Before European contact, the Menominee Indian Tribe had a land base of over 10 million acres (in what is now known as Wisconsin and parts of Michigan) and over 2,000 people spoke their language. Today, their land has been reduced to 235,000 acres, due to a series of treaties that eroded the tribe’s land base, while policies like relocation and removal, and boarding schools where children were punished for speaking their native languages, caused the language to almost disappear. Today there are fewer than ten first language speakers and fewer than 20 fluent speakers of Menominee.
In recent years, the Menominee community has made efforts to revitalize the Menominee language among the 8,700 enrolled tribal members and nearly 2,200 descendants. There are language teachers in every educational facility on the reservation from pre-school to college, and the tribe and community sponsor an annual culture camp, where activities focus on language and culture. In addition, the reservation’s communities host language groups that introduce language and encourage daily use. Elders are critical in revitalization efforts and their expertise and knowledge has helped younger generations to expand their skills and learn their history.
The Menominee Language Institute (MLI) is one group dedicated to revitalizing language and saving it from extinction. MLI is a community-based group that believes the language is in danger of extinction and that the need to save it transcends waiting for funding before action is taken. MLI is truly grassroots and relies on support from its members and volunteers. MLI uses innovative strategies like total physical response and immersion to reinforce language. One of the group’s founders, Ron Corn Jr., has devoted his life to this important effort as well and is recognized as a key individual in preserving the ancient language.
Ron Corn Jr. is one of less than 20 fluent speakers of the Menominee language, and throughout his life has taught the language to others. Born on the Menominee Indian Reservation, he was introduced to the language early, and spent a few years living in Stevens Point where he attended language classes and met Steve Askenette, a respected speaker and teacher. Ron found inspiration in listening to Askenette speak Menominee, and when he returned to Menominee Indian Reservation he met Lillian Nelson, an elder and first language speaker, who helped him develop his language skills. Nelson became a mentor to Ron in high school and afterwards. Ron participated in a language apprentice program where he spent time with elders hearing traditional stories, and most importantly, learning the language through developing friendships.
Ron’s devotion to saving the language is so strong that he made the difficult and family changing decision to quit his full-time job where he taught Menominee language in order to spend more time raising his youngest daughter, Mimikwaeh, with the language through immersion. He hopes that she will be the first child in over a generation whose first language is Menominee and not English. He also continues to spend time with elders and teaching language to anyone that will give their time.