Article Menominee Song

Agustin Lira
Menominee Indian family, photograph c1931 by W.H. Wessa, Antigo, Wisconsin

The Menominee Indian Tribe of Wisconsin originally lived in parts of Michigan and Illinois as well as Wisconsin. The Menominee people are linguistically and culturally related to other Algonquian-language-speaking tribes of eastern North America and the Great Lakes Region. "Menominee" is derived from their name for themselves, Mamaceqtaw, meaning "the people." Their first encounters with Europeans were with French explorers, and the Menominee subsequently established a friendly trade relationship with French fur traders.

As European American settlements surrounded them, the Menominee sold much of their lands through treaties with the United States government. But when pressured to move farther west, they refused. The Menominee reservation was created in 1854 in northeastern Wisconsin. When the United States government terminated the recognition of the tribe and withdrew the reservation land in 1961 as part of its program of American Indian assimilation, the Menominee took their battle to court. In 1977 they won a landmark decision that not only reinstated their tribal status and restored their lands, but challenged the government's entire program of terminating the recognition of tribes.

Traditional musical instruments of the Menominee include various types of drums, rattles, and flutes. The drums include a hand drum, a water drum, and a large drum. The hand drum is a versatile instrument that can be played by a single singer. The Menominee form of water drum is tall, with a head that can be removed in order to fill the wooden container one quarter full with water before playing. The water gives a distinctive sound. It was traditionally used in healing and other ceremonies. The large drum, used in social gatherings, powwows, and certain religious ceremonies, is set on four stakes and played by multiple drummers. Rattles include those made from gourds, boxes, or rawhide that have pebbles or shot inside them and those made from many deer hooves attached to a stick so that they rattle against one another. Flutes, like most American Indian flutes, are made from various woods and are blown into from one end like a recorder. Songs range from personal and family songs to those used in ceremonies and the telling of myths and stories.

This presentation includes a song about Manabus, a culture hero of the Menominee whose exploits tell of the beginnings of human beings on the earth. "Manabus Tells the Ducks to Shut Their Eyes," sung by Louis Pigeon, is a song from one of these stories, recorded by Frances Densmore in Keshena, Wisconsin, in the summer of 1925. In this story, Manabus tricks water birds into dancing with their eyes closed by promising to sing them his songs. He then wrings their necks one by one until one bird peeks, and the surviving birds escape. The bird that peeks, a "hell-diver" (a grebe or a loon), walks awkwardly on land and so cannot make a fast escape. Manabus catches him, and marks him with red eyes so that grebes (or loons) now all have red eyes. This is an example of one of many stories about how Manabus helped shaped the natural world. [1]

Speakers of the Menominee language dwindled to a few elderly tribal members in the late twentieth century. The tribal government established the Historic Preservation Office in 1991, in part to answer the problem of preserving the language. Today the tribe has active programs designed to teach and to revitalize the language, such as school programs and a Menominee language immersion camp for youth. Songs in Menominee are a part of this effort, and today some of the young Menominee musicians set an example by performing in both Menominee and English.


  1. A photograph of Louis Pigeon and a longer version of this story translated into English can be found in Menominee Music, by Francis Densmore, U.S. Government Printing Office, 1932 (reprinted by Da Capo Press, 1972).[back to article]


  • Densmore, Francis (1932). Menominee Music. U.S. Government Printing Office.
  • Menominee Indian Tribe of Wisconsin.
  • Spindler, Louis S. (1978). "Menominee," in Bruce Trigger, volume editor, The Handbook of North American Indians: Northeast (Volume 15), pp. 708-724. Smithsonian Institution.
  • "American Indian and Native Alaskan Song." See the Resource section at the bottom of this article for links to more articles about indigenous peoples in Songs of America.
  • See more articles about Ethnic Song in America.

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Menominee Song
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Menominee Indian family, photograph c1931 by W.H. Wessa, Antigo, Wisconsin
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