Photo by Cameron Lane-Flehinger

Despite decreasing proficiency, next generation renews push to learn Native languages 

Jon Greendeer was “raised on the idea” that the Ho-Chunk language would become extinct.

Now — fewer than 50 years later — only 65 fluent speakers remain in a tribe of just under 8,000.

According to Greendeer, head of the heritage preservation department for the Ho-Chunk tribe, the majority of fluent speakers are elderly — ranging from their late 70s to early 90s. And fewer than a handful of these tribe members live in Madison.

“We are at a point where the number of fluent and highly proficient speakers was going down dramatically,” Greendeer said. “We will lose our last first-language speaker in our lifetime who can speak this kind of older way.”

Despite this decrease in language proficiency among tribes like the Ho-Chunk and Ojibwe, there has been a renewed and increasing interest in language learning among younger generations.

According to Rand Valentine, a UW-Madison professor of linguistics and American Indian studies who teaches Ojibwe, these languages are at risk due to “bad policies” that hurt Natives in the past.

Valentine said that for years, Native culture was suppressed by the U.S. government through religious bans and efforts to assimilate Natives by “breaking their strand” of language.

Madison will always have philosophy and math because there will always be a teacher for those courses. We just don’t have that luxury.

Now, however, this increased student interest will keep these languages alive, according to Greendeer.

Ho-Chunk’s division of language — which Greendeer oversees — has been making an effort to teach students through various different outlets including online materials and activities with elders.

The division’s website features online language-learning materials and programs that track a learner’s progress for everyone from beginners to proficient speakers. Additionally, the tribe holds events and celebrations at which knowledgeable elders teach younger tribe members about their culture and heritage — including language-learning opportunities.

One of the key pieces of the language learning effort are the elders, Greendeer said. Although there are few Native speakers in the Madison area, some of these members have put their skills to use by teaching language classes.

Cecil Garvin, a Ho-Chunk elder, teaches Ho-Chunk classes twice a week at the American Indian Student Cultural Center on N. Brooks Street. Although this class is not affiliated with the university, five to 10 UW-Madison students show up each week.

“People tend to gravitate to their own history,” Greendeer said. “There is enough [of the language] preserved and enough retained by younger speakers that gives certainty to the idea that we are not going it lose it.”

Before taking Ho-Chunk classes, Kendra Greendeer, a PhD student at UW-Madison and Ho-Chunk member, had trouble communicating with family members. She said she would only be able to pick out a few words and would usually respond with a nod and a smile.

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Photo by Cameron Lane-Flehinger

After two semesters of Ho-Chunk, Kendra can put together sentences, making her better able to communicate with her family members.

“It has already helped me a lot,” she said. “I am actually understanding more of what people are talking about and I’m able to get more than just one single word out of the sentence.”

Kendra said Ho-Chunk should “definitely” be offered at UW-Madison. She said if the university offered the course, not only would more people take it, but it would re-establish the Ho-Chunk presence in Madison, something she says the university has not been good at acknowledging.

“Since I have been at UW-Madison, I have only heard two people on faculty even acknowledge that Ho-Chunks lived here,” she said. “I think a lot needs to be done and there needs to be more native voice in everything throughout campus.”

UW-Madison currently offers only one North American Native language — Ojibwe.

Valentine, who lived with an isolated Ojibwe tribe in Canada during the 1980s, teaches four different levels of Ojibwe in two-year cycles, with one semester dedicated to each level.

Although there are just three students currently enrolled in the class — which is in the final semester of the two-year cycle — Valentine said teaching these Native languages is important because they preserve the heritage of “people who have been here for a very long time.”

While these Native languages have long been oral, first-nation communities have recently put a greater emphasis on writing as a way to preserve and promote their language.

Valentine said having a written language will allow it to be studied in a more in-depth manner than simply hearing the language.

Grace Armstrong, a UW-Madison junior and member of the Red Cliff band of the Ojibwe tribe, is currently in her final semester of Ojibwe.

People tend to gravitate to their own history. There is enough [of the language] preserved and enough retained by younger speakers that gives certainty to the idea that we are not going it lose it.

Armstrong said most first-generation Ojibwe speakers are old and won’t be around for much longer. She said the “endangered” state of the language also motivated her to take the class.

According to Armstrong, the course allowed her to not only better connect with certain cultural traditions, but also communicate with her uncle and cousins, who are fluent in the language.

“When there is a prayer being said or when my uncle is speaking or when my cousins are speaking to each other, I can pick up on stuff now, which is really cool,” she said.

While it is important for UW-Madison to teach Native languages, Valentine said he does not anticipate it will add more classes anytime soon.

He said these languages should “ideally” be taught by Native tribal speakers and elders. Given the few number of these people, he said, it would be difficult to establish a curriculum within university requirements.

Jon Greendeer agreed.

According to Greendeer, in order to have a course, a Native speaker would have to be present. Since these Native tribes’ populations are so old, the speakers will not be alive long enough to establish a long-term class.

“Madison will always have philosophy and math because there will always be a teacher for those courses,” he said. “We just don’t have that luxury.”


Lawrence Andrea Box