Ho-Chunk Tribe looks to revitalize language

WINNEBAGO, Neb. (AP) – There are a few things that define a Native American tribe more than its language.

That importance of language is one of the driving forces behind the Ho-Chunk Tribe – also known as the Winnebago Tribe of Nebraska – seeking to revitalize its language and see it spoken by more people, part of what is called the Ho-Chunk Renaissance.

“Within a lot of Native American cultures, language and culture go together,” Lewis St. Cyr, language program director for the Ho-Chunk, said “You can’t have culture without language and you can’t have language without culture. The importance of it is who we are.”

The language project currently is being taught in various schools with ties to the tribe, including the Winnebago Public Schoos, the Educare preschool, St. Augustine Indian Mission and Little Priest Tribal College.

However, St. Cyr admits that the amount a brief language program during school hours can do 15 minutes per day – is limited and he is working to see the knowledge of the Ho-Chunk language expand through additional methods.

“Right now, we’re at a point where we’re restructuring the program to fit a lot more things that we can utilize as far as technology,” St. Cyr said. “We have a lot more younger people involved with the program and things like that.”

As someone who has had a longtime interest in the Ho-Chunk language, St. Cyr knows how it feels to want to learn the language and know more about it, but not have many resources.

“I was a person that growing up, I wanted to learn this language and be a fluent speaker,” said St. Cyr, a graduate of Wayne State College. “During that time, when I was really interested in this language – and I still am – I was learning on my own, using materials, books, CDs and things like that. I didn’t really have that access to a fluent speaker. I would come back from going to school from Wayne State and I would look for that person (and I) had all these different questions. “There wasn’t really anything set up – an evening program or a place we could really go. However, I would go down to the program during the time – the HoChunk Renaissance Program – and would just go down there talk to some of the people there.”

The Norfolk Daily News reports that with the Ho-Chunk language being spoke less often and be fewer speakers, the tribe realized that it needed to do something to save the language.

“During that time, a lot of the tribal elders were noticing that a lot of the younger generations weren’t picking up the language and weren’t exposed to the language as much as they were,” St. Cyr said. “It started becoming (something of) an endangered language, so this project – the Ho-Chunk Renaissance Project – started and went through the process of a tribal elder getting that going, (then) the tribal council got involved, told them what they were trying to do and eventually this project started. Over time, it started growing and growing.”

St. Cyr said that he has hired five new employees since he took the reins of the language program in August and plans to hire more as he works to develop a team. He also has incorporated the creation story of the Ho-Chunk language into the Ho-Chunk Renaissance’s company logo.

“We believe that without our language, we’re just a common person. We’re not Ho-Chunk – we’re not who we are – and that’s a part of who we are,” St. Cyr said. “It was a gift by the Creator to use this creator. We believe this is what ties us together as a tribal nation. Each tribe’s language is different, but for us, this is who we are, our language and we’ve used it for many, many years.”

While the Ho-Chunk’s language program currently uses a master-apprentice model, St. Cyr wants to do more with an immersion program, a nesting program and greater use of 21st century technology. St. Cyr said that some sort of college class on the Ho-Chunk language might eventually be made available.

“The way this world is now, technology has become such a tool,” St. Cyr said. “We have our children now that utilize iPads and that are on their phone all night. We try to utilize that. There’s been apps, things like that and language apps. I wanted to start getting into some technology development and also into other different aspects.”

While there has not been a formal survey done, St. Cyr estimates there are approximately 10 Ho-Chunk speakers on the Winnebago Reservation, a number that he wants to see increase. He added that there are three fluent Ho-Chunk speakers working in the program.

“We have a lot of people who can understand it; it’s just that bringing them out to speak it,” said St. Cyr. “That’s another thing that we’re trying to focus on.”

St. Cyr said that the tribe also plans to hire a media production manager and to create different videos in the Ho-Chunk language, something that already has been done for the nursery rhymes “Old MacDonald” and “Mary Had a Little Lamb.”

After years of struggling to find resources to learn about the Ho-Chunk language, St. Cyr is happy to give back to his community and his people.

“I know what that felt like when there was no resource or no availability for anything like that,” St. Cyr said. “Going through that, now I know that there’s people out there in that same boat that want that same opportunity but don’t really have it. Knowing that, in the back of my mind I wanted to bring that out and have that available for the community.”