Highlighting Ho-Chunk Language Learners: John Lee

By Kaili Berg

     Language is history, language is life, and language is the cultural health of the Ho-Chunk Nation. Fewer than 30 first language or eminent speakers are left.

     John Lee, Ho-Chunk Tribal Member, has been learning the Ho-Chunk language ever since he was a child. He was born in Maryland, and later moved to Wisconsin and grew up in the City of Tomah.

     “My Choka, Orval Greendeer, had a language camp. I remember going to one of the camps where he was teaching language. I also heard the language going to feasts, but I did not really speak any of the language, Lee said. “It really motivated me to want to learn and understand the people who were speaking it.”

     Lee said when he was in high school he had a job at the Drop In Center, located in Tomah. Lee remembers when Gordon Thunder came by and went over a bunch of words with the youth who attended. Lee became curious and during his freshman year of high school, the school offered language classes after school that he attended.

     To Lee, language is important to him because it is sacred to him.

     “Ho-Chunk means Sacred Voice, and it’s hard to imagine being Ho-Chunk without knowing it,” said Lee.

     Lee said after taking high school language classes, he went to college in Madison. He met Cecil Garvin and Henning Garvin who gave a class there. He got a copy of Cecil's textbook and started going through it on his own.

     “It’s been a lot of continual exposure in learning, rather than an immediate thing for me to learn.”

     One of Lee's challenges with learning the language was listening to fluent speakers. There are currently less than 30 eminent speakers left, and listening to them speak can be challenging for learners. Lee said that it is a challenge now, and a challenge for future generations.

     “If you want to learn the language, work at it every day, even if it is just a little bit each time,” said Lee.