Native Languages of Wisconsin

See Chapter 1 in Wisconsin Talk for more information about this topic!

All of Wisconsin’s native languages are seriously endangered, yet every tribe has language preservation and revitalization projects in progress.

Native American population in 2010 by county

Native American population in 2010, by county. Data from 2010 U.S. census, table DP-1, “Profile of General Population and Housing Characteristics.” Purnell, Thomas. WISCONSIN TALK. © 2013 by the Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System. Reprinted by permission of The University of Wisconsin Press.

All languages belong to different language families, and in Wisconsin, three Native American language families are represented. Potawatomi, Menominee, the original language of the Stockbridge-Munsee, and Ojibwe (spoken by the Red Cliff, St. Croix, Bad River, Lac Courte Oreilles, Lac du Flambeau, and Sokaogan bands of the Lake Superior Chippewa) are all languages in the Algonquian language family. The Oneida language is a member of the Iroquoian language family (along with related languages like Mohawk and Cherokee), and the Ho-Chunk language is part of the Siouan language family (which also includes the Lakota, Dakota, and Assiniboine languages).

The following map shows the federally recognized tribes of Wisconsin, and it’s clear that these different native languages of Wisconsin are spoken in different areas of the state:

Tribal areas in Wisconsin 2010

Tribal areas in Wisconsin. Boundaries have been generalized from geographic data available as 2010 Tiger/Line shapefiles from the U.S. Census Bureau. Purnell, Thomas. WISCONSIN TALK. © 2013 by the Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System. Reprinted by permission of The University of Wisconsin Press.

Why are these languages extinct or in danger of becoming extinct?

The colonization of North America, especially by the Spanish, the French and the British, set into motion the cultural and social changes that eventually caused a partial or in many cases a complete shift to Spanish, French, and/or English by Native American populations.

Additionally, government policies often mandated such a shift away from Native American languages. Boarding schools for Native American children played a huge role in the repression of Native American language and cultures. These schools not only caused harm to individuals and communities, but the damage done to the survival of Native American language is incalculable, as children who attended these schools missed out an entire childhood of community language and culture, with many deciding, when it was time to raise their own children, to speak English rather than their native languages. Wisconsin had its fair share of government boarding schools for Native American children, as shown in the following map:

Indian schools and enrollments in Wisconsin in 1899

Indian schools and enrollments in Wisconsin in 1899. Data from Statistics of Indian Tribes, Indian Agencies, and Indian Schools of Every Character (1899). Purnell, Thomas. WISCONSIN TALK. © 2013 by the Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System. Reprinted by permission of The University of Wisconsin Press.

Currently, various Native American languages of Wisconsin are taught in day care, in schools and in colleges and other special programs. Many tribes have a tribal body that oversees language revitalization efforts. And there is a growing public presence of Wisconsin's native languages, as exemplified by these signs in English, Spanish, Hmong, AND Ho-Chunk (from the resale shop at St. Vincent de Paul's in Madison):

Sign in English, Spanish, Hmong and Ho-Chunk

Photo courtesy of Mateja Schuck.

For more information, please consult and contact:

References and related publications:

Hinton, Leanne.  2013.  Bringing Our Languages Home: Language Revitalization for Families.  Berkeley, CA:  Heyday Books.

Smith, Andrea. 2007. Soul Wound: The Legacy of Native American Schools. Amnesty International Magazine, March 26.

Caldwell, Alan and Monica Macaulay. 2000. The Current Status of the Menominee Language. Proceedings of the 31st Conference on Algonquian Languages 31: 18–29.

Hinton, Leanne. 2001. The Master-Apprentice Language Learning Program. In The Green Book of Language Revitalization in Practice, eds. Leanne Hinton and Ken Hale, pp. 217–226. New York: Academic Press.