June 01, 2008 12:00 am  • 

In the country of the white pines, by the waters of Lake Superior and the banks of the Wisconsin River, the voices are dying one by one.

The first languages of Wisconsin, the vessels bearing ages of American Indian history, song, medicine and prayers, could be as little as a generation away from an all-abiding silence. Languages that are grafted to the land and that together once counted tens of thousands of native speakers in the state, now have only an aging few here.

Without unprecedented action, the state's tribes will test the Ho-Chunk belief that the fate of a people is tied to their native tongue.

"There's a story that we have that we were given this language by God, and as such, this language is considered to be sacred," said Andrew Thundercloud, a Ho-Chunk educator working to reverse the slide. "And I was told in this story that when our language is gone, the world will end.

"We see that our language is disappearing. Our beliefs are disappearing ... if we do not keep our language, we're going to exist as Ho-Chunks in name only."

The five surviving Indian languages of Wisconsin - Ho-Chunk, Menominee, Ojibwe, Potawatomi and Oneida - are quietly suffering from the same pressures of assimilation pushing languages around the world toward extinction.

To a person, tribal leaders interviewed for this series insist their languages can still be saved. And to do it, tribes are mounting their most ambitious efforts.

But these underfunded programs face the highest odds.


* Only about one-half of 1 percent of state tribal members - about 300 aging men and women in all - are native speakers of the state's Indian languages. That's according to more than 50 interviews with linguists and members of all 12 state tribes. Menominee, which is spoken nowhere else in the world, has only 10 to 20 native speakers left who mastered the language as children.

Potawatomi, a language spoken mainly in Wisconsin, has about 10 native speakers remaining here. The Oneida tribe has just three left in the state, and the youngest is 87. The Mohican language once spoken by the Stockbridge-Munsee tribe, and the Mohegan language of the Brothertown tribe, have already been lost here.

* Almost all Wisconsin tribes have a language program, and native languages have been introduced in many reservation schools. But a Wisconsin State Journal review found only two fledgling teaching programs in the state that are attempting to produce fully bilingual students by immersing them in those languages.

* The resources individual tribes devote to saving their language can vary from more than 30 employees to a single worker, the review found. The difference depends partly on a tribe's priorities but also on whether the tribe has a profitable casino or can win competitive outside grants.

*In 2003, the Legislature ended a long-standing program and stopped spending state money to preserve this endangered human heritage. By contrast, the state is expected to spend $2.6 million this year to protect threatened wildlife like the trumpeter swan and the Karner blue butterfly.

"How do you justify saving a critter when you have a native language to the state that you're just going to let become extinct?" said Rep. Te rry Musser, R-Black River Falls, the point person on tribal issues in the Legislature. "We wouldn't do that with an animal ... but here we have a culture that, unless something changes, that's what's going to happen."

Without these languages, life in Wisconsin would go on, just as it would without history museums or vestiges of the state's German and Norwegian heritage.

But Rand Valentine, a UW-Madison linguist and specialist in Ojibwe, said the likely death of Wisconsin's native languages represents an incalculable loss to the state's shared history and culture.

"It's like burning your libraries," Valentine said. "It's like killing your past."


Hope remains. Native Hawaiians and the Maori people of New Zealand have had success in reviving their languages through immersion schools and day-care centers, said Lyle Campbell, director of the Center for American Indian Languages at the University of Utah.

A new generation of tribal members is starting to adapt these programs for languages here, including Ho-Chunk and Ojibwe, which is also known as Chippewa.

"We have between five and 10 years, I'd say, to turn the corner," said Henning Garvin, 3l, who helps coordinate these programs for the Ho-Chunk.

In the future, scholars and tribes will still be able to draw on incomplete recordings and dictionaries of the state's native languages. The deeper question, experts said, is whether the languages will continue to live fully among tribal speakers as they have for millennia.

That's because few children are learning these languages from their parents, the surest path to fluency. With the possible exception of Ojibwe - which is spoken by perhaps 10,000 people outside of Wisconsin - these languages belong to the most endangered class, one that linguist Gregory Anderson, director of the Living Tongues Institute in Salem, Ore., calls "moribund."

These languages have endured not only neglect but outright efforts to kill them off. In the past, Indian boarding schools punished students for speaking their language. Today, English dominates schools and popular culture, and young people often must leave their reservations for colleges or jobs. The poverty on many reservations forces tribal leaders to choose between meeting the needs of the moment and preserving the heritage of the past.

With the loss of a language - or even just a learned native speaker - tribes forfeit an often unrecorded encyclopedia of traditional medicines, ancient place names, unwritten histories, and sacred knowledge such as the proper way to pray to one's creator or bury a tribal member.


For Thundercloud, the Ho-Chunk language is a lifeline that has pulled him through war, family hardships and decades away from home. Today, he works as the curriculum developer for the Ho-Chunk tribe's language division.

As a boy in Melrose, near Black River Falls, Thundercloud, 64, grew up speaking Ho-Chunk as his first language. With his paternal grandfather, he would sit in a secluded spot outdoors or lie in his bed at night and listen as the older man taught him the ways of their people.

As a Marine in Vietnam, Thundercloud listened to audiotapes of his father and grandfather telling him stories in Ho-Chunk about how generations of their family's ancestors had survived distant battles. When his own son was paralyzed in a mountain bike accident in 1998, Thundercloud reminded him in their language that his life was not over and that one day, in the afterlife, his broken form would again be whole.

But even as Ho-Chunk was sustaining Thundercloud, the language itself was weakening.

Working with another Ho-Chunk tribe in northeastern Nebraska, Thundercloud saw the tribal language and ceremonies were falling out of use there much faster than back home. Even in Wisconsin, where nearly all native speakers of Ho-Chunk live, the tribe now has only about 200 of these elders left. That's more than any other tribe in the state, but still only about 3 percent of Ho-Chunk tribal members.

Gradually, Thundercloud came to understand what elders like his grandfather had meant when they said the world would end if the tribe lost its language.

"When I was a kid I used to think about ... you know, apocalypse and the great floods and the fires and everything," he said. "But as I become older and I look, I understand what they mean is that we as a people will no longer exist. Our world (would be) gone.

"Sometimes I'm moved close to tears because of this."


Molly Miller, 55, lives with that loss. Miller, a member of the state's Stockbridge-Munsee band of Mohican Indians, is trying to revive her tribe's language, which lost its last native speaker decades ago. Rather than focus on the surviving written sources in Mohican, Miller has gone to Canada to study with elders who speak the Munsee dialect of a related language known as Delaware or Lenape.

"It's a long, hard road," Miller said of her work. "You cannot learn language from a book."

The Menominee have nowhere to go to replenish their language if it's lost. It is spoken only beneath the centuries-old, 150-foot-tall white pines that the tribe has nurtured on the traditional lands of its northeastern Wisconsin reservation.

"If we didn't have the language, we wouldn't be Menominee," said David Grignon, director of the tribe's Historic Preservation Office. "We're lucky that we still have it, that we can say this is our language and that right after creation we spoke this language."

In the early 1990s, Grignon, 57, set out to help his tribe pass that language on from the dwindling number of native speakers of Menominee before it was too late. With the help of federal grants, Grignon and the historic preservation office started a mentoring program in which elders laboriously taught the language to a handful of adult learners who were then certified to teach it in area schools.

This "master-apprentice" program drew a few successful young learners like Joey Awonohopay, the grandson of an unofficial tribal chief who has been interested in the language since boyhood.

Other groups like a tribal Language and Culture Commission have since taken up the work, and the College of Menominee Nation now has a federal grant to help give more training to some of the same teachers created by Grignon's mentoring program.

"A little bit of light is beginning to shine through," Awonohopay, 36, said of the tribe's efforts. "There is hope."

But Menominee County, which includes the tribe's reservation, has been ranked as the poorest in the state. That makes it hard to fund needs like health care, schools and roads and still pay for language programs, tribal legislator Gary Besaw said.

"We're in a world where you have to, like it or not, pay bills," Besaw said.


Meanwhile, the pool of elders and native speakers from which tribes like the Menominee can draw grows smaller.

In July, the tribe lost 78-year-old Lillian Nelson, the last member of the Menominees' sacred but now ended Medicine Lodge, a group that once performed special tribal ceremonies. A teacher of Grignon and others, Nelson spoke Menominee with a diction and usage so elegant that one of her former students calls it the "chief's language."

On the sweltering day of Nelson's traditional burial, Grignon delivered the ceremonial words in Menominee that his people must say to guide the spirit of a loved one on its four-day journey in the afterlife.

"I'm speaking for the person who taught me how to speak, and I'm sending her home the way she would like her ceremonies to be," Grignon said afterward, recalling his thoughts that day.

Nelson had helped prepare Grignon to speak for her, and for the long tradition that she had embodied. As her casket was carried to a waiting hearse, a group of her young students beat a drum and sang an honor song for her.

The beat of the drum thudded through the earth, so that the music could be felt as much as heard by the mourners; the voices of the singers - raised up in an ancient, endangered tongue - soared toward the sky and then grew quiet.

Contact reporter Jason Stein at 608-252-6129 or at\ \LANGUAGE FACTS

Several of Wisconsin's native languages are spoken mainly or exclusively in this state. Only Ojibwe has large numbers of speakers elsewhere.

LanguageLanguage familyWhere spoken

Ho-ChunkSiouanAlmost entirely in Wisconsin but also Nebraska

MenomineeAlgonquianOnly on the Menominee Reservation

PotawatomiAlgonquianMainly in Wisconsin, also in Kansas and Canada

OjibweAlgonquianUpper Midwest, Montana and five Canadian provinces

OneidaIroquoianWisconsin, New York and Ontario, Canada

Sources: Wisconsin tribes; State Journal research\ \WEB EXTRA

Multimedia: Listen to 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 over time.


Today -- The present: The state's five native languages, the heart of Wisconsin's American Indian cultures, face profound threats to their survival.

Monday -- The past: Old attempts by the federal government to strip native students of their language are still felt today.

Tuesday -- The future: Fledgling efforts hold out hope for a new generation of bilingual speakers.

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

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