June 02, 2008 12:00 am  • 

As her father lay dying in 1972, Kris Caldwell agonized over a question.

All her life, Caldwell had begged her father, Jim, to share with her the Menominee language that tribal members believe the creator gave to their ancestors. But her father, then a 79-year-old former logging boss, would only teach her a few words.

"Why were you so mean to me, Dad?" the then 21-year-old Caldwell asked the man she admired so much. "Didn't you like me?"

"What? Oh, you're foolish, foolish," her father answered. "Times are changing, daughter. It's a white man's game now. If you want to prosper and get ahead in the world, you have to learn to play their game and play it better."

Only years later did Caldwell come to understand the reasons behind her father's reticence: the trauma he endured at Indian boarding schools.

Tribal leaders point to a range of factors undermining Wisconsin's endangered native languages - from the dominance of English in daily life to the difficulties of adapting traditional languages to constantly changing technologies. But a critical factor is the lingering effect of a now-closed system of Indian boarding schools, which actively sought to strip students like Caldwell of their language and culture.

After attending those schools, generations of tribal parents let their children lose touch with their traditional languages, believing that was for the best. Now that many of their descendents are looking to reconnect with those languages, they're having to relearn them as adults.

Native families like Richard Mann's were common. Mann, 60, grew up listening to his parents speak Ho-Chunk but largely answering them in English. Mann's father, who only finished eighth grade, believed that letting his children speak English would help them graduate from high school.

Mann kept putting off learning to speak Ho-Chunk with his father until after the older man's death. Only in the face of that loss did Mann strengthen his Ho-Chunk speaking, eventually becoming the manager of the tribe's language division "Through love, we lost the language," Mann said of his tribe.

\ Driving the language out

Languages were also threatened by bigotry and a cruel bureaucracy.

Indian boarding schools sprung up around the state and country in the 1880s and 90s as the federal government sought to rid tribal students of their old ways and remake them into farmers or laborers. Federal authorities came to reservations and collected native children at young ages to take them to the schools, often against the wishes of parents.

By around 1900, the federal government and some churches were running more than a half-dozen Indian boarding schools in Wisconsin. They had easily more than 700 students, some of whom were kept away from home for the academic year or even longer. The schools would largely remain in place until a reversal of federal policy in the 1930s.

To ensure students learned the whites' language and customs, an 1892 U.S. rulebook for boarding schools recommended employing "every effort," including punishments, to make students abandon their tribal languages.

Kelly Jackson-Golly, historical preservation officer for the Lac du Flambeau band of Lake Superior Chippewa, an Ojibwe tribe, has published elders' accounts of the punishments they faced as students for speaking their language. Boarding school officials withheld meals from students, struck them and forced them to kneel on broomsticks for long periods of time, she said.

More than a generation later, in the 1950s, Ho-Chunk tribal member Larry Garvin said he and other students were forbidden to use their language at the now-closed Hochungra public school near Black River Falls. Students at the day school caught breaking the rule had their mouths rubbed with soap smeared with red pepper, Garvin said.

"This didn't discourage us from continuing to speak Ho-Chunk, even in school, when we could get away with it," said Garvin, now the executive director of the tribe's Heritage Preservation Department.

The boarding schools had some worthy goals, Kris Caldwell and Jackson-Golly said. They were often taught by well-meaning whites who offered students useful skills and even simple necessities like shoes and regular meals.

The Rev. Benjamin F. Stucki, long-time director of a school for Ho-Chunk students in Neillsville, argued in an October 1921 fundraising letter now held by the Wisconsin Historical Society that his missionary work was "the one way in which we can right the wrongs our fathers committed against their fathers."

UW-Madison professor and historian Patty Loew, a member of the Bad River band of Lake Superior Chippewa, an Ojibwe tribe, also sees a bit of "poetic justice" in the boarding school experience. Some former students, she said, later used the education meant to assimilate them to the ways of whites to champion the rights of their tribes.

\ Painful memories

But for other students, the schools succeeded in drawing a curtain of shame across their native languages.

UW-Madison linguist Rand Valentine said he has spoken with Ojibwe elders who were happy to speak their language with him but who confided that they struggled to speak it to their grandchildren.

"There's this kind of sorrow that is deep and abiding that is associated with this treatment they received," he said. "It's something that you really have to work to overcome."

Adding to the challenge is the fact that today's tribal elders often don't like to discuss the difficulties they faced in white-run schools.

"A lot of us hate to talk about that," said Potawatomi speaker Billy Daniels Jr., 75. "We leave that behind, whatever happens."

That was the case for Jim Caldwell, who attended a series of boarding schools.

As a teenager, Caldwell arrived at the Tomah Indian Industrial School. Until his graduation in 1909, he would have attended classes in the morning, worked at trades in the afternoon and done military drills in a blue uniform.

Caldwell would later run the Menominees' logging operation - a major part of the key tribal industry - for 35 years. He moved easily in the world of whites, playing semi-pro baseball as a youth, carrying on friendships with prominent men, and reading Plato and Socrates in his spare time. But he was also the son of a Menominee medicine woman, a man who knew how to cook beaver and muskrat, build a log cabin and eloquently speak his native language with older members of the tribe.

He almost never spoke to his children about his boarding school days and only grudgingly shared Menominee words when asked, remembered his son Alan Caldwell, 59.

"He'd say, 'You don't have a need to know that,'" Alan said.

His children later learned from other tribal elders and family friends that their father had been punished as a student for failing to abide by strict boarding school rules. They said they gradually realized their father wanted to spare them the hardships he had known.

"He told us a lot of the stories, a lot of the culture, but not the language," Kris Caldwell, 58, said. "I don't think he saw that it was going to be of any importance in the future."

But not even her own father could quench Kris' curiosity about her people's language. She later completed a language apprenticeship with a tribal elder and became certified to teach the language to Menominee students.

Alan Caldwell is now the principal of the Indian Community School of Milwaukee. He's expanded native language classes there but still struggles with Menominee himself.

"Now I wish I knew," he said. "I'd like to teach my grandsons."

\ Every family's story

Understanding the boarding school era helped free Oneida tribal member Carol Cornelius from the same feelings of disappointment. In the mid-1970s she asked her paternal grandmother to teach her Oneida and the older woman refused. Like Alan and Kris Caldwell, Cornelius said that only later did she realize why.

"It took a long time for us to understand that the elders were protecting us... Oh, what a relief to understand," said Cornelius, who has since learned some Oneida and now oversees the tribe's Cultural Heritage Department, which includes its language revitalization efforts. "Every native person has a family story about not speaking the language."

To her own family's story, Cornelius can now add this epilogue: As her then 95-year-old grandmother lay in a coma on her deathbed, family members asked Cornelius to speak to the older woman in Oneida. In the nursing home, Cornelius held her grandmother's hand as she mustered the Oneida words.

"Be peaceful," Cornelius told her in their language. "Be content. Thank you for all you have given us. Your work is done."

At some level, she believes, her grandmother understood.\ \ WEB EXTRA

Multimedia: Listen to tribal members talk about their native tongues, hear the languages and view a map of tribal territories.

Go to: madison.com/wsj

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