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Ancient oral history meets high tech mapping with UWSP Menominee Place Name Map


STEVENS POINT, Wis. (WSAU) - A thirty-year-long research project has led to the merging of new technology and very old oral Menominee cultural history.

Ray Reser is the Director of the UW Stevens Point Museum of Natural History. He’s also an archaeologist and paleoanthropologist. He’s one of three team members that researched and created the Menominee Place Names Map.

He says as far as they know, there has not been another attempt to record indigenous names for landforms, rivers, and lakes, before this. “We’ve taken absolute state-of-the-art satellite imagery, electronic GIS mapping, and we’ve combined that with traditional knowledge and oral history from the Menominee tribe.”

Theres two tribes with a good understanding of history in Wisconsin, and Reser says they are the Ho Chunk and the Menominee. This project helps record oral history that has been passed through the generations of Menominee. “The Menominee actually have oral histories that talk about the last glacial advance, talk about whales in Lake Michigan, talk about elk, caribou, lots of other animals that no longer exist in Wisconsin, all of those are indicators of those people being on the landscape a really long time.” He adds, “Without the tribal oral histories and the elders to collaborate those names, and even more interestingly provide these incredible stories about what the names mean or why a place was named this, it really gives life to those place names.”

The research team only knows of six surviving Menominee elders that fluently speak their native language, as the younger generations have either learned only a few words or just English.

Reser says they intended to produce a map recognizable as the state of Wisconsin, but all of the names are what the Menominee would have called them. “All of the labels, including the name of the state and the name of the Great Lakes are names that Menominee people used at about the time of European contact or before, so many of these are extremely old names for these places, and when you see them on the map, and especially if you hear them spoken as they are on the website, you’ll recognize them instantly.”

Wisconsin was based on the Menominee name "Wis KO’ sek" which means, “an area that contains everything you need to live well.” Many rivers, lakes, and roads got their names from the Menominee language, as did the cities of Wausau, Weyauwega, and Waupaca to name a few.

The new Menominee Place Names Map is on display in the Albertson Learning Resources Center on campus. Copies were also presented Wednesday to the Menominee and the State Historical Society.