2009: Jason Stein, Wisconsin State Journal, Madison
Award for Diversity Writing
Thursday, August 13, 2009
by: ASNE Staff

Section: Diversity writing

Jason Stein

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Languages a window into human mind

May 31, 2008

When an Oneida speaks, there are whispers.

The softly spoken sounds often come in the final syllables of Oneida words, usually when the words fall at the end of sentences. This rare, fragile feature hints at the richness and complexity of Wisconsin??s threatened native languages.

"It's very unconscious. I've met people who didn't realize they were doing it, and it's a natural part of the way they speak," said UW-Green Bay linguist Cliff Abbott, who's spent a career studying Oneida. "I find it a little bit mysterious to be perfectly honest."

Tribes and linguists alike are running out of chances to preserve this intriguing diversity. By this century's end, more than half of the world's roughly 6,000 languages will be lost, linguists say. An even greater majority of the 155 native languages left in the United States are expected to disappear.

For the tribal members who still speak them, Wisconsin's American Indian languages serve as a window through which they frame their world. For linguists like Abbott, those windows offer a glimpse into the human mind itself.

Here are just a few examples:

  • When an Ojibwe speaker tells a story about, say, a man hunting a bear, he can use a kind of verbal spotlight, shifting the focus from the hunter to the quarry and back again, regardless of which one is doing the action, said Larry Martin, a linguist at UW-Eau Claire. It can be a subtle, even subconscious cue to the listener to pay more attention to the still bear than the stalking hunter. There's nothing quite like it in English.
  • Like other native languages in the state, Menominee divides nouns into the living and the non-living. Among the living nouns are some surprising objects, such as stones, kettles and balls.
  • In Ho-Chunk, your paternal uncle is considered a father (you can have more than one) and his sons are your brothers, not your cousins.
  • Oneida has no sounds made with the lips such as p, b and m. Linguists once mistakenly thought every human language had these simple sounds.

The state's native languages are so different from European languages that they can be excruciatingly difficult for an English speaker to learn as an adult.

For instance, they can express an entire sentence with just a single verb loaded down with several prefixes or suffixes selected from as many as thousands of possibilities.

In Oneida, a single 46-character word means "the two of them went around to the other side of the altar again," Abbott said. To build this word, an Oneida speaker must add nine prefixes to the simple root verb "-tase-", which means "to go around" — all without forgetting that the final sounds might need to be whispered.

These complex words are so daunting to outsiders that when Abbott first learned the grammar of Oneida as a graduate student at Yale University, he couldn't believe anyone actually spoke it.

"It was kind of a shock when I finally got out here and realized that people spoke it very effortlessly," Abbott said. "It just looked wildly complicated to me. I didn't understand how it could all fit in somebody's mind."

With the help of a federal grant, Abbott today is working with the Oneida tribe's language program and a 97-year-old tribal elder to record pronunciations of Oneida words. He's part of a small number of University of Wisconsin System linguists working to preserve endangered languages through dictionaries, digital recordings and other tools.

Other groups leveraging technology to preserve languages include the Forest County Potawatomi tribe, which is using handheld, voice-activated translating devices first developed by the U.S. military, according to Billy Daniels Jr., director of the tribe's Language and Culture Program, and his wife Alyce. The devices can help language learners quickly find and practice everyday phrases, they said.

But linguists say much more is needed. They worry that, with the loss of many of the world's languages, we're losing a chance to better understand this most uniquely human of behaviors — speech. In many cases worldwide, not just individual languages but entire families of related languages are dying, linguist Gregory Anderson said.

"It's not just the number of languages that are disappearing," said Anderson, director of the Living Tongues Institute in Salem, Ore. "Virtually all linguistic diversity is disappearing. That's what's terrifying."

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The present last hope for native languages

June 1, 2008

BLACK RIVER FALLS — 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. Terry 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."

Reviving fading tongues

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.

A sustaining force

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."

'A long, hard road'

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.

Guiding the spirit home

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.

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The Past 'through love, we lost the language'

June 2, 2008

KESHENA — 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, longtime 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.

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Overcoming their past to teach the young

June 2, 2008

TOMAH — 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 law and engineering. 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.

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The Future a 'journey back to ourselves'

June 4, 2008

HAYWARD — 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."

Filling a void

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.

Modest beginnings

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 that aren't at 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."

'Language warriors'

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?"

Threats remain

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."

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