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Bilingual Signs Aim To Bridge Cultural Gap
by Amber Mullen - APG Media of Wisconsin Staff Writer
The first of four dozen bilingual Anishinabe and English way-finding signs have been posted on Madeline Island. (photo by Amber Mullen - APG Media of Wisconsin)
When many people hear Madeline Island, visions of ferry rides, oversized cocktails, vespa scooters and sailboats are often some of the first things that come to mind. Although the culture on Madeline Island today is primarily European and definitely tourist-centered, this wasn't always the case.

Two years ago, Nick Nelson recognized a cultural rift on the island between its past as a sacred Native American settlement and its present as a tourist destination. In an attempt to bridge the "island's past and its future" for a more inclusive experience for locals and visitors alike, Nelson started the Madeline Island Bilingual sign project.

Nelson said he believes language is the easiest and most expeditious way to begin breaking down cultural barriers.

"Language is an opener in a lot of ways," said Nelson. "It's a way to show this very important part of LaPointe's past and present. That's been a big part of this whole process — recognizing the beauty and cultural significance of the Anishinabe, with language at the center of that."

As of this spring, the town of LaPointe started posting the first of four dozen Anishinabe and English way-finding signs, making Madeline Island the first place in Wisconsin to have bilingual signs not on a Native American reservation.

"This was a main language to the entire region for 400 years," Nelson said. "It makes sense to have that part of the island's history represented."

Nelson said for the first phase of the project, he decided to focus on translating informational town and park signs versus road signs because it would help to highlight the fact that for Anishinabe people, Madeline Island is referred to as a "spiritual home," having been inhabitants centuries before the first Europeans.

The Bilingual way-finding signs represent both traditional and modern place names and are meant to serve as a reflection of both the history and the future of Ojibwe language on Madeline Island. Visitors can already see signs pointing to popular destinations on the island and those that commemorate the Ojibwe heritage, including the Madeline Island Museum, Old Indian Cemetery, Ojibwe National Prayer Pole and Memorial Park.

According to Nelson, this project has been funded in part by the town of LaPointe, the Apostle Islands Area Community Foundation (AIACF) and Grassroots Digital Media. At this point, Nelson said the project has cost approximately $6,700 in total for the interpretation, creation and hanging of the signs.

In an article written for NPR by Miranda Vander Leest in August, Madeline Herder with the Apostle Islands Area Community Foundation said AIACF decided to fund the project because it is a positive investment in tourism and will ultimately help to bring the community together.

"One of our values is inclusivity," said Herder in the NPR article. "When we did the Cultural Connections a couple of years ago, there were elders who literally cried when they saw the word for 'welcome' in Ojibwemowiin as they got off the ferry."

Nelson said getting to this point in the project has taken a lot of work, support and research. However, he is satisfied to finally see his vision come to fruition. Posting the signs was delayed several times since the project's inception because he wanted to make sure the translations were accurate.

"We wanted to make sure it was perfect," said Nelson. "Anishinabe is a tricky language because it is very dialect driven... finding exactly what was true to LaPointe was quite a process."

Nelson said he is currently having additional bilingual signs made for the Madeline Island Ice Road, which he hopes will be posted this winter.

Robin Russell, Vice President of Finance for the Madeline Island Ferry Line, said when she first found out about the project that she wanted to support the mission by incorporating the Anishinabe language into the ferry line brochures and island maps.

"I think it's great," Russell said. "I believe it will give our residents and visitors a connection to the past because Anishinabe have been here for centuries."

This winter, Russell started the process of redesigning ferry line materials and signs with the help of a local graphic designs and the interpreter from the University of Minnesota who helped Nelson interpret the town signs. This year's ferry line maps and brochures now feature Anishinabe names for various attractions on the island.

Madeline Island Camber of Commerce Director Max Paap hopes that all area businesses, visitors and local residents will embrace the bilingual signs and begin incorporating the history of the island into their daily lives and business operations.

"It's really important for us to look at it from all angles," Paap said. "Our role is to answer 'Why are they here and what do they mean?' My expectation is that everyone who works on this island can tell a story, can tell that story."

Paap added that area businesses have been generally accepting of the signs. However, he would like to establish more educational opportunities and distribution materials on the island to explain to visitors their cultural significance.

"It seems to me there is going to be more of an emphasis on the island's heritage this year," Paap said.

In June, project organizers plan to host an unveiling celebration, discussion and picnic. Nelson hopes to bring in several presenters to share the history of the island and to discuss the cultural significance and future of the bilingual sign project.

"It will be small, but a big deal," Nelson said. "Whenever people don't understand something, there is obviously some resistance and fear that creeps in. The language is hopefully a way to help push the healing process and can be a connector for the community... We have to get people to understand the language and see its beauty and significance."

Nelson sees the incorporation of education about the island's Native American history as a vital ingredient to the projects ongoing success.

Ultimately, Nelson and Paap hope that these signs are just the beginning of a cultural shift on Madeline Island from "simply a tourist destination, to a cultural destination."

"This was originally seen as a distinct project, but also meant to be done in a way that if it goes well it could go further," said Nelson. "There is something to be gained from recognizing that the culture is one of the main reasons to come to LaPointe."

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