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Wisconsin's Native American Tribes Fight To Save Languages From Extinction

Courtesy of Milwaukee Magazine
Dancers performing at the Bear Moon Pow Wow at the Indian Community School.

Native American tribes have been living in Wisconsin for tens of thousands of years, but much has changed since they first settled in this area. Through decades of forced assimiliation into white-American culture, Native American cultures were suppressed.

Starting in the late 19th Century (decades after the Indian Removal Act), many native children were sent to boarding schools, which punished them for practicing their religion or using their language and native names. Some native languages are now considered extinct. In Wisconsin, about 5 native languages are still spoken - some have less than 5 people who are considered “first-language speakers.”

Tom Tolan is the managing editor for Milwaukee Magazine and for this month’s issue he authored a piece on the local efforts to save these languages. Titled, "Rekindling the Fires," the article explores immersion schools, where teachers and students are asked to speak in Native American Languages, like Oneida or Menominee. These languages are important for passing down customs and traditions, and for many, they also hold religious significance. 

Tolan says, "The ceremonies have to be in the native language. There was a guy named Jim Thunder who is an elder up in Forest County Potawatomi Tribe. He says, 'When God doesn’t hear our language spoken, he’ll consider our tribe to be extinct.'"

Joy Powers hosts and produces Lake Effect. She joined WUWM in 2016.