On January 19, a Menominee Indian seventh grader named Miranda Washinawatok was benched and suspended from a Catholic School in Shawano, Wisconsin, for speaking her Native Menominee language with two other girls from the Menominee reservation. Shawano is a small town located several miles south of the reservation; like many off-reservation communities, there is a longstanding history of racist attitudes against Indians, although we like to think that the relations have improved over the years. Unfortunately, this incident shows that racism is alive and well in Wisconsin. That this also happened in a parochial school makes it a wake-up call for everyone who believes that America has moved beyond such displays of ignorance. Historical precedents to this type of action are plentiful—think of all the Native children who were cruelly punished for speaking their languages in the shameful days of Indian boarding schools in the 20th century. Yet, the bad-heartedness behind this history persists when a 12-year-old child is subjected to such treatment in 2012.
The Washinawatok family is a well-respected family at the Menominee reservation. They have a long history of involvement in American Indian issues at home and abroad. Miranda’s great aunt, Ingrid Washinawatok, was murdered in Colombia in 1999 while working for the rights of Indigenous people there. Her grandmother, Karen Washinawatok, is currently the director of the Menominee Language Program, and former chairwoman of the Menominee Language and Culture Commission and is a past Menominee tribal chairwoman. Last year in Albuquerque, New Mexico, Karen was a presenter at a symposium sponsored by the Indigenous Language Institute. Miranda’s great grandfather, James Washinawatok, was a tribal judge, whose namesake grandson is now a practicing attorney.
This family, like many others in Indian country, has been generationally dedicated to the preservation of the culture and sovereignty of their people and Indigenous people everywhere. So my response is much more than an expression of moral support or a reaction to a single incident; my response has joined others that are resonating throughout Native communities in the U.S., Canada and the Western Hemisphere. Of course, there are those who have trivialized this incident, but seemingly small events are the catalyst for huge reactions. I believe this is one such incident that proves the days when one was forbidden to speak his or her Native language are not behind us but, sadly, is still part of the mindset of many Americans.
The work of the Indigenous Language Institute, on which I currently serve as president, is to help preserve the use of heritage languages of Indians and other Native people here and throughout the world. The Washinawatok incident has served to refocus the attention of Indian Country and the general public on how the use of one’s Indigenous language is still an active, controversial and, sometimes, explosive issue. Moreover, it is a sharp reminder that we continue to live among those whose ignorance would force them to strike out at a child upon hearing words they don’t understand.
The Indigenous Language Institute stands with the Washinawatok family, especially Miranda—the brave young girl who drew the wrath of her teachers, the Menominee Nation in Wisconsin and Native peoples everywhere who have endured such undeserved abuse for simply using the language of their ancestors.
Let’s all show our support for Miranda Washinawatok and the countless others who have been disrespected by ignorant adults who ought to know better.
Jerry L. Hill, Oneida Nation of Wisconsin, is the president of the Indigenous Language Institute in Santa Fe, New Mexico.