“We Need to Have Our Voices Heard”: A Menominee Elder’s Perspective

I used to introduce myself by saying I am an elder in denial and I’m also a recovering Tribal Chairman,” laughs Karen Washinawatok. 

She’s no longer in denial.  

In November, Washinawatok spent a week at the University of Wisconsin–Madison as this year’s Elder-in-Residence. During Native American Heritage Month, the UW–Madison American Indian and Indigenous Studies Program hosts a Native elder on campus who presents in classes, meets with faculty, and engages students to expand their access to critical cultural resources. 

Washinawatok is a member of the Menominee Tribe with a life-long commitment to the community. She’s an educator and serves as the Vice-President of the Board of Education for the Menominee Indian School District. Previously, she directed the Menominee Language and Culture Commission and chaired the Tribal Government for one year. 

Asked what she is most proud of, Washinawatok identifies another role. 

“Now that I’m an elder, I think storytelling and speaking are important,” she says. “We need to have our voices heard. We have wisdom from living our lives and we need to share that. … In our way of life as Native people, the elders are the teachers. They’re esteemed members of our community because they hold not just the knowledge of today but the ancestral knowledge too.” 

Through her teaching, Washinawatok brings younger and older community members together. 

“As a language teacher of our Menominee mother tongue, I offer intergenerational classes,” she says. “I encourage grandparents to bring children, grandchildren, extended family members. We made it like a community class.” 

“My whole strategy was to get the families learning together, so they would speak at home together. You don’t want just one person learning with nobody to talk to. It worked out beautifully. We had grandparents coming who said, ‘I spoke fluently as a child. I grew up with the language. But when I went to school, I was not allowed to use it, so I forgot.’ But in the class, it all came rushing back.” 

The Menominee are reclaiming their traditions by bringing generations together, says Washinawatok.  

Karen Washinawatok (left) and the late Ada Deer, who was the inaugural Elder-in-Residence at UW-Madison in 2018

For many years, U.S. government policies separated Native American families and tried to eradicate cultural practices. These included brutal Indian boarding schools where many children died and the termination of the Menominee’s status as a federally recognized tribe. Activists including the late Ada Deer—Washinawatok’s relative and friend— succeeded in getting the federal government to restore the tribe’s status in 1972. 

“There’s a whole generation that missed the teachings because they were trying too hard to separate us and keep us from knowing. Like the boarding schools,” says Washinawatok. “When people say it’s historical trauma, I say it’s not historical. We have families today who suffered from that, not long ago.” 

“When I think about the boarding schools, I think about how the children suffered. But now as an elder, I think about the adults and the grandparents and the communities. What would it be like to take away all our children and not have that energy in our families, in our homes? I think oh, how lonely and heartbreaking that must have been.” 

The Menominee Tribal Government’s Aging Division has numerous programs to support elders, says Washinawatok, but challenges remain. 

“When I go to meetings or talk with elders similar to my age or older, many of them are lonely. They need companionship. They’re alone in their homes,” she says. “A lot of them don’t have transportation. They’re living on Social Security. They need food assistance. All that needs to be taken into consideration.” 

“We need to keep elders active and involved,” says Washinawatok. “My philosophy is that your brain is an organ that needs to be exercised. … When we talk about ourselves, we have four parts: mental, emotional, spiritual, and physical. The mental is a basic part of your health. Feeling good about yourself, no matter what age you are. Having a balance in your emotions and your body leads to a better health status.” 

–Diane Farsetta