Little Priest Immerses Students in Language

Feb 15th, 2000 | By | Category: 11-3: Native Language, Tribal College News

“Just as it was with our relatives long ago, we must continue to keep our language alive so we can pass it on to future generations,” Isaac Caramony intoned in fluent and lyric HoChunk (Winnebago). His student audience sat in rapt attention as he spoke of the importance of the HoChunk language immersion class he was helping to teach. The students had just undergone three weeks of complex drills in a subject most were novices in, yet they were eager for more. Little Priest Tribal College (LPTC)’s language and culture program sponsored the three-week, summer, language immersion class.

“Attendance at LPTC HoChunk classes is increasing due to the successes of past and current students. When one student demonstrates increased HoChunk language proficiency, that inspires others to do the same,” Language Program Coordinator Elaine Rice said. Last November, the students began a six month series of classes, one weekend a month at the college in Winnebago, Neb. Since the class focuses on using HoChunk in the home, adult students attend for six hours on Saturday and bring their children to the three-hour Sunday session. The classes are given in HoChunk with no other language spoken, allowing students to hear and become comfortable with the sound of the language. No notes or other written materials are allowed during class time, requiring students to learn through practice and memory. After each weekend session, however, families take pre-printed notes and pre-recorded audio tapes home to sharpen their HoChunk skills.

Zena Reeves, LPTC HoChunk instructor, and Rice decided to introduce the language immersion concept to local students while it is still feasible. Rice said, “Figuratively speaking, the language waters are still ten feet deep so we can immerse ourselves in the resources we have. In a few years, if we do nothing, our fluency–our resources– may be too shallow to allow us to have these classes.”

Is language important to sustain a culture and the identity of a tribe? Many others in the Winnebago community believe so. Lorelei DeCora, director of the Winnebago Diabetes Project, told the class that the sessions are part of a holistic approach to improving the physical and mental health of the people. “The language connects us to every other aspect of our life as tribal members,” she said. “But you also have to think about learning with reverence. That’s the essence of what our HoChunk language is about.”

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