Preserving Hoocąk and Caring for People
Henning grew up in Madison, Wisconsin; here, he completed his education which culminated with a Bachelor of Science degree in linguistics from UW-Madison. After graduation, the Ho-Chunk Nation hired him, and Henning found a long-term home. He has worked for the Nation in various roles over the years, with the bulk of his work concentrating on preserving the Ho-Chunk language.
Ho-Chunk Language preservation is weighty, vast, and significant work: language is history, language is life, and language is the future health of the tribe. As a critically endangered language, fewer than 30 first language speakers are left, one of which is Henning’s father. With the help of Ho-Chunk elders and many other members, Henning is not only cataloging and deciphering the underlying structure, patterns, and meaning to record everything—he is helping preserve tribal history and ensure its future through education. Recently, Henning made the news with a years-long project by unveiling the long-waited digital Hoocąk–English dictionary. This is a huge step forward in preservation efforts while educating and inspiring a new generation of proud indigenous language speakers.
Henning bristles at the mention of his successes, “Accomplishment is always part of a group effort, or it’s building off of previous hard work, together. It is impossible to talk about results in terms of just myself.” Henning has also run for office, served in the tribal legislature, and held leadership positions, including Heritage Preservation Department Director. He has helped efforts to preserve the effigy mounds and been a crucial part of many more tribal successes, but always returning to the endless allure of the language preservation project: a true collaboration and a labor of love.
However, it is time for a change—a call for service in a different mode. The pandemic arrived, and Henning took that as a sign to make his career move. Henning has seen first-hand the impact a great nurse has, especially on the vulnerable and hurting. Their societal role stands out: “where would we be without them?” he muses. He loves the idea of making an impact differently, one that is more immediate and most needed. “At the age of 45, I’m officially part of a tight-knit nursing cohort in Black River Falls.”
Henning looked at various programs and chose Western’s. Over a year into the program, he is experiencing first-hand the flexible, hands-on learning experience with seasoned instructors—all top-notch, accommodating, and responsive. As a nontraditional student, Henning appreciates the convenience of online courses; he has an advantage because of his history with procrastination’s pitfalls. When Henning secures his nursing degree, he plans to accumulate experience on the job and return to the tribe in his new role.
If you are interested in checking out the dictionary, go to dictionary.hochunk.org. A native speaker’s pronunciation accompanies each of the more than 11,000 entries. The number of entries in this living document will grow as the preservation continues collaboratively.