Our Mother Tongues Blog

Native Student from Menominee Tribe Punished for Speaking Her Mother Tongue

February 28, 2012 - 11:20 AM | by Our Mother Tongues

National American Indian news outlets, including The Native News Network and Indian Country Today, both reported this month on the punishment received by a young tribal student at a Wisconsin Catholic school for speaking to one of her seventh grade classmates in her Menominee language. According to both media outlets, twelve-year old Miranda Washinawatok told her mother on the evening of January 19 that she had been suspended from that afternoon’s basketball game because her coach said two teachers had criticized Miranda’s “bad attitude” earlier in the day.


After speaking with Miranda’s mother, Tanaes Washinawatok, Native News Network reported that Miranda’s teacher had yelled at her and slammed her hand down on a desk after hearing Miranda say two words in Menominee: Posoh, or hello, and Ketapanen, or I love you. Miranda told her mother that her teacher got angry with her for using a language she couldn’t understand, saying, "You are not to speak like that! How do I know you're not saying something bad? How would you like it if I spoke in Polish and you didn't understand?"


Gerald Hill, an Oneida Nation citizen from Wisconsin and president of the Santa Fe, New Mexico-based Indigenous Language Institute quickly criticized the attitudes of instructors and administrators at the Sacred Heart School in a letter published by Native News Network, writing, “Shawano is a small town several miles south of the Reservation. Like many off-reservation communities, there is a history of racist attitudes against Indians, although we like to think that the relations have improved. This incident shows that racism is alive and well. That this happened in a parochial religious school makes this a wake-up call for everyone who believed that America has moved beyond such displays of ignorance.”


Local media in Shawano and many regional newspaper and television outlets carried coverage of the story, and by February 1, Dan Minter, principal of Sacred Heart, sent home a letter with all students decrying the “perception by a student or family that this in any way promoted an atmosphere of cultural discrimination... If that perception was allowed to exist, then it is deeply regretted by Sacred Heart School and for that we apologize.”


Last week on February 22 Dr. Joseph Bound, director of education for the Catholic Diocese of Green Bay, issued a public apology posted on the diocese website that read in part, “On behalf of the Diocese of Green Bay, I wish to apologize for the events that led up to, and have followed, the benching of Miranda for a basketball game at Sacred Heart School, in part, for her use of the Menominee language in school. We wish we could change how that was handled. The truth is that we cannot undo any damage that was inflicted and we are keenly aware of the emotions that have come to bear as fallout in this incident.”


Bound also emphasized that the diocese will now work to amend and improve cultural education and awareness in its schools, and issued an invitation to “all interested cultural groups ... to bring ideas and thoughts that can be crafted into an action plan that will bring cultural awareness and sensitivity to all our Catholic schools in the Diocese of Green Bay.” He concluded his open letter by asking "forgiveness for our actions that have inflicted heartache, pain and anger to all those who have felt these emotions over the past several weeks."


Organizers for an online petition will doubtless follow up to see that Bound’s good intentions are carried out locally. The petition “Tell Wisconsin that “Love” in Menominee is Not a Four-Letter Word” has already gathered more than 8,000 signatures and calls for Sacred Heart to “add American Indian languages and culture to their curriculum and stop violating rights of American Indian students.”


Cultural Survival’s International Mother Language Day announcement, sent to more than 11,000 supporters internationally, also linked to the petition, helping to generate additional signatures toward the goal of 20,000.

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