Phyllis Armendariz, 82, is a language teacher for the HoChunk Renaissance program. Armendariz grew up speaking Ho-Chunk in Wisconsin. Photo by Kevin Abourezk

Winnebago Tribe works to revitalize Ho-Chunk language for future generations

HoChunk Renaissance program keeps language alive

'We don’t have much time, but we’re trying to do the best that we can'
By Kevin Abourezk

WINNEBAGO, Nebraska – She grew up among the pine trees and scrub oak of western Wisconsin, not far from the small town of Black River Falls.

Phyllis Armendariz lived the life of a traditional Ho-Chunk girl, speaking only her native language.

Often, Armendariz wouldn’t need to try to speak English when she visited town because many of the German shop keepers there could speak Ho-Chunk, a language that sounded much like her own.

She didn’t even begin learning English until she was in first grade. And it wasn’t easy for the shy Ho-Chunk girl to learn the strange new language.

“I was self-conscious about it,” she said. “I tried to make myself as little as I could so the teacher wouldn’t call on me. I think I was in the third grade before I finally felt comfortable.”

Armed with the language of her people’s colonizers, the bright Ho-Chunk girl went off in search of her education, eventually earning a Bachelor of Science degree and an education degree.

Recently, the now 82-year-old Armendariz was asked to come to the Winnebago Reservation in northeastern Nebraska to teach the Ho-Chunk language to the Winnebago Tribe, who shared the same ancestors as her tribe. The Winnebago people were separated from their Wisconsin relatives after the government forcibly moved them to Nebraska.

Kathy LaRose, a language teacher for the HoChunk Renaissance program, instructs language apprentices and staff members in the program's building in Winnebago, Nebraska. Photo by Kevin Abourezk
Craig “Tunny” Cleveland Jr., a language apprentice, raises his hand to answer language teacher Kathy LaRose's question at the HoChunk Renaissance building in Winnebago, Nebraska. Photo by Kevin Abourezk

Generations of federal assimilation initiatives – such as the efforts of educators in boarding schools like the Genoa Indian Industrial School in Nebraska who punished Native children for speaking their Native languages – had left the Winnebago people with few fluent Ho-Chunk speakers.

Armendariz agreed, becoming a language teacher for the Winnebago Tribe’s language revitalization program, HoChunk Renaissance.

She has become part of an effort to revitalize the Ho-Chunk language and culture among the Winnebago people. It’s an effort that faces many obstacles, said Bleu St. Cyr, director of HoChunk Renaissance.

Nearly a decade ago, the Winnebago Tribe conducted an unofficial survey to find out how many fluent HoChunk speakers still lived on the tribe’s reservation. The tribe found just 15 fluent speakers at that time, and several of those speakers have since died, St. Cyr said.

“We don’t have much time, but we’re trying to do the best that we can,” the 31-year-old said.

Indianz.Com Video by Kevin Abourezk: Fighting for a Dying Language

The tribe began language revitalization efforts in the 1990s and founded the HoChunk Renaissance program in 2003. The program began with just one employ. Today, it employs 17 people, including four fluent Ho-Chunk speakers, four language apprentices who are learning from the fluent speakers and support staff.

The program is funded primarily by tribal allocations, primarily via revenue from the tribe’s for-profit enterprises, including the WinnaVegas Casino Resort and Ho-Chunk Inc., the tribe’s economic development corporation.

St. Cyr has served as director for three years and served a media specialist for the program before that.

He said he hopes to combine technology into the program’s language revitalization efforts.

Bleu St. Cyr serves as director for the HoChunk Renaissance program. Courtesy photo

“As a younger man coming to the program and growing up and seeing all the technology, one of my goals was to influence and bring together technology and language,” he said.

The program recently launched a language app and a language book with words, phrases, translated songs and new Ho-Chunk words.

St. Cyr said developing a curriculum to teach the Winnebago people their language has been difficult as the HoChunk Renaissance program has struggled to find a university-educated language teacher.

Most years, the program teaches students in grades kindergarten through high school. However, this year, the program decided to focus on students in grades kindergarten-second grade and high school in order to give its apprentices more time to learn the language themselves.

“Otherwise, our apprentices were teaching in the school system and we’re not learning,” St. Cyr said.

The HoChunk Renaissance program building in Winnebago, Nebraska. Photo by Kevin Abourezk
A painting hangs in the HoChunk Renaissance building in Winnebago, Nebraska. Photo by Kevin Abourezk

The program plans to offer an eight-week adult language course starting at the end of May and plans to publish three children’s books. The program also has considered creating a language immersion school.

“We have to make everything from scratch,” St. Cyr said. “So that takes time to develop that.”

The program currently has an agreement with the Ho-Chunk Nation in Wisconsin to share language learning materials, including a dictionary that the Ho-Chunk Nation created.

The Ho-Chunk language is spoken nearly identical by both tribes, though each tribe has developed newer terms on its own, St. Cyr said.

He said HoChunk Renaissance is trying to ensure the survival of the Winnebago Tribe’s history and culture.

“Identity is very important because one day you’re going to be asked, ‘What do you know about your culture? What do you know about your history, your language?’” he said. “The grandchildren, the children are going to ask you one day, ‘Who am I?’”

A major obstacle to the HoChunk Renaissance program’s efforts is the short amount of time it is allowed to teach children in the schools in Winnebago, including Winnebago Public School and St. Augustine Indian Mission.

The program’s teachers are given just 30 minutes a week to teach individual kindergarten through second-grade classes at St. Augustine and just 50 minutes each week to teach individual classes at Winnebago Public School.

Mary Merrick, one of the program’s language teachers, said the program was once given 30 minutes each day to teach individual second- through fourth-grade classes as recently as recently as three years ago.

“We need more time,” she said. “We definitely need more time with them.”

The HoChunk Vocab Builder is available on iTunes and Google Play

Despite the time constraints, Merrick said it is rewarding to be able to teach her tribe’s children their native language.

She described a particularly fulfilling experience she once had teaching a little boy who struggled with the language all year. Finally, on the last day of school, as students took turns reading a sentence written in Ho-Chunk on the chalk board and explaining its meaning, the little boy succeeded in reading and explaining the sentence without any help.

“I was so happy,” Merrick said. “I enjoy teaching them because when they finally get it, it’s really rewarding for them to finally grasp it.”

Mary Merrick, a language teacher for the HoChunk Renaissance program, sits in one of the program's classrooms in Winnebago, Nebraska. Photo by Kevin Abourezk

Ho-Chunk Language Course

The HoChunk Renaissance program will host an eight-week language course for adults May 23-June 11 in the program’s offices at 907 N. Mission Drive, in Winnebago, Nebraska.

The Hoit’e Cōnį na (“first language”) course will include lectures and interactive and immersion activities. The course will offer beginner-level instruction on topics such as name, age, places and question types. Participants will learn to read, write and speak the HoChunk language.

The course will serve as a pilot program for future adult language courses and will be offered on Wednesday evenings from 6-8 p.m. It will be offered to 12 students, and those wishing to participate must register by 4 p.m. May 18 at the HoChunk Renaissance office.

HoChunk Renaissance on SoundCloud

Learn some words and phrases in the Ho-Chunk language.

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