Members of the Ho-Chunk Nation work hard to sustain their culture and beliefs. They believe it is essential to keep their traditional knowledge alive by passing on their culture and language from elders to younger generations. In their continued efforts to maintain their traditional knowledge, the Ho-Chunk Nation created the Hoocak Waaziija Haci Language Division, an entire branch of government devoted to preserving the Ho-Chunk Language as a “Living Language.”
The Division creates opportunities for Ho-Chunk people to learn and use their original language, including summer camps, women’s talking circles, four-year-old kindergarten programs, and community classes for speakers of all ages. Hoocak Waaziija Haci also works with high schools in Black River Falls, Tomah and Wisconsin Dells public school districts to offer language courses. In 2006 the Language Division started the Master/Apprentice Program, designed to develop more Hoocak language speakers and teachers by facilitating one-on-one teaching of the language in an immersion atmosphere.
Apprentice Arlene Thunder Blackdeer, whose name is Aahusgaįga (White Wing), is one of 15 aspiring language teachers who works with a fluent speaker in the Master/Apprentice Program. Aahusgaįga was taught some Hoocąk words at a young age and learned some stories and beliefs from her Gaga (Grandmother), Cuuwis (father’s sisters), and Jaajis (Father, Father’s brothers). Hearing the language at a young age sparked an interest in learning more, but her first opportunity to take a Hoocąk language class was in high school. Years later, it was Arlene’s former high school language teacher, Richard Mann, who offered her a job within the Hoocąk Waaziija Haci Language Division as an apprentice in the Master/Apprentice Program.
Apprentices sign a six-year contract with Hoocak Waaziija and commit themselves to learning and later teaching the language. They are matched with a Master Speaker, with whom they spend time learning the language through immersion. Masters and apprentices spend as much time as possible together, doing everyday things like shopping or cooking, discovering shared interests and new conversations. Arlene is paired with Master Speaker Aurelia Hopinkah. They meet often, both at their one-on-one language sessions and at community events, and Arlene has found herself learning not only the language, but many stories from her elder speaker. Now she has begun teaching her youngest three children as well, so the effects of the Master/Apprentice program are spanning generations.
As her knowledge of the language progressed, Arlene was asked to assist with the Ho-Chunk Language class at Tomah High School. Now she teaches the class by herself and has a strong desire not only to continue teaching at the high school, but to go beyond that to assist others who are willing to learn the language. Arlene gives credit for all of this to the continued efforts by Ho-Chunk elders who understand the critical need to teach the younger generations about their language, culture and history.
In the past, the Ho-Chunk occupied lands in what are now the states of Wisconsin, Iowa, Nebraska, South Dakota, and Minnesota and had title to more than ten million acres of land. After European arrival, the Ho-Chunk were commonly called the Winnebago, a name originally given by the Sauk and Fox people meaning “people of the stinky water.” During the 1800’s, the U.S. Government forced them to cede their land and move westward, eventually settling on a reservation in Nebraska. Some members decided to stay on the reservation in Nebraska, and they are currently known as the Winnebago Tribe of Nebraska. But even after eleven removals, many tribal members continued to return to their homelands in Wisconsin. Because these lands were not reserved for them by treaty, they actually had to re-purchase land as individuals. They began to organize a government, and the Wisconsin Winnebago Tribe gained federal recognition as a sovereign American Indian nation in 1963 pursuant to the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934. In 1994 the name was officially changed to the Ho-Chunk Nation.