spoken fluently only by about a dozen people, most of them elders who live on the reservation. But younger tribal leaders, including Joey Awonohopay, are working hard to keep the language alive and retain this part of their culture.

Awonohopay is the language and culture teacher at the Menominee Tribal School, where all students in kindergarten through eighth grade have daily Menominee language lessons. To strengthen this curriculum, Awonohopay is working with researchers at the University of Wisconsin–Madison to print, update, annotate, and create audio recordings of Menominee stories.

“We are trying to teach our youth the things they should be proud of,” Awonohopay says. “We want them to say they are proud to be Menominee because they can speak their tribal language, they know their spiritual ceremonies, they are very culturally active, they do their part in preserving our forest, and they help their brothers and sisters and any youth who need help.”

We are trying to teach our youth the things they should be proud of.

Awonohopay, the grandson of an unofficial tribal chief, has been interested in language since boyhood, and he apprenticed with fluent elders. He became the director of the Menominee Language and Culture Commission, and he and his wife raised their three children on the reservation, where they sought to create a strong feeling of home.

“The heart of our people is our forest,” he says. “A lot of our recreation takes place right here on our land: swimming, camping, hiking, hunting, fishing. We harvest our own wild rice here in the fall, and during the winter, we tell traditional legends and stories.”

He sees that his students are pulled in different directions, and that there is a strong pull to assimilate.

“We want them to grow up and look back at how much the teachers and the tribe have cared for them and have tried to protect them,” Awonohopay says and he appreciates the help he’s received from UW–Madison. “We are hoping for our youth to be doctors, lawyers, teachers, police officers, judges — everything that exists under the sun. But we also want them to have their culture, their heritage, and everything that makes them Menominee.”

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