Wisconsin: 'Through love, we lost the language ’
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Tue Jun 3 18:26:01 UTC 2008
Through love, we lost the language'By Jason Stein / Lee Newspapers
.Note: This is the second in a three-day series by the Wisconsin StateJournal about declining native languages, "Down to a whisper."
KESHENA, Wis — As her father lay dying in 1972, Kris Caldwell agonizedover a question. All her life, Caldwell had begged her father, Jim, toshare with her the Menominee language that tribal members believe thecreator gave to their ancestors. But her father, then a 79-year-oldformer logging boss, would only teach her a few words. "Why were youso mean to me, Dad?" the then 21-year-old Caldwell asked the man sheadmired so much. "Didn't you like me?" "What? Oh, you're foolish,foolish," her father answered. "Times are changing, daughter. It's awhite man's game now. If you want to prosper and get ahead in theworld, you have to learn to play their game and play it better." Onlyyears later did Caldwell come to understand the reasons behind herfather's reticence: The trauma he endured at Indian boarding schools.
Tribal leaders point to a range of factors undermining Wisconsin'sendangered native languages — from the dominance of English in dailylife to the difficulties of adapting traditional languages toconstantly changing technologies. But a critical factor is thelingering effect of a now-closed system of Indian boarding schools,which actively sought to strip students like Caldwell of theirlanguage and culture. After attending those schools, generations oftribal parents let their children lose touch with their traditionallanguages, believing that was for the best. Now that many of theirdescendents are looking to reconnect with those languages, they'rehaving to relearn them as adults.
American Indian families like Richard Mann's were common. Mann, 60,grew up listening to his parents speak Ho-Chunk but largely answeringthem in English. Mann's father, who only finished eighth grade,believed that letting his children speak English would help themgraduate from high school.
Mann kept putting off learning to speak Ho-Chunk with his father untilafter the older man's death.
Only in the face of that loss did Mann strengthen his Ho-Chunkspeaking, eventually becoming the manager of the tribe's languagedivision.
"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 the1880s and '90s as the federal government sought to rid tribal studentsof their old ways and remake them into farmers or laborers. Federalauthorities came to reservations and collected native children atyoung ages to take them to the schools, often against the wishes ofparents.
By around 1900, the federal government and some churches were runningmore than a half-dozen Indian boarding schools in Wisconsin. They hadeasily more than 700 students, some of whom were kept away from homefor the academic year or even longer. The schools would largely remainin place until a reversal of federal policy in the 1930s.
To ensure students learned the whites' language and customs, an 1892U.S. rulebook for boarding schools recommended employing "everyeffort," including punishments, to make students abandon their triballanguages.
Kelly Jackson-Golly, historical preservation officer for the Lac duFlambeau band of Lake Superior Chippewa, an Ojibwe tribe, haspublished elders' accounts of the punishments they faced as studentsfor speaking their language. Boarding school officials withheld mealsfrom students, struck them and forced them to kneel on broomsticks forlong periods of time, she said.
More than a generation later, in the 1950s, Ho-Chunk tribal memberLarry Garvin said he and other students were forbidden to use theirlanguage at the now-closed Hochungra public school near Black RiverFalls. Students at the day school caught breaking the rule had theirmouths rubbed with soap smeared with red pepper, Garvin said.
"This didn't discourage us from continuing to speak Ho-Chunk, even inschool, when we could get away with it," said Garvin, now theexecutive director of the tribe's Heritage Preservation Department.
The boarding schools had some worthy goals, Kris Caldwell andJackson-Golly said. They were often taught by well-meaning whites whooffered students useful skills and even simple necessities like shoesand regular meals.
The Rev. Benjamin F. Stucki, long-time director of a school forHo-Chunk students in Neillsville, argued in an October 1921fundraising letter now held by the Wisconsin Historical Society thathis missionary work was "the one way in which we can right the wrongsour fathers committed against their fathers."
UW-Madison professor and historian Patty Loew, a member of the BadRiver band of Lake Superior Chippewa, an Ojibwe tribe, also sees a bitof "poetic justice" in the boarding school experience. Some formerstudents, she said, later used the education meant to assimilate themto the ways of whites to champion the rights of their tribes.
But for other students, the schools succeeded in drawing a curtain ofshame across their native languages.
UW-Madison linguist Rand Valentine said he has spoken with Ojibweelders who were happy to speak their language with him but whoconfided that they struggled to speak it to their grandchildren.
"There's this kind of sorrow that is deep and abiding that isassociated with this treatment they received," he said. "It'ssomething that you really have to work to overcome."
Adding to the challenge is the fact that today's tribal elders oftendon't like to discuss the difficulties they faced in white-runschools.
"A lot of us hate to talk about that," said Potawatomi speaker BillyDaniels 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 themorning, worked at trades in the afternoon and done military drills ina blue uniform.
Caldwell would later run the Menominees' logging operation — a majorpart of the key tribal industry — for 35 years. He moved easily in theworld of whites, playing semi-pro baseball as a youth, carrying onfriendships with prominent men, and reading Plato and Socrates in hisspare time. But he was also the son of a Menominee medicine woman, aman who knew how to cook beaver and muskrat, build a log cabin andeloquently speak his native language with older members of the tribe.
He almost never spoke to his children about his boarding school daysand only grudgingly shared Menominee words when asked, remembered hisson 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 friendsthat their father had been punished as a student for failing to abideby strict boarding school rules. They said they gradually realizedtheir 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 thelanguage," Kris Caldwell, 58, said. "I don't think he saw that it wasgoing to be of any importance in the future."
But not even her own father could quench Kris' curiosity about herpeople's language. She later completed a language apprenticeship witha tribal elder and became certified to teach the language to Menomineestudents.
Alan Caldwell is now the principal of the Indian Community School ofMilwaukee. He's expanded native language classes there but stillstruggles 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 memberCarol Cornelius from the same feelings of disappointment. In themid-1970s she asked her paternal grandmother to teach her Oneida andthe older woman refused. Like Alan and Kris Caldwell, Cornelius saidthat only later did she realize why.
"It took a long time for us to understand that the elders wereprotecting us ... Oh, what a relief to understand," said Cornelius,who has since learned some Oneida and now oversees the tribe'sCultural Heritage Department, which includes its languagerevitalization efforts. "Every native person has a family story aboutnot speaking the language."
To her own family's story, Cornelius can now add this epilogue: As herthen 95-year-old grandmother lay in a coma on her deathbed, familymembers asked Cornelius to speak to the older woman in Oneida. In thenursing home, Cornelius held her grandmother's hand as she musteredthe 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.
Jason Stein is a reporter for the Wisconsin State Journal in Madison.
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