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Local News

Menominee Tribe Opens Immersion Charter School To Preserve Language

Credit: iStock

Jeff Fuentes Gleghorn

The Menominee language was on the verge of extinction less than ten years ago. Today, there is a classroom of 33 students learning their language through immersion. In 2015, Lawrence Tomow, the last fluent male speaker of the Menominee language, passed away. That meant there was only one female fluent speaker, Lillian Nelson, alive to revitalize the language. The Menominee responded by forming a “language nest,” training members to speak Menominee and teach it to children as young as 2 years old in a language immersion daycare setting. Now the program is expanding to pre-K and kindergarten classrooms in a charter school called Kaehkēnawapatāēq, which means “We learn by observing.”

Kaehkēnawapatāēq will continue the practice of teaching by immersion, and includes distinctly Menominee teaching practices. The name Kaehkēnawapatāēq was chosen because historically, Menominee children learned skills through observation rather than classroom instruction. Students spend class time in the forest as well as indoors.

The Menominee nation’s language and culture coordinator, Waqnahwew Ben Grignon, spoke to WPR about why the program was important to society. “Our kids are going to be seeing the world through our language, and that’s really a beautiful thing they’re going to see,” Grignon told Kate Archer Kent.

A teacher at the school, Kākekāēcewan Kara Besaw, also spoke to WPR. Besaw believes that the program will help Menominee children succeed in life. “We can’t forget that language is an integral part of who they are as Menominee children, and that alone sets them up for success,” Besaw said. “So it’s important that we keep fostering that for them to help them build that sense of identity in the classroom and outside of the classroom.”