Visit to the Wisconsin Indigenous Languages Lab

by Miranda Vescio | Language Sciences Multi-Media Intern


The geographical region where the state of Wisconsin now lies is and has been home to a number of diverse indigenous peoples since ancient times. Tragically, our history of colonialism has often obscured if not eradicated a substantial number of the people and traditions that are so closely tied to this state. While acknowledging what we have lost is as vital as it is painful, recent efforts at language revitalization have been bringing a new feeling of hope to people in Wisconsin and beyond who are passionate about revitalizing and empowering indigenous communities and cultures.

One place where work of this type has been happening is at UW-Madison’s Wisconsin Indigenous Languages Lab. Directed by Professors Monica Macaulay and Ryan Henke, the lab members work to document, study, and revitalize languages indigenous to Wisconsin and the surrounding regions.

The Lab’s Beginnings

The lab had its origins in 2003 with a project spearheaded by Prof. Macaulay, which focused on creating learning resources for Menominee, an Algonquian language indigenous to the state of Wisconsin and nearby areas. The lab ultimately produced an illustrated Menominee Beginner’s Dictionary, a more traditional bilingual Menominee dictionary, and a dictionary of Potawatomi, another Algonquian language indigenous to the state. For some languages, resources like these are easy to come by, but often languages like Menominee and Potawatomi have few resources for language learners. To add to this problem, a lot of the material related to these languages that is available tends to be technical and difficult for people to use if they’re not trained in linguistics. These dictionaries help provide learners with much needed and accessible reference materials. Prof. Macaulay received multiple grants from NSF and NEH and worked together with many students who contributed to this project over the decades.

Professor Macaulay (center) in the lab with graduate students Vivian Nash and Yolanda Pushetonequa

Current Project

Currently Prof. Macaulay has a National Science Foundation grant to develop an online database of derivational morphemes in multiple Algonquian languages. This resource will contain information about what linguists call “morphemes,” or small pieces of language, that are used to construct complex words. Some examples of morphemes include the prefixes, suffixes, and stems that many of us learned about in high school grammar classes. Prof. Macaulay is currently working on this project with Linguistics graduate student Vivian Nash and undergraduate students Leksi Scarr and Jen Stoughton.

The morpheme database will have several potential uses. One application would be for “proto-language reconstruction.” This process can get technical and complicated, but at its core, proto-language reconstruction is when linguists compare related modern languages to try to figure out what their ancestor language might have been like. It’s a bit like if you took pictures of yourself and all of your cousins and then tried to use them to draw a picture of what your grandparents might have looked like. The reconstructions likely aren’t 100% accurate, but they can give us insights into languages that haven’t been spoken for many generations. These reconstructions can also help us infer some details about the people who spoke the languages and explain the origins of some aspects of the modern languages. Reconstructions reveal connections both with a language and people’s past as well as with the other languages in the same family.

This database will also be a resource for people learning and revitalizing Algonquian languages. Algonquian languages sometimes don’t have words for modern concepts because the languages have been suppressed for many generations, and the number of fluent speakers in some communities is small. However, as people begin to learn or relearn these languages, they often find that they need words for things like cars, planes, fields of study, etc., which may not be found in existing dictionaries. While it’s possible to borrow other languages’ words for these concepts (like the SW Ojibwe word for ‘coffee’, gaapii), this database will help learners (and fluent speakers, too!) create words for new ideas out of parts that are native to the Algonquian family of languages, if they prefer. An example of this, also from SW Ojibwe, is the word for ‘screwdriver’, biimiskwa’igan, which could be more literally translated ‘thing you use to twist something’.

Team Members’ Experiences

Yolanda Pushetonequa, a member of the Meskwaki tribe in central Iowa, is a graduate student in Linguistics who is working to learn and revitalize her tribe’s language. Meskwaki has approximately 150 fluent first language speakers and an abundance of linguistic publications which serve as a source for understanding the grammatical structure of Meskwaki. Yolanda is enthusiastic about the recently published Meskwaki grammar by linguist Ives Goddard. The work that Yolanda does in the Lab relates to using technology for analysis of linguistic data, meeting with the group to discuss, learn about, and research grammatical analysis as it pertains specifically to Algonquian languages, and utilizing an Indigenized workspace unique to her language research.

Yolanda and her community have seen first-hand just how quickly and easily a language can begin to disappear. It only takes a generation for a language to end up with only a handful of elderly native speakers. This problem is compounded by the fact that it’s next to impossible to live in the United States (or many other countries, for that matter) without constantly hearing and speaking English. Even those who might grow up using a language like Meskwaki at home will have to speak English whenever they interact with people outside of their communities.

For efforts to revive Indigenous languages, the social and economic pressures to learn and fluently speak English present a significant, though not insurmountable, challenge. Yolanda describes how when she first started to learn about language loss and revitalization, it felt like a personal, isolating problem. But the more she began to learn about other communities facing similar situations, she realized “It’s not just us.” Realizing that her community was not alone, and seeing how others had begun to have success in revitalization efforts helped motivate her to participate in the work she does with the lab.

Another Linguistics graduate student, Vivian Nash, is a member of the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians and a second-language learner of Ojibwe. Like Yolanda, she began to study linguistics and eventually became involved with the lab because of her efforts to learn her tribe’s language.

Vivian recounts how she was always told to “look in the book” (referring to Emeritus Professor Rand Valentine’s massive Ojibwe grammar) and learn more linguistics to answer her questions about the language. However, she noticed that sometimes the answer wasn’t actually in the book, and that became part of her motivation to study linguistics further. In her current project, she is researching tense markings on Ojibwe verbs. Sometimes in Ojibwe sentences, there are two verbs, one that has a tense marker and one that doesn’t. Her research aims to understand the pattern: which verbs gets this marking and when? Work like this can ultimately be helpful to other community learners and schools teaching Ojibwe.

Revitalization Efforts

While many minority languages throughout the world are currently in a weak position due to centuries of colonialism, marginalization, and overt repression, a recent wave of revitalization efforts has brought increased hope to many of these communities. One such effort, known as Menomini yoU, is going strong in Wisconsin. When the program started, its organizers expected to have a turnout of about 40 people for their initial online Menominee language lessons. They ended up having closer to 250 attendants from all over the country. The tribe has also opened a language-immersion day care and, even more recently, an immersion school. Currently the school provides pre-k and kindergarten education in the Menominee language, and they hope to add more grade levels in the future.

Immersion schools are an invaluable tool for language revitalization because they provide a safe space for kids to speak and hear the language in their everyday lives. Young children also pick up languages more easily than older kids and adults, so beginning language learning at a young age helps children achieve a higher level of fluency with less effort.

Revitalization efforts have also helped many people rediscover and reconnect with aspects of their cultures. One example that Prof. Macaulay mentions is the case of the 13th month in Menominee. It has always been known that in traditional Menominee culture, the year is divided into 13 months, but the Menominee language name of that 13th month had been lost. Then one day, a delegation of the Menominee Nation traveled to Washington DC to review the approximately 20 thousand pages of indigenous language documentation housed in the Smithsonian Museum. As they were flipping through pages and snapping as many photos as they could, a document was found that contained a transcription of the name of the “missing” month. This anecdote is just one of a multitude of cultural pieces that are being reawakened and can be passed down to future generations.

The Lab Outside the Lab

Many of the people who are a part of the lab are also involved in a group called the Enwejig Indigenous Language Advocates. “Enwejig” roughly translates to “the ones who speak,” and their aim is to encourage and promote indigenous Wisconsin languages. Recently, they’ve put up signs around campus that are written in various indigenous Wisconsin languages: “Congratulations” at graduation time and “Welcome” at convocation time. (Keep an eye out for more of those this year, too!) They also successfully nominated Cecil Garvin, a Ho-Chunk elder who has been a major contributor to language revitalization efforts, for an honorary doctor of humane letters degree during the Spring 2023 commencement.


While revitalization attempts undoubtedly face challenges, there’s a lot of hope for the future of many languages that are native to Wisconsin and the Americas. With the combined efforts of everyone from young children to elders, with undergraduates, graduate students, and faculty as allies, languages and cultures are being revitalized and reclaimed, even right here on campus.