Verona leads a UW-Marshfield composition class for those people
who will help teach the Ho-Chunk language. The Ho-Chunk Nation
has partnered with the college in its efforts to teach the
language to more community members.
Language teachers Dana DeBoer and Gordon Thunder find joy in
hearing their high school-age students speak Ho-Chunk.
The language of the Native American tribe has seen a steady
decline in fluent speakers in recent years, but new and revived
efforts to pass it on to future generations have begun and will
be ongoing in the future.
"(Hearing students speak Ho-Chunk) is great. Every day (Gordon)
says to them that hearing them talk makes him so happy," said DeBoer,
a teacher of Ho-Chunk with Gordon at Black River Falls High School.
"It's so exciting. It's like, 'Oh my gosh, we taught them this and
now they can say it on their own.' It's also like they're your children
and speaking their first words. It's just the best feeling."
The Nation has been working to make its efforts on preserving
and fostering the Ho-Chunk language more visible in recent years,
including this month's launch of new classes that are meant to take
the knowledge of those who've recently learned the language and
bring them to willing learners in the community.
The Ho-Chunk Academy now is offering weekly classes in Black
River Falls, Tomah and Wisconsin Dells at the same time the tribe
is growing its partnership with UW-Marshfield/Wood County to provide
college-level education and training to apprentices who will teach
the language to a variety of age groups.
The tribe is believed to currently have 100 or fewer eminent
or first-language speakers of its native language.
That's a number that's down from an about 300 a half decade ago.
"I would say the Ho-Chunk language we just need to continue
to push it through. It's a team effort," said Samson Falcon, the
Nation's language apprentice program manager. "Now the language
division is starting to show (the community) this is what the language
division is we're here for the people, for the communities.
We're here to share the language, share the culture.
"It's a team effort, and it's not our language it's not
the language division's language. We are all in the efforts to get
the language out to the people. We're coming together to talk about
these issues and come up with solutions."
The Nation has a group of people who have graduated from the
language apprenticeship program and now are able to start to assist
with teaching the community classes, which are set during both work
hours and evening times to give the most opportunities to those
interested in taking them.
The work is crucial for preserving culture and the Ho-Chunk
identity, said Angelica Greendeer, the Ho-Chunk Academy's program
"It's scary when you're Ho-Chunk to know that your language
is almost gone. That's the last thing you want to happen (because)
that's your identity," said Greendeer, 32. "It's not just speaking
the language. It's living the language. It really defines who we
are and defines our identity as the Ho-Chunk people."
Andrea McCaskey and Shena Munden participate in a college
composition class at the Ho-Chunk Nation Executive Building
in Black River Falls.
The Nation for several years has collaborated with school districts
to offer language courses in high schools for teenage youth interested
in learning. There currently are classes in BRF, Tomah and Wisconsin
Dells, with the highest participation in Black River Falls
the area in which the tribe's headquarters is located.
Black River Falls has three class levels that DeBoer and Thunder
share duties teaching work that involves educating students
who are passionate about learning and speaking Ho-Chunk. Classes
range from word learning to composition and speaking the language
and expand on the sometimes basic words spoken in Ho-Chunk homes,
like the word dad that is spelled jaaji.
"A life goal for most people and I can say for me personally
was to learn the Ho-Chunk language," DeBoer said. "The majority
of (students) are taking their responsibility to learn the language
very seriously. They want to learn it, they want to speak it, they
want to use it outside of the classroom. They want to use it at
home with their families and their friends and because they know
where we are with the state of our language."
The Nation also soon will receive results from its tribe-wide
census launched last fall, and the data gathering will include information
from respondents about their knowledge of the tribe's language
another avenue for determining future education
efforts, Falcon said.
"In compiling that information, we'll probably get a better
view of what the situation looks like with how many fluent speakers
and firstlanguage speakers we have," he said.
"We're looking for community support because that's who we're
trying to reach out to."