Sylvia Wilber is a member of the Menominee Tribe and was born and raised on the Menominee Reservation. She is a mother of 10 and is a member of St. Michael’s Parish in Keshena.
I went to school at St. Joe’s in Keshena through eighth grade. It was a boarding school through my sixth grade year. My parents would drop me off on Sunday and pick me up on Friday. I did not have any real problems going to school. It would be lonely but the nuns were really pretty good. They took care of us. Some have said they robbed us of our culture, but I know many stayed at the boarding school because they had no place to go. So I would ask, are you sure they didn’t save your life? I think it’s a matter how you perceive it. My experience at the boarding school did me a lot of good. I met lifelong friends and got an education.
Sometimes people have a feeling of superiority towards the Menominee. I remember growing up and hearing a teacher say, “She’s pretty smart for an Indian.” I remember that to this day, not really understanding why it was said but knowing just by the treatment, I was not expected to be as smart as others in this “different world.”
But that’s kind of the feeling you had all over. That’s not a fun way to live. In some ways that’s what society is. We have that perceived classification that some people are a little better than others. And that inhibits the growth of individuals.
One person who really seemed to understand the Menominee people was Fr. Dave Kiefer. He was very well-respected in the community. He did what he preached and he didn’t boast about it. He saw himself as a partner with others, not as taking charge. Sr. Martha Mary was with him and they were awesome! Those two especially cared for people that even our own people would step on. They treated everyone the same – as equals. It was how I would expect the Lord would treat people.
I haven’t really brought up issues of racism within the church. I get the impression that people would not give a damn. I’d like that to change. I would like people to realize that church is community. Unfortunately, our church is made up of enclosed circles. There’s this group over here and another group over there. Those bridges need to be connected.
There’s lots of different little groups, but not one cohesive group.
I want our people here to feel and know that this is their church. This is their land, it was always intended to be their land. I use the envelope, but that doesn’t mean I’m more of a member than the person sitting next to me who doesn’t want to do that. I know we need money, but don’t judge my fellow Menominee if they don’t have an envelope.
The expectation is that we have to work the way that others want. It doesn’t have to work that way. There’s another way of doing it. The way it works in other churches is not the way it has to work here. That’s not the way we are. Why do we always have to change to fit others’ expectations?
If I could give a message to people about the Menominee, I would say that we are at the same level as everybody else. We will be good to you but you need to be good to us as well. We’re equals. You’re not better than I am and I don’t want to be better than you either. I have a voice and you have a voice, but let’s get together and have a united voice so we all have a place here. Let’s all work to get where we’re going, which is eternal life.