Buffett Institute - Educare Winnebago Teachers Sharing Tribal Language With Young Children
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July 27, 2022

Educare Winnebago Teachers Sharing Tribal Language With Young Children

Young girl in Educare Winnebago classroomAt Educare Winnebago, an early childhood center where roughly 90% of the student population is Native American, educators are getting the chance to learn more of the language so they can infuse it into their classrooms and lessons, giving students a tie to their ancestry and early exposure to Ho-Chunk words and the alphabet.

By Erin Duffy

Years ago, when federal assimilation policies ruled the day, Amy LaPointe’s great-grandmother risked punishment, even beatings, if she attempted to speak the Ho-Chunk language of her Winnebago Tribe. 

But inside Educare Winnebago in northeast Nebraska on a hot July evening, LaPointe, the education director for the Winnebago Tribe, is watching about one dozen early childhood teachers and community members recite the once-forbidden Ho-Chunk words. The group is carefully practicing their pronunciation, forging ahead and laughing even when they stumble. 

Coka (cho-ka). Grandfather. Cusge (Choo-shgay). Nephew.

“You got to feel that right here,” language instructor Craig Cleveland Jr. says, enunciating. Cleveland said Ho-Chunk has been taught through orthography (writing, punctuation, and spelling conventions), sentence structure, and speaking techniques. 

Amy LaPointeAmy LaPointe

The Winnebago Tribe of Nebraska has been working for years to revive its language through the Ho-Chunk Renaissance Project, providing more instruction in local schools, training language apprentices, and creating learning materials and curriculum in Ho-Chunk. 

It is a matter of pride and heritage, but also of urgency: only a handful of fluent Ho-Chunk speakers in Nebraska are still alive. There is also a Wisconsin branch of the tribe. 
At Educare Winnebago, an early childhood center where roughly 90% of the student population is Native American, educators are getting the chance to learn more of the language so they can infuse it into their classrooms and lessons, giving students a tie to their ancestry and early exposure to Ho-Chunk words and the alphabet. 

“Science indicates that babies’ brains are the best learning machines ever created, and that infants’ learning is time-sensitive. Their brains will never be better at learning a second language than they are between 0 and 3 years of age,” said Patricia Kuhl, co-director of the University of Washington Institute of Learning & Brain Sciences and a professor of speech and hearing sciences, in a 2017 article

Amy Encinger, an assistant professor in the Department of Education and Child Development at the Munroe-Meyer Institute at the University of Nebraska Medical Center, a partner of the Buffett Early Childhood Institute at the University of Nebraska, received a Spencer Foundation Racial Equity Grant to expand the work with Winnebago’s early educators. 

The grant supports teacher stipends and other costs for the Wednesday night Ho-Chunk classes through this summer and next, plus professional development sessions through the upcoming school year. Encinger and evaluators will also study how the teachers incorporate language into their classrooms and whether and how children pick up on it. The weekly two-hour language class is voluntary and typically attracts 10 to 12 attendees. 

Watch videos from the class

“Educare was already incorporating the language, but this is building on it,” Encinger said. “The teachers are super-invested and they’re trying really hard. They just want to do the best for their kids.”

Language and strong ties to family culture are considered protective factors, she said, meaning they can help build resilience, buffering children against the negative effects of stress and trauma. 

“How can we help build that in kids, to be proud of their culture and proud of their language?” Encinger said. “They were not always allowed to speak the language; they were not always allowed to celebrate their culture.”

Amy EncingerAmy Encinger

Teachers have previously taught Ho-Chunk to preschool students in 10- or 15-minute periods in the past, LaPointe and Encinger said, but that wasn’t enough time for students or teachers to learn much of the language or its nuances. Non-Native teachers could be self-conscious about their pronunciation. The goal with the current initiative is for Ho-Chunk to be used more frequently and naturally in early childhood classrooms, so students understand when teachers say “OK, line up” in Ho-Chunk or sing songs. 

“Our parents don’t speak it, so they’re not going to get that interaction at home,” LaPointe said. “Even myself, as a young mom, my daughter (now 21) knew hundreds of words and she was teaching me, but I never used it with her.”

And teachers aren’t just learning the phrases, she said, but the history behind Ho-Chunk, too.

Kaira Wolfe, an Educare teacher and member of the Winnebago Tribe, attends the class alongside her mother and fellow teacher, Michele Smith. Wolfe’s classroom is full of Native imagery and signs with both English and Ho-Chunk words.

Wolfe says before the class, she knew some basics in Ho-Chunk: colors, shapes, numbers, “but it never proceeded past that.” Teachers generally learned how to sound out a few words and phrases phonetically, she said, but now those in the class are learning the language’s complex alphabet and spelling. 

“Now I see words around the building and recognize them,” Wolfe said. “I’m learning how to introduce myself, how to use sentences. It’s really important to bring the language and the culture back to our students.” 

Ho-Chunk is a sophisticated language that is not exactly beginner-friendly, said LaPointe—phrases can be different based on formal or informal address or whether the subject is sitting, standing, or lying down. 

“It’s hard,” said Abbie Hill, another Educare teacher. “There’s like 10 more letters in the alphabet.”

Smith said her grandchildren are already absorbing the language at a young age and sprinkling Ho-Chunk words into their everyday conversations. Wolfe’s twins are in a Ho-Chunk language immersion program at Winnebago Public Schools.  

“Her kids are speaking more than I knew when I was little,” Smith said. “The language was always around. My grandmother spoke it, but I’d only pick up on certain words. We always knew when we were getting teased, though.”

Erin Duffy works at the Buffett Early Childhood Institute at the University of Nebraska and writes about early childhood issues that affect children, families, educators, and communities. Previously, she spent more than five years covering education stories for daily newspapers.
Have a comment, a question, or a story idea? Reach Erin at erinduffy@nebraska.edu


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