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(Many Paths)

An Online Newsletter Celebrating Native America


December 29, 2001 - Issue 52


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Tribe Tries To Sustain Ho-Chunk Language

by Mark Scarborough Wausau Daily Herald

Ho-Chunk Nation FlagMAUSTON - When he was a boy, Richard Mann's dog ran onto a road and got hit by a car. The dog's death devastated the boy. But when his mother tried to share the boy's hurt with his grandfather, there was a communication gap.

John Swallow, a tribal elder, spoke only Ho-Chunk, and the mother spoke mainly English. She managed only three words in the ancient language, but they hit their mark: "Dog - road - flat."

Richard's grandfather did not laugh or judge. And more significantly, he understood.

For Mann, a linguist in the Ho-Chunk Wazija Haci Language Division's Juneau County office, that experience from the 1950s symbolizes the threat to the future of his culture and the hope for a solution. Only 250 to 300 of the approximately 6,200 enrolled members of the Ho-Chunk Nation speak their own language fluently, he said. Most of these speakers are 45 years or older, said Randy Tallmadge, the tribe's Wazija Haci Language Division manager.

Unless something happens soon, the rich complexity of spoken Ho-Chunk that has preserved the traditions and nuances of a largely oral, storytelling culture for centuries will die with the current generation, Tallmadge and Mann said.

Three projects are planned by the tribe in 2002 to help save the language, which will help preserve the Ho-Chunk culture. The projects will be paid for with a $375,000 Administration for Native Americans language preservation grant from the U.S. Department of Social Services.

One program, "language nests," will be intense language study in small family groups with students of all ages learning from elders fluent in Ho-Chunk. These master speakers will help guide the apprentice speakers toward conversational fluency over time, first using English as a guidepost and eventually progressing to the point where only Ho-Chunk is spoken.

A "language cafe" program, during which only Ho-Chunk will be spoken, also is planned to encourage conversational Ho-Chunk for all ages.

"My father was always encouraging me to talk (Ho-Chunk)," Mann said. "I always thought, 'Next year.' But you run out of years sometimes. ... Now, fewer and fewer people speak the language. And once the language is gone, we're no longer a nation."

And an extended, total-immersion experience for four to six adult students, will be offered perhaps as early as Jan. 21 at Mauston's Language Division offices. It will involve "12 days and 12 nights, with just a complete immersion in Ho-Chunk," Tallmadge said.

No matter how silly mistakes in language might sound at first, the plan will work provided the Ho-Chunk people make a strong, lasting commitment to preserving their linguistic heritage, Mann and Tallmadge said.

"It should ripple through the whole community," said Marie White Eagle Ho-Chunk, a language-support specialist.

Ho-Chunk Nation
The Ho Chunk People have remained and continue to remain one of the strongest indigenous Nations in the United States. This is because the Elders of the Nation are honored and their teachings have upheld throughout history.

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