My great-grandfather Andrew was Shawnee, my great-grandmother Marie was Menominee. Andrew attended the Carlisle Indian School, a boarding school where he was the senior class president of the final graduating class. It was also a school where only English was spoken, and students were punished if they tried to converse in their native tongues. Andrew’s mother had been a translator and spoke several native languages, but they were never passed down to her family.
My grandmother Elaine grew up on the Menominee reservation in Wisconsin. By then no one was teaching the children the language, she only spoke a few words that she picked up casually, and they were lost when she moved off the reservation with her non-native husband.
My mother and her siblings grew up visiting the reservation occasionally to see relatives and friends, but never knew any of the words. Several years ago they went through the process to prove to the federal government that their bloodline is 25% native, which involved filling out a lot of paperwork and genealogical information going back further than seems necessary. Being native according to the government doesn’t change much about their day-to-day lives (though it means that my mom can keep an eagle feather as a ceremonial object without possibly facing a $25,000 fine). But having the federal paperwork meant that they could apply to obtain official status with the Menominee tribe even if they aren’t on the tribal rolls (both the Menominee and Shawnee require you to be 25% of their blood to be on their rolls) which was important to them. Now they more officially belong to a world that they’ve always been a part of.
By the time I come around I’m only 1/8 native, and that a mix of two different tribes. I’m more German and French than I am native. But I’ve heard about a project happening on the reservation to revive the Menominee language, they are actively encouraging more young people to learn in an attempt to keep it alive. I would love to join them.
I haven’t asked though. Would I be seen as an interloper, even if I am Elaine’s granddaughter? Or would they embrace anyone with a sincere desire to learn? Do I want to work that hard, or do I just like the idea of it? Even if I spoke the language, I still won’t ever be on the tribal rolls. Am I appropriating something that doesn’t belong to me, or claiming part of my heritage? My blood barely whispers, and I don’t know if anyone is listening, even me.
***This is my entry for week 7 of LJ Idol, more entries on this topic can be found here. Here are a few of the places on the internets I visited to make sure I had my facts straight; I'm nearly certain great-grandpa is in that band picture from 1915 in the Carlisle link.***