Speaking Mahican: A virtual journey

Ryan Winn

“Sta kaakway misnimow,” means, “I’ve got nothing” in Mahican, an ancestral Mohican language. My students at College of Menominee Nation (CMN) garner the English iteration of this complimentary phrase whenever they’ve made a definitive point that needs no further context from yours truly.

Larry P. Madden knows this because he’s a CMN graduate. Recently, my former student taught me how to say my catchphrase in his native tongue.

For three decades, Madden has been a vocal champion for reintroducing the Mahican language to Wisconsin’s Mohican community. The most recent fluent speaker passed in 1933, but within the last two years the words of the ancestors have once again graced the lips of their descendants.

The revitalization effort began in earnest in 2006 when Madden met Christopher Harvey at an Indigenous Language Institute (ILI) workshop held in Oneida. Harvey is a Canadian linguistic scholar who’s studied over twenty languages, and Madden approached him with some notes, asking for guidance.

Harvey realized he could translate the notations, and soon Madden produced what both men independently described as “a laundry basket sized box” filled with research. Harvey remembered looking though the files and recognizing, “It was one of those moments when I knew my whole life could change.” Gesturing at the documents that Madden shared, he said, “We can speak this again.”

After the 2008’s Great Recession drained ILI’s funding, Harvey returned to school as a Ph.D. candidate focused on learning and researching the Mahican language. Now he serves as the Mohican community linguist, teaching the conversational “core academy” courses virtually. Madden and the introductory Mahican course’s teacher, Brock Schreiber, learn directly from Harvey.

Madden described Schreiber as, “A man with a natural propensity of language who’s also got a teacher’s disposition.”

Schreiber attended his first meeting with Harvey in 2019. He recalled, “When I first heard someone speak the language, I heard there was a rhythm to it. It caught my ear, like a song.” Since then, Schreiber spends as much time as he can with the language.

In addition to leading the beginner Google Meet classes, Schreiber is teaching his three children through conversations, lullabies, and even board game translation.

Schreiber noted of Mahican, “It’s changed my life, my perspective on everything, ” adding, “I’m 100% a beneficiary of the language. The least I can do is be a teacher.”

On the eve of Jan. 20, Schreiber’s class of seven people welcomed me into their midst with two rules — have fun and limit your use of English. Equipped with flatware and a plate we each brought to our virtual meeting space, Schreiber led us through a series of dinner conversations. One couldn’t help but to be entertained as our instructor used his considerable acting chops to pantomime context to accompany the lesson. The joy for learning was palpable, as was the attendees’ demonstratively increased comfort in using the new phrases.

It was the first class I’d attended, and, although there wasn’t a single word of English uttered during our 50-minute lesson, I was able to laugh along with the learners as they practiced their conversations on one another.

After my fellow pupils logged off, I asked if the joviality I’d just witnessed was typical. Schreiber said that it was, noting that, “Camaraderie develops through communication and interaction with each other. It’s all fun when you keep it fun.” All of which builds to the group’s larger goal of creating “Mohican households who are able to speak the language.”

Schreiber even complimented the few phrases I will take back to my classroom at CMN, saying, “We want as much language as we can spoken in the community. Even if it starts with just one word.”

To that end, anyone can join the free Wednesday evening virtual meets by contacting the Arvid E. Miller Library and Museum at 715-793-3047. Distance, social or otherwise, won’t be an obstacle, as Madden reported, “We’ve got people attending from the comfort of their homes as far off as New England, London, England, and Los Angeles. Everyone is welcome.”

The gains being made are truly remarkable, but they are merely milestones along the journey. Madden said, “We are walking the trail that leads to a Mahican speaker’s highway. With every class we are watching that path widen.”

To that I say, “sta kaakway misnimow.”



Ryan Winn teaches communication, English, and theater at College of Menominee Nation. Visit www.menominee.edu for more information about the school.