Brian D. McInnes / Waabishkimakwa

Credentials: Languages: Ojibwe, Potawatomi, English

Position title: Professor, Nonprofits and Philanthropy

Brian D. McInnes / Waabishkimakwa

Could you tell me about yourself and what you do at UW-Madison.

I have the privilege of being a faculty member in both the Civil Society and Community Studies in the School of Human Ecology, and a professor of Ojibwe language in the American Indian Studies program. I also serve as the Leola R. Culver Professor of Philanthropy and Nonprofits.  

One of my favorite groups to work with is the Enwejig Indigenous Languages Activism group at UW-Madison. We are composed of staff, students, and faculty at UW Madison who have made a special commitment to promoting Indigenous languages in a variety of personal and professional contexts.

So how would you feel language contributes to your professional or your personal identity?

Language is a central part of both my professional and personal identity. Indigenous languages are deeply rooted in the dynamic continuum of history and culture that is in the land here. Languages are rich and adaptive systems of expression and meaning-making that are unique to every world culture. Knowing one’s language is essential to having a grounded and complete sense of who you are. My elders say that to know our culture – our natural way of thinking – necessitates linguistic competency. It is also vital for our ceremonies and traditional way of prayer. This reason is enough for everyone to know their language. I speak Ojibwe but am also Boodewaadmii (Potawatomi). The two languages are quite similar, but I appreciate the differences that make them unique.  

Knowing your language provides you with a natural lens for seeing the world differently. This has been an invaluable professional skill – especially in a world that is in such need of alternative solutions and ways of doing things. If you don’t already know your language, take advantage of the opportunity to learn. 

To what extent do you feel others on campus value your language in the context of your work?

The UW-Madison community is comprised of many thoughtful individuals who share a commitment to lifting the voices of marginalized or historically disempowered populations. We are also committed to new – and sometimes new-old – ways of expression and knowledge production. I feel fortunate to be in a place that appreciates and understands why language revitalization work – and work that is grounded in an Indigenous culture-based ontology – is  valuable. 

I don’t know if everyone understands how critically important this work is. The legacy of colonization in the Americas, Wisconsin included, has been devastating to the vitality of Indigenous languages. The majority of our local reservation communities have, if any, only a handful of speakers left. There is, however, an overwhelming commitment to bring back our languages as the first languages of our tribes. This requires a great deal of support and assistance: the Wisconsin Idea indeed. 

In what ways do you believe the campus community can better recognize the value that linguistic diversity brings?

UW-Madison offers incredible opportunities for language study. The campus has truly brought the world to Wisconsin in terms of the diversity of languages and cultures that our students can learn about. It feels good to do this kind of work in concert with such incredible faculty, researchers, and students who are tackling the global challenges of language preservation and growth. 

We have a long-time campus tradition of Indigenous language instruction and advocacy. These early efforts have paid off in helping bring Wisconsin to the world. There is nothing more quintessentially Wisconsin than the Indigenous languages of this place. Any map will reveal a plethora of placenames that come from the first peoples of this land. Language study helps reveal the meanings and stories of those names, as well as the unique cultural world views and life practices. 

Campus signage efforts are one really critical way that we can honor the first names and languages of this place.  

Is there anything else you’d like to add or any questions you have?

I continue to wonder how we can expand our efforts and outreach. 

I am proud that we have developed a strong 4-course sequence in Ojibwe. Students can accomplish substantial speaking and comprehension skills in this time. There are hundreds of Ojibwe communities in the United States and Canada, and hundreds of thousands of Ojibwe people. Our language efforts have exploded in reservation and urban communities, as well as online. Learning Ojibwe connects you to a vibrant speech community with continued rich cultural expression. My philosophy of language instruction combines grammar study with pragmatics for active use. My grandparents were magnificent storytellers, and I love sharing what I learned from them in my courses. 

I look forward to creating even more advanced coursework and programming that nurtures advanced and applied skills. Pairing our language work with teaching and community-based planning skills would be an amazing way to further support revitalization efforts throughout Wisconsin and beyond. 

Gichi-miigwech – a great thank you. 

Apiitendaagwadoon gakina Anishinaabemowinan – All of our Indigenous Languages have such great value and beauty.