Ho-Chunk tribal members trying to revive native language

Baraboo, Wisconsin (AP) 2-08

Georgia Lonetree missed speaking her native language so much that she used to drive around Arizona looking for roadside objects she could name in Ho-Chunk.

The teacher at a Native American boarding school returned to Wisconsin, and said hearing her tribe’s language again was overwhelming.

“It sometimes brought tears to my eyes and a lump to my throat when I’d hear my elders pray,” she said.

Lonetree now 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.

“The people of the big voice” have reached a crossroads with the deaths of three elder Ho-Chunk language teachers in the last year. The tribe is launching an effort to revitalize the dying language.

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, tribal leaders said.

Others will try to carry on his effort, but his colleagues say O’Brien’s death was a huge loss to the tribe. O’Brien moved away from Wisconsin, but returned years later, staying fluent in 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 said his parents spoke in Ho-Chunk to him, and that’s all they spoke even though they allowed him to respond in English.

“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,” Mann said.

After touting language preservation as part of his platform, recently elected Ho-Chunk President Wilfrid Cleveland 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 a language CD is also under way and an interactive Web site lets tribe members learn from home. 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.”

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.