Native languages across the country are on the edge of extinction. A report issued this year by the Bureau of Indian Affairs says the country may be down to fewer than two dozen by 2050. One tribe is using new technology to keep their language alive for the next generation.
There are nearly 8,000 enrolled members of the Ho-Chunk Nation living in Wisconsin, and they are proud of their Indigenous language of Ho-Chunk.
“It’s a part of our identity, it’s a part of our culture, our social culture,” said Jessi Falcon, the director of the Ho-Chunk Language Development Division.
However, tribal leaders estimate there are fewer than 40 first-language speakers in the entire country. Elliot Garvin, age 75, is one of them.
“If we ever lose our language totally then we stop becoming those people that we have formed ourselves to be which is the Ho-Chunk Nation and Ho-Chunk People,” Garvin said. “We are probably as close now to losing it as we have ever been.”
“We have lost more than 10 speakers in the past nine years,” said Andrew McCaskey, one of the Ho-Chunk language instructors. “When we say it like that it kind of puts it into perspective for us that there are not going to be speakers that this is their first language anymore because they’re only going to get older.
According to the Language Conservancy, the most in danger of extinction are Indigenous languages that were nearly wiped out after colonization. When Europeans arrived to what is now America, there were some 300 Native languages spoken.
Today, a review by the Bureau of Indian Affairs estimates there are about 167. But that number could drop to only 20 by the year 2050. The report blames decades of efforts by the U.S. government to force assimilation, including setting up schools where Native languages were banned, and policies that sent Indians to urban centers away from their culture.
“Back in the day of when my grandparents and even when their grandparents grew up, that’s the only thing that they spoke was Ho-Chunk,” McCaskey said. “And because of things like the boarding schools and things like our removing our people from this land, speaking our language almost became a secret.”
Which is why many tribes across the country are dedicating resources to preserving their language because they say language is their culture and identity.
Ho-Chunk Nation is now developing an online dictionary with Ho-Chunk words and a new upcoming app designed to help people learn the language in the digital age. It was made possible through a grant from the Language Conservancy, an Indiana-based nonprofit that promotes Indigenous languages.
“There’s a huge gap from my grandparents’ generation to my generation out of fear, out of necessity, out of whatever,” McCaskey said. “Which is why things like this and our dictionary, those types of things, are important to preserve what’s left of our language.”
“We don’t know, obviously, as much as our elders did when we were little kids,” Garvin said. “But we’re trying to preserve what we know and leaving it on learning tools like the app we are talking about, and we have a lexicon and we have a dictionary. We have people in our department, technicians in our department, learning tools that people can look at on their cell phones because people like to use their cell phones. It’s a good way to connect with the younger generation through cell phones.”
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