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Cecil Garvin, esteemed teacher of Ho-Chunk language, to receive honorary degree from UW–Madison

March 20, 2023 By Doug Erickson

Cecil Garvin, a highly respected Ho-Chunk elder who has devoted much of his professional life to the preservation and promotion of the Ho-Chunk language and Indigenous culture, is pictured at his home in Madison. Photo: Jeff Miller

The University of Wisconsin–Madison will award an honorary doctorate degree this May to Cecil Garvin, a highly respected Ho-Chunk elder who has devoted much of his professional life to the preservation and promotion of the Ho-Chunk language and culture.

Garvin is a primary author of many of the language materials presently used in K-12 education to teach Ho-Chunk, and he coauthored a foundational Ho-Chunk language text and workbook for adults.

Garvin, whose Ho-Chunk name is Waacanąžįga (“He Stands on the Boat”), spent many years as an associate lecturer at UW– Madison, where he taught and served as a master speaker consultant for Ho­-Chunk language classes and contributed to linguistic research, including doctoral dissertations. UW–Madison occupies land that is the ancestral home of the Ho-Chunk Nation.

On Jan. 23, 2009, Cecil Garvin (left) listens to his students’ response while teaching a Ho-Chunk Native American language class in Science Hall. His son, UW–Madison alumnus Henning Garvin (right) was co-teaching the class.

“Mr. Garvin is an esteemed teacher and researcher and a vital knowledge-holder for the Ho-Chunk Nation, the state of Wisconsin, and the global Indigenous community,” Chancellor Jennifer L. Mnookin says. “He richly deserves this honor, which recognizes his extraordinary career and outstanding service to society.”

In selecting recipients, the UW–Madison Committee on Honorary Degrees considers sustained and uncommonly meritorious activity exhibiting values that are esteemed by a great university. Preference is given to people connected in some significant way to the state or university, though that is not a prerequisite.

Garvin was jointly nominated for the honorary degree by three entities on campus: the American Indian Studies Program; the Language Sciences Program; and Enwejig, a group of faculty, staff, students and alumni committed to bringing visibility and linguistic justice to Indigenous languages at UW–Madison. In their nominating letter, the three entities said Garvin has invested decades in documenting and retaining the Ho-Chunk language, as both a teacher and a researcher.

“State-sanctioned discrimination against Native American languages and other aspects of Native identity persisted throughout the 20th century and is still felt today,” the nominators wrote. “The Ho-Chunk language has narrowly survived this era of adversity thanks to language warriors like Mr. Garvin who continue to speak it and work to pass it on by teaching it to new generations.”

Garvin is a supremely fluent speaker of Ho-Chunk — one of only a few remaining. He has instructed learners of all ages and abilities in community settings as well as through dedicated language camps and classes offered through the Ho-Chunk Nation. He has been a trailblazer in working to find ways to bring Indigenous language to people who live outside of Native communities, and he has contributed significantly to tools used in remote and home learning, including the Ho-Chunk Nation’s language-learning app and online dictionary.

“On occasion, there is an individual such as Cecil who our communities recognize as warrior, story-keeper, ceremonialist, elder, and master speaker,” says Brian McInnes, the Leola R. Culver Professor of Philanthropy and Nonprofits in the School of Human Ecology and a citizen of the Ojibwe and Potawatomi nations. “Cecil has been a language elder for not only the Ho-Chunk Nation, but all Indigenous nations. He has helped inspire virtually every successful Native language project in the state today.”

A decorated veteran, Garvin served three tours of duty in Vietnam as a U.S. Army special forces officer. As a tribal official for the Ho-Chunk Nation, he played an instrumental role in the early days of its government, establishing the Ho-Chunk Nation’s health department and promoting economic development through gaming and other means. He is a member and leader of the Deer clan. He remains a respected participant in government and served for many years on the Ho-Chunk traditional court. He resides in Madison.

Garvin will be conferred the honorary doctor of humane letters degree at the spring commencement ceremony for all doctoral, MFA and medical professional degree candidates at 5:30 p.m. Friday, May 12 at the Kohl Center. The commencement ceremony for all bachelor’s, master’s and law degree candidates follows at noon the next day, Saturday, May 13, at Camp Randall Stadium. For more information and updates, please visit the UW–Madison commencement website.