June 03, 2008 12:00 am  • 

Paper in hand, the 7-year-old girl shuffles shyly to the head of the classroom. She pauses and then delivers a routine report in a revolutionary way - in the language of her ancestors.

"We went snowshoeing last week," Shainah Peterson, also known as Running-Bear-Woman, reads in Ojibwe.

Watching Shainah is a teacher who helped introduce Wisconsin to the idea of educating American Indian children almost entirely in their traditional languages.

Fledgling efforts like this northern Wisconsin charter school bring hope, for the first time in more than a generation, that children may again master Wisconsin's threatened native languages, tribal leaders and linguists say.

"It's like this journey back to ourselves. It's a journey back to who we are," Keller Paap, 37, said of the efforts to revive Ojibwe here. "We want it to be second nature so students don't even think about it in a way .... It's just there for them."

The school, known as a language immersion program, seeks to counter the pressures pushing other traditional tongues around the world toward extinction. With relatively few aging speakers of the state's native languages remaining, some Wisconsin tribes are turning to such programs as the surest - and possibly the only - route to raising a new generation of bilingual students.

These efforts face a host of problems, however, including a lack of money, a shortage of qualified teachers and roadblocks from federal rules. The toughest task: getting young tribal members to cleave to their traditional language when everyone else, from their parents to movie stars, is using English.

In concept, tribal immersion schools aren't so different from Nuestro Mundo, the Madison charter school that aims to turn out students fluent in both Spanish and English. In practice, however, tribal immersion schools have the more difficult task of teaching a language with far fewer native speakers, teachers and learning materials than is the case with a language like Spanish.

Tribal immersion schools teach their youngest students math, science and every other subject except English in the students' traditional language. Older students sometimes receive more instruction in English.

Since the Hayward Ojibwe school opened in 2000 near the reservation of the Lac Courte Oreilles tribe, similar programs have started in Minnesota. In Wisconsin, the Ho-Chunk tribe has started a language immersion day-care center near Tomah and is proposing an immersion charter school from kindergarten to at least the fourth grade.

There's been little conclusive national research about the effectiveness of such tribal schools, experts said. But advocates say they give native students a strong identity that helps them succeed in school and beyond.

Bill Demmert, an education professor at Western Washington University in Bellingham, Wash., and a former education director for the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs, is looking into academic achievement at six immersion schools around the country, including an Ojibwe school in Minnesota.

"Our general hypothesis is that by grade 10 they'll be doing as well as or better than their (native) peers," Demmert said of the immersion school students. "In an informal look at all our programs, that appears to be the case."


Growing up in suburban Minneapolis as the son of a white anthropologist father and an Ojibwe mother who didn't speak the tribe's language, Paap didn't have a chance to learn Ojibwe.

Today, he has a prophet's intensity for the language that he said helped fill a void in his life once he began to learn it through college classes, work with elders, trips to Canada - where the language is still spoken by thousands of tribal members - and other intensive efforts. Paap and his wife, Lisa LaRonge, an Ojibwe speaker who learned through similar efforts, set out to ensure their children and others had a chance to master the tribe's language.

When Paap, LaRonge and other colleagues started their immersion school, the nearby Lac Courte Oreilles reservation had few native Ojibwe speakers left, LaRonge said. In January, the Red Cliff tribe, the Ojibwe band to which Paap belongs, lost its last native speaker of the language.

Paap and LaRonge became convinced that just teaching Ojibwe as a subject in their local schools wasn't enough to save it.

"Given the state of the language here, there was no other viable option," LaRonge said of the decision to start an immersion school.

The pair started the Hayward school with help from elders, other young believers and leaders from the Lac Courte Oreilles tribal council, school and community college, but few resources. They patterned the school on successful efforts in Canada, New Zealand and Hawaii, naming it "Waadookodaading," an Ojibwe phrase that means the "Place Where We Help each Other." Today the school has drawn students from as far as Oregon and Michigan and even has a waiting list.


Waadookodaading is run through the Hayward School District and serves students in preschool through grade 3, taking up three classrooms in the district's regular primary school. The school has a staff of six, 27 students and a $423,000 yearly budget that comes from private foundations, the federal government and the Lac Courte Oreilles tribe, director Monica White said.

To manage, the school combines grades in one of its classes and uses children's picture books in which Ojibwe translations have been pasted over the English text.

Paap and LaRonge compare the school's eight-year odyssey in search of money and teachers to a canoe trip over continuous rapids. But Paap also points to the "magnificent" result: Students in Hello Kitty and Harley-Davidson T-shirts - including the couple's two young children - speaking to one another in Ojibwe.

"When they're conversing in Ojibwe, then you know they have it," Paap said.

Even when asking to go to the bathroom, students here must use Ojibwe - a reversal from the days when a nearby Indian boarding school forced these students' ancestors to speak only English. The school embodies the dream of Paap and others here to see Ojibwe used not just in traditional ceremonies but in science, computers and everyday conversations.

On a sub-zero February day, Shainah Peterson read in Ojibwe her report on a recent winter camp, in which students went ice fishing and listened to traditional stories.

"Miigwech," teacher Lisa Clemens said, thanking Shainah.

As with other students, Clemens calls Shainah by her Ojibwe name, "Bimibatoo-Makwa-Ikwe," or "Running-Bear-Woman." These names are given in ceremonies separate from the school, but the classes ensure they're used as part of the students' daily life.

Shainah and her classmates said they relished the school's approach, small size and tight ties.

"You get to learn all kinds of Ojibwe words," said Mary LaMorie, 8. "It's kind of fun speaking the language."


Rick Gresczyk Sr., a school adviser who teaches Ojibwe at Augsburg College in Minneapolis, calls Paap and LaRonge "language warriors" for their innovative work.

"The future of the language depends on having programs like that," he said. "It's pretty amazing really."

The Ho-Chunk tribe also is moving toward immersion programs, recently starting a small Ho-Chunk language day care near Tomah, tribal language division manager Richard Mann said. An elder and younger employees spend the day speaking only Ho-Chunk to a handful of toddlers who are beginning to understand and respond in the language.

The tribe is also in early talks with the Black River Falls School District and other nearby districts about starting a Ho-Chunk language immersion school, said Forrest Funmaker, executive director of the tribe's Education Department. That possible charter school would be for at least grades K-4 and might open as early as the fall of 2009, Funmaker said.

Not all tribes in the state, however, have been able to get the fluent speakers, money and other resources needed for such efforts.

On the Menominee reservation, more than 150 young children arrive at the tribe's Head Start program each morning. Looking at their small faces, director Michael Skenadore wishes that he could greet them fluently in the language of their ancestors.

"What I carry with me is that English is a poor substitute for our own language," said Skenadore, who is gradually introducing some Menominee phrases and songs at the center. "Our children and our parents are oftentimes trapped in a place where they're not fully comfortable with mainstream values and they don't fully have access to Menominee values. How do you teach Menominee values without the language?"


Even the staffers of Waadookodaading face a final hurdle - transforming a community where almost everything happens in English, from family conversations to shopping errands and evenings at the movies. Changing that, they say, will take an effort from tribal members that goes beyond what a school can do alone.

Mary Hermes and her family know something about that challenge. Hermes is still working to learn Ojibwe. But as the first director of Waadookodaading, she watched her son and daughter, John and Bineshii Hermes-Roach, learn to speak Ojibwe at the charter school.

After completing their final year at Waadookodaading and switching to regular public school, John, 14, and Bineshii, 12, still understand a lot of the language. But even though Mary Hermes tries to use Ojibwe at home, her children have found it harder to keep up with speaking it.

"I can't believe I used to be able to speak so much Ojibwe," Bineshii said. "Now that I'm going to this school we don't ever speak it."

To keep students going in the language, Paap and White said they know Waadookodaading must reach higher grades. Staffers are planning to add a fourth grade in another year and someday hope to have the classrooms and staff to expand the school to the eighth grade and beyond. To widen their impact, they are also offering a weekly class to parents and the community.

But if John and Bineshii have moved away from the Ojibwe language after leaving Waadookodaading, both youths also said they feel a strong connection to it - and an obligation.

"I once said to my mom when she felt like giving up the language because it was hard at times, I told her that it would be like giving up on a newborn baby that you think wouldn't live," Bineshii said. "It's something that you couldn't do because it deserves to live."

Contact reporter Jason Stein at 608-252-6129 or at jstein@madison.com\


Multimedia: Hear tribal members talk about the importance of their native tongues, hear how the languages sound and view a map of how tribal territories have changed.

Go to: madison.com/wsj\


Action: Eight things experts say can be done now to help preserve this vital legacy. A8 Preservation: Tribes largely on their own when trying to save native languages. A9\


A class on Ho-Chunk culture and language meets today (and every Tuesday) at 2 p.m. in the second-floor conference room at the Dejope bingo hall, 4002 Evan Acres Road. The class is free and open to the public. For more information, call instructor Francis Rave Sr. at 443-6183.

Copyright 2015 madison.com. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

No Comments Posted.

Add Comment
You must Login to comment.

Click here to get an account it's free and quick

What's hot

Featured businesses

Get weekly ads via e-mail