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LJI:7 No True Scotsman
I am part Native American.   Not enough to count, according to the government or the tribes involved, but I’m not certain official is what matters about these things.  I really wish I knew more about that part of my heritage and want to learn, but I don’t know if I would be entirely welcome.


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.***

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Really interesting story, with some thorny questions.

I can understand wanting to learn your grandmother's language, if only to help keep it from dying. But even if you never entered the tribal rolls, learning more about both grandparents' tribes would be nice. I understand the trepidation about how you might be received, but there's also a sense of honoring that heritage.

It all gets messy because there's so much history that has nothing to do with me directly, but is still impossible to ignore.

There are recordings on the internet, I'm thinking I should just teach myself the super basics (hello, goodbye, counting) which is about what I can do in German and see where things flow from there.

Thanks for reading and responding.

Those are tough questions. I can sympathize with how you feel. I like your take on the prompt, too.

It's not something I think about deeply very often, but when I do I usually end up in a muddled mess.

I was planning to do fiction this week, but couldn't find anything I wanted to really say. This just flowed, which is usually a sign. Thanks!

Really interesting piece of writing.

I can understand you wanting to learn the Menominee language and I think doing so would help to keep it from dying out.

Edited at 2014-04-29 04:38 pm (UTC)

Thank you.

At this point I think most Native languages can use all of the speakers they can get. I think I'm going to see what I can teach myself of the basics over the internet to 'show willing' before I approach any actual people.

Thank you. That is a perfect response to where writing this left me emotionally.

I'd really encourage you to put yourself out there to learn. It should be clear to others that you're interested in tradition, not appropriation. If they don't accept you, you can learn on your own.

This is easy for me to say, of course...

I have a feeling it wouldn't be as scary as I think, especially once I'm in the door the first time. I know I still have relatives on the reservation (I used to feel like I must be related to half the tribe when we'd visit with Grandma and everyone was a cousin) so maybe if I approach that way it would work out.

Thanks for the comment.

Those are some questions that don't have a straight answer to them, I think, although I'm not very familiar with the native culture or its struggles, I think it's something to approach with caution and perhaps respectfully ask some people involved (starting with parents or other family members whom you can easily talk to), just to get an idea. Good luck :)

Yeah. I think as long as I approach with respect and care that it would probably be fine. Helpful to talk to my mom and aunts to reintroduce me to the relatives who live on the reservation too.

Thank you.

I have some Native American ancestry, but like you, it's not very much - certainly not enough to be considered meaningful to anyone but me. If I were you, I'd try hitting the books. I've learned a lot of interesting things that way. I also took a culture class in college, and that helped me a lot too.

There are a few books around about the Menomine, you're right I should look for those. As my mom and her sisters have been doing more exploration (attending and once hosting a sweat lodge and the genealogical research) I've been more interested as well. I think slowly will be the way to go.

Thank you.

I'd say go ahead and ask about joining. If they truly want to revive the language, you'd hope they'll be grateful for any interested person they can find, tiny sliver of ancestry or no. :)

I hope so. It's a little complicated by the fact that I don't live in WI anymore, but there are internet guides I can start with until the next time I get home.

Thanks for the push.

It's really interesting how much of their heritage many Americans can trace and how prevalent genealogy is here. Even more amazing you've found old photographs of your great grand parents! I don't really know much about my heritage past my grandparents.

I forget how unusual it is that I knew well enough to remember four of my great-grandparents, and there's a photo of me with a fifth. Great-Grandpa Andrew isn't genealogy to me, but an extra grandpa who we took the train to see when I was six, and who came back to WI every few years to visit and always asked me how my music was coming. Having photos of him as a young man is super cool, but I've got several shots of me with him over the years (he was nearly 104 when he died).

I can't offer a perspective from a Native person's point of view, but I can offer an anthropologist's point of view. Realistically, if they want to keep this language alive, they will probably need to teach it to anyone who wants to learn it. Sure, you can do self-study, but you can't really become proficient in a language until you speak it and listen to it with other people. So if it's something you're interested in, at the very least it can't hurt to ask if you can get involved.

Yup, the anthropological view is what I most easily see too. Another part of the issue that I couldn't easily fit into the piece is that I don't live near the reservation anymore, which would be another reason I'm not as valuable a student - the distance makes conversation more difficult - though phone calls would work and I could visit when I'm home.

But I think it's worth the attempt.

This is a interesting read... I guess you should go for it..you can always drop-out if it doesn't fell like home/friends..:)

Thank you. I think I'm going to try, or at least start teaching myself what I can off the internet - listening to audio clips. But you hit on another point I needed to hear, I feel a like if I start this I have to follow through to the point of being fluent, but that's not actually true.

This is such an interesting and beautiful self-examination in the context of your heritage. Also, I think you should go :)

There was a great story on This American Life about tribal disenrollment in California - it's not a happy story, but it was fascinating. Basically, a tribal council is striking members so the casino profits will be split fewer ways.

I think I am going to see what I can find on the internet and start learning that way to 'show willing' before I make an approach.

I'll have to look for the podcast of that 'This American Life'. Tribal rolls used to be about nothing but family and blood, now that it's also about profit sharing and politics the whole issue has gotten a lot stickier and every tribe handles it differently.

This reminds me a bit of my mother's sadness that she was discouraged from learning Polish (despite speaking multiple other languages quite well) because of the whole "dumb Polack" social stigma that was a thing for her parents. But at least the entire language isn't exactly in any danger of going away.

How much more difficult with Menominee, when there are so few speakers left to begin with!

Oh, that's sad. I am grateful that in general in this country we're becoming more open to folks learning other languages.

A very thoughtful essay - I hope you find the answers that you're looking for.

Thank you for the good thoughts.

And, as usual, you have the perfect icon.

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