Montana governor signs bills to preserve Indian languages

By Lisa Baumann, The Associated Press

HELENA, Mont. (AP) — Montana’s governor signed bills Wednesday aimed at encouraging schools to develop American Indian language immersion programs and preserving Indian languages.

Gov. Steve Bullock signed the bills at the Capitol, after a tribal prayer and song and after bill sponsors Sen. Jonathan Windy Boy, D-Box Elder, and Rep. George Kipp, D-Heart Butte, presented Bullock with an eagle feather and braided sweetgrass in appreciation.

“Montana is leading the nation in the promotion and preservation of tribal languages,” Bullock said. “Tribal languages are more than just a collection of words and phrases tied together. They represent the culture and history of not only Native Americans in our state, but in fact, they represent the culture and history of our entire state.”

Windy Boy said what makes new laws unique is that the Legislature saw the importance and took action.

“They voted and passed this law, based on its own merits and that it is the right thing to do, not forced to do so by any court order,” he said referring to the Indian Education For All Act passed during the 1999 session after a court ruling.

The language immersion law sponsored by Windy Boy will provide $45,000 in the next two years for the creation of programs in schools with Indian student enrollment of at least 10 percent.

It’s enough money to allow roughly five school districts to be compensated for immersion programs with a certified specialist teaching 17 students in an Indian language for half the day, according to state legislative analyst Pad McCracken.

Currently no public schools offer Indian language immersion programs, but three private K-12 Native language immersion schools exist in the state. Office of Public Instruction Deputy Superintendent Dennis Parman said Wednesday that teachers holding the license needed to teach Indian language immersion classes already work in some of the 88 public schools that would be eligible for the programs.

“We’ve visited with some schools over the years that have had interest in starting some of these programs,” he said. “They just haven’t gone there. This provides the incentive to do it.”

Parman added the amount of money might not sound like much, but the programs would build on existing classrooms with a teacher and materials, which are already funded, and add immersion to it.

Kipp’s bill will extend the Montana Indian Language Preservation program, which was started in the 2013 legislative session after Windy Boy sponsored that bill. Under the measure, $1.5 million will go to support the efforts of Montana tribes to preserve Indian languages in the form of spoken, written word or sign language over the next two years. Some of the money will also assist in the preservation and curricular goals of Montana’s Indian Education for All Program.

“The Montana Indian Language Preservation Program has helped tribes pursue innovative approaches to ensuring these languages are passed on to future generations,” Kipp said of his measure. “Today’s signing will ensure that good work continues, and we are able build on the foundational efforts that are taking place across Montana.”

Bill allocates $2M for Montana tribal language preservation efforts

Students at the Nkwusm Salish Immersion School in Arlee concentrate last week during language lessons. The school, founded by four non-Salish speakers to keep the language alive, is 10 years old this fall.
Students at the Nkwusm Salish Immersion School in Arlee concentrate last week during language lessons. The school, founded by four non-Salish speakers to keep the language alive, is 10 years old this fall. Photo: Kurt Wilson/Missoulian

Associated Press

GREAT FALLS – The Montana Legislature created a program to help the state’s Indian tribes develop educational and reference materials to keep their native languages alive as the number of people who fluently speak the languages continues to decline.

Lawmakers allocated $2 million for the Montana Indian Language Preservation pilot program in Senate Bill 342, sponsored by Sen. Jonathan Windy Boy, D-Rocky Boy.

Superintendent of Public Instruction Denise Juneau said Indian Education for All includes a component on preserving cultural integrity, which would include preserving languages.

“There is a need to figure out ways to preserve that language, whether that be through technology or video or dictionaries,” Juneau told the Great Falls Tribune.

The bill allows tribes to use the money to create audio and video recordings, dictionaries, reference materials and curricula. The tribes must demonstrate progress and must supply copies of their work to the Montana Historical Society for preservation and use by the public.

Tribal colleges and historic preservation offices are expected to be involved in the effort.

“This is an amazing gesture,” said Nicholas Vrooman, a Helena historian who is working with the Little Shell tribe on administering the funds the tribe will receive under the pilot project.

Tribes must submit proposals for use of funds by Sept. 30. The money is to be split evenly among Montana’s seven Indian reservations and the Little Shell Tribe, a state-recognized tribe. The project is being overseen by the state Tribal Economic Development Commission, which is attached to the Commerce Department.

The bill was signed by Gov. Steve Bullock on May 6.

Richard Littlebear, president and dean of cultural affairs at Chief Dull Knife College in Lame Deer, said the federal American Indian Languages Preservation Act of 1990 helped spur preservation efforts, but he said competition for federal grant money is intense.