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An effort is underway to reestablish and revitalize Indigenous languages

Native American Boarding Schools
Getty Images
Hundreds of people gather for a vigil in a field where human remains were discovered in unmarked graves at the site of the former Marieval Indian Residential School on the Cowessess First Nation in Saskatchewan on June 26, 2021. - More than 750 unmarked graves have been found near a former Catholic boarding school for indigenous children in western Canada, a tribal leader said Thursday -- the second such shock discovery in less than a month. (Photo by Geoff Robins / AFP) (Photo by GEOFF ROBINS/AFP via Getty Images)

Milwaukee has a long history as a place for people to gather. The name “Milwaukee” itself is derived from the different languages of the many Native tribes who came to the area to meet and trade.

For most Native Americans in Wisconsin, these languages are no longer what they speak at home or in day-to-day life. But there are efforts to change that, to revitalize the language, and reestablish its prominence in these communities.

Michael Zimmerman Jr. is an Indigenous language specialist and consultant, and a member of the Pokagan Band of Potawatomi, and he is working to bring these languages back to the contemporary vernacular in Wisconsin.

“In terms of being a lingua franca, or a popularly used language, a lot of people point to the boarding school era where Native children were forcibly put into an establishments where they were not allowed to speak their language openly,” says Zimmerman Jr.

As the frightening reality of these Native American boarding schools is being pushed to the forefront of the national conversation, Zimmerman Jr. describes even more of the things that happened at them.

“They were not allowed to dress in a traditional manner or express or practice any of their traditional customs, and in many cases there would be means of punishment for doing such,” says Zimmerman Jr.

As for how Zimmerman Jr. is working to revitalize these languages, he says this can often vary and can look different for everyone.

“It just depends on what degree to which you are engaging with it, so if you look at the term revitalize, its to bring back to life or to bring back vibrancy...essentially it's utilizing the language on a day-to-day basis for every single thing you are doing — that's the end goal, but that depends on engagement,” says Zimmerman Jr.

One of the challenges that Zimmerman Jr. has to grapple with is merging the cultural significance and understanding of a language when he teaches it, something he says is not always easy.

“So you essentially try to replicate what first language speakers do, and that’s being able to play with what I refer to as morphemes or the parts of the word that hold the meaning,” says Zimmerman Jr.

He says that by doing this it allows students to understand where these words come from, and thus they will start to comprehend the cultural roots and significance of the language they are speaking.

“It’s like a language Lego type thing once you get the hang of it,” says Zimmerman Jr. “Just to give you an example Mino-aki in Ojibwe refers to land that is well or good and it's talking about the city of Milwaukee; Mino refers to the good, or well, part of the word and aki refers to essentially anything that is within physical existence.”

Joy is a WUWM host and producer for Lake Effect.
Beck Andrew Salgado was a producer with Lake Effect.
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