Chloris Lowe Sr. didn't teach his children to speak the language of their Ho-Chunk ancestors.
But today, in this small tribal day care, he and his great-grandson chatter happily in Ho-Chunk.
Lowe, 80, a tribal elder who lived through the era of English-only Indian boarding schools, is now helping to undo the corrosive effects those institutions had on his people.
"These kids here, the way they understand Ho-Chunk, before they even talk, my gosh!" said Lowe, a native speaker of the language who is helping teach it to the toddlers here. "You could almost go to tears because they're really picking it up."
Around Wisconsin, tribes are working to reverse the lingering effects of the long-closed boarding schools by helping children learn the languages and cultures the schools once discouraged.
The Lac du Flambeau tribe,for instance, is seeking to turn a dormitory in a former boarding school on the reservation into a center to promote the tribe's Ojibwe language as well as traditional skills such as mat-making.
Part of the project will also involve restoring the dormitory to its 1907 condition and turning it into an interpretive center on the boarding school era and its legacy, said Kelly Jackson-Golly, the tribe's historical preservation officer.
"The ultimate reclamation is to have a place that by design was built to take away cultural traditions and flip that around and have a place that's actually giving back something and promoting healing," Jackson-Golly said.
Lowe, a former truck driver and the last member of his family born in a wigwam, brought his children up to be college-educated professionals in careers like engineering and law. But something was missing.
"My oldest son said one time, 'Dad, you done everything right, but you only made one mistake. ...You didn't teach us how to speak Ho-Chunk,'" Lowe said. "So I told him why I never did, 'Because I wanted you kids to go to school and go to college and be just as smart as anybody else.'"
Later in life, Lowe said he read with concern reports of traditional languages around the world being lost and started working with his tribe's language program. When he learned that his granddaughter Kjetil Garvin and her husband, Henning, were helping start an innovative day care where only Ho-Chunk is spoken, he volunteered to help.
"We don't know where we'd be if we didn't have him," Henning said.
A grandfatherly presence at the day care, Lowe delivers a stream of Ho-Chunk commands and jokes to the Garvins' 2-year-old son, Haakon, and the handful of other children who play at the older man's feet and sit contentedly on his lap. When Lowe speaks about the children, he beams.
"If they let me stay on the program, if I live long enough, in another five years, those kids are really going to be putting away those words," he said.