One long held misconception about American Indian nations and tribal communities is that they all speak one single common language. However, that is certainly not the case in Wisconsin as there are at least three language families that are considered to be linguistically separate. Of the eleven federally-recognized American Indian nations and tribal communities in Wisconsin, the six bands of Chippewa or Ojibwe, Potawatomi, Menominee and the Stockbridge Munsee Mohican speak Algonquian languages, the Oneida speak an Iroquoian language and the Ho-Chunk speak a Siouan language. Until recently most of these languages were strictly oral, and there were limited amounts literature or other written resources.
Currently, many American Indian nations and tribal communities in Wisconsin and throughout the United States are involved in language preservation efforts to preserve and revive their native languages. While a number of American Indian students may not be fluent native language speakers, they may come from communities where they may be exposed to their native language either at home, in preschool or tribal programs, or in other language preservation programs. By the time these students enter school, they may have had several years’ of bicultural or bilingual learning. However, many educators may be unaware of this language foundation and how to use it to enhance student academic success.
American Indian students, families and communities have traditionally been bicultural or bilingual members of their tribal nation and of the United States. In Wisconsin, American Indian nations and tribal communities presently use the Roman Alphabet symbols to represent written sounds in their languages, use unique sound systems and have dialectal variations of their native language. DPI American Indian Studies Consultant David O’Connor was interviewed by the WIDA Consortium about the importance of language and culture on student engagement and achievement. Here is a hyperlink to the article from the WIDA Focus On: American Indian English Language Learners.
Another resource that demonstrates the importance of language in American Indian communities is project The Ways, which is a production of the Wisconsin Media Lab. The Ways is a series of short videos and other resources that showcase the present day experiences of members of the eleven federally-recognized American Indian nations and tribal communities in Wisconsin.
The video Language Apprentice tells the story of a Ho-Chunk language apprentice, Arlene Thunder Blackdeer, who is one of 15 language apprentices working to become fluent Ho-Chunk language speakers. As she has become more fluent, Arlene has become a language teacher at Tomah Area School District.
The video Prayers in a Song is the story of hip hop artist Tall Paul from the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe in Minnesota and his struggle to learn Ojibwe. Set in the urban area of Minneapolis, Tall Paul shares his struggles trying to learn his native language and better understand his heritage.
Tribal Language Revitalization Grants
In recognition of the importance of these American Indian nation languages and their relationship to student engagement and academic achievement, the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction issues award grants on a competitive, annual basis to school districts or CESAs who partner with a tribal government, or consortia of one or more school districts and one or more tribal governments.
These grants funds can be used for activities related to providing instruction in one or more tribal languages as curricular or co-curricular offerings, such as curriculum design, creation of appropriate assessment instruments, professional development activities, language related activities for parents and community members, instructional delivery, and program evaluation.