Keep the language alive
Keep the language alive
By Tim Damos
Ho-Chunk tribe member Georgia Lonetree remembers teaching at an American
Indian boarding school in Arizona years ago. She missed speaking her native
language so much, she used to drive around looking for roadside objects she
could name in Ho-Chunk.
When she finally returned to Wisconsin, hearing the language again was
"It sometimes brought tears to my eyes and a lump to my throat when I'd
hear my elders pray," she said.
For years, the U.S. government ran boarding schools intended to assimilate
American Indian children by stripping them of their culture and language.
Forced assimilation may be a thing of the past, but its effects still are
being felt by tribes nationwide, Lonetree said.
These days, Lonetree teaches Ho-Chunk to high school students in Wisconsin
Dells and Black River Falls. Only a handful of students participate, but
she's hopeful the program's popularity will grow.
With the death of three elder Ho-Chunk language teachers in the last year,
"The people of the big voice" have initiated an effort to revitalize their
One of the recently deceased elders, William O'Brien of Mauston, had been
working with German linguists to create a Ho-Chunk lexicon an inventory
of the tribe's vocabulary. Others will try to carry on his effort, but his
colleagues say O'Brien's death was a huge loss to the tribe.
He grew up in the area, then moved to California, where he spent some time
as an actor. When he returned years later, he still spoke fluent Ho-Chunk.
"That was a big boost to see that somebody spending many years away from
here was still able to retain their language," said Richard Mann, manager
of the Ho-Chunk Nation's Language Division.
Mann remembers growing up, when his parents would speak Ho-Chunk to him.
They let him respond in English if he wanted something previous
generations wouldn't have allowed.
"My parents' generation, that's all they spoke was Ho-Chunk," he said.
"There were a few that spoke English, but by and large, back then, when
somebody was speaking English, they'd say, 'Oh, the white man must have
come in the door.' They'd make fun of them."
After touting language preservation as part of his platform,
recently-elected Ho-Chunk President Wilfrid Cleveland has proclaimed 2008
the year of the Ho-Chunk language.
Cleveland's staff are taking daily classes, and Nation officials are
encouraging tribe members to speak Ho-Chunk more in their personal lives
and at work.
Mann said an effort to preserve the language on CD is also under way, and
an interactive Web site lets tribe members learn from home. They also can
order lesson materials online.
Mann said he hopes the proclamation will get the tribe's youth interested.
"Within the last four or five decades, the language has slowly dropped
off," Mann said. "But once that's gone, we're gone as a people.
Fortunately, we've got some young people that are really trying hard to
learn, so it's up to us to teach them."
While exact numbers are unknown, it's estimated that only about 200 of the
6,800 members of the Ho-Chunk Nation speak the language, said Ho-Chunk
spokeswoman Anne Thundercloud.
She recommended the proclamation to Cleveland after the death of the three
"These were all relatives and teachers of mine, and I just thought it was
especially significant because they were language teachers," Thundercloud