UPDATE: The Senate passed the language bill at 3:15 a.m. Monday. The vote was 18-2, with Sens. John Coghill and Pete Kelly, both Fairbanks Republicans, the only no votes. Among the Senators to give impassioned speeches in favor of the bill was Sen. Lesil McGuire, R-Anchorage, who said there wasn’t anything the state could do about what happened to Native language speakers in the past, but it could help people into the future.
JUNEAU — Fearing their language bill was getting caught up in end-of-session politics, Alaska Natives held a demonstration in front of Sen. Lesil McGuire’s Capitol office Sunday, demanding she send it to the Senate floor before it was too late.
After 30 minutes of drumming, dancing, speeches and story telling, McGuire’s chief aide, Brett Huber, said McGuire would do just that, put it on Sunday’s Senate calendar. He said she supported the measure.
The bill, House Bill 216, had broad backing in the House, where it passed 38-0 on April 16. It would recognize 20 Native languages as official languages of the state, though it would require only that English, the state’s first legal language, be used in official documents and meetings.
Though of little practical effect, Native speakers said the measure was rich with symbolic significance, a recognition that historical efforts by the dominant culture to forbid them their languages was wrong — and had failed. Many in the hallway Sunday had been in the gallery last week as the bill passed the House, cheering after the roll was taken and the tally was unanimous.
The demonstrators, from little children in Easter clothes to elders who needed help to walk, began arriving around noon. The legislative calendar showed that the language measure was parked in the Rules Committee Saturday, a limbo zone for legislation, especially in the waning days of a session. Bills can leap out of Rules and land on the floor, or die there when the session ends — which explains why the word “powerful” often precedes the title, “Rules chairman.”
It’s unclear why McGuire was holding the bill, or even if she was. She was in and out of meetings all day and unavailable for comment. As the demonstration was gathering steam, she walked out of the her office in a bright yellow dress and strolled past the crowd without turning or saying a word. Later, she texted that the majority leader, Sen. John Coghill, R-Fairbanks, had a concern about the bill.
“I am putting it up though, no matter what,” she texted. “Always was going to.”
Coghill later said he didn’t have time to talk, but at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing last week, Coghill said he was concerned that the bill would supersede the 1998 voter initiative that made English the state’s official language and which won by a landslide. He suggested that the bill be changed to declare the Native languages only “ceremonial” and not “official,” but the original bill was left intact.
Before Huber’s announcement, the group was clearly anxious about what would happen.
“It’s real disappointing after what happened on the House side,” said Beth Geiger. “With all the momentum it had, it’s shocking it’s sitting like that.”
X’unei Lance Twitchell, a Native language professor at the University of Alaska Southeast, said he had heard many expressions of support by legislators and was puzzled by the bill’s apparent lack of traction.
“If they support this bill, why don’t they use their political power?” he said.
Later, after Huber announced McGuire would push the bill forward, Twitchell said he was happier but still wanted to see it through. The demonstrators had no plans to leave the hallway, he said.
“We’re going to stay till it passes,” Twitchell said. “If they want us to enjoy our Easter, they’ll put it on the floor first.”
A kindergarten Ojibwe immersion class, where students spend most of their day learning in the language native to the region, could be an option for a Duluth elementary school next year.
The Duluth School Board will vote on adding such a program Tuesday.
“It’s a big move,” said Edye Howes, coordinator of the American Indian education program for the Duluth school district. “Historically, the Duluth American Indian community hasn’t had much trust in Duluth public schools. This would be a statement: Look what we’re willing to do to start strengthening and building a relationship.”
Immersion programs, such as those for Spanish, have grown in popularity nationwide for their ability to develop cognitive skills, especially at a young age. Such programs also help to broaden a student’s worldview and the ability to think from another perspective, Howes said.
For a few years, the Duluth district has partnered with the University of Minnesota Duluth and its Enweyang Ojibwe Language Nest for young children, currently teaching those up to pre-K. Gordon Jourdain teaches that class, which also serves as a lab for students at UMD who plan to teach Ojibwe.
Immersion programs do more in helping with the achievement gap than anything else, Jourdain said.
“They are very successful in the Duluth public school system as a result of being exposed to multiple languages,” he said, noting that he hears from former parents on how past students are doing. “It’s the opportune time for brain development and language acquisition.”
At a recent School Board meeting, Superintendent Bill Gronseth said the program would be a good way to begin improving the American Indian graduation rate.
“Knowing that it’s one of the lowest of the subgroups,” he said, “it would go a long way to improving our future.”
Jourdain, from Ontario, spoke Ojibwe before he spoke English. He also has an Ojibwe-fluent classroom assistant so students can hear regular conversation.
He teaches through a different lens, he said, taking the kids outside to demonstrate words.
“It’s a good way for language development,” he said. “If you’re talking about snow and it’s falling on their nose, they will live what it is; they are living the language. I am not teaching about it.”
While Duluth has not yet proposed a school for the class, plans are for between 15 and 20 students. The district would hire either a licensed teacher who speaks Ojibwe fluently or one who speaks it as a first language. The plan would include an assistant who speaks the language and comes in regularly. The proposed program eventually would consist of one class for each grade, adding one grade per year. For the first year, the cost would be roughly $153,000, with most of the money paying for the cost of the teacher — which already is allocated to the school — and the assistant. The rest would come out of state integration funds.
Aside from time with specialists such as a physical education teacher, the class would be taught entirely in Ojibwe.
Because the Ojibwe language doesn’t include numerals, numbers would be spelled out with words for the subject of math, for example.
Lydia Shinkle sends her daughter to the UMD language nest. She said she’d drive her wherever they place a class if it’s approved, and she knows of other parents who would.
“She is part Native American, and it is important to me that she has that link to her culture,” Shinkle said of her daughter, Natalia. “It’s something you can’t find anywhere else … We’re losing the language every day, and it’s important to preserve it for the next generation so she can teach others around her.”
Finding one teacher won’t be difficult, said William Howes, coordinator of the Duluth school district’s Office of Education Equity. Between UMD and the College of St. Scholastica, and beyond the Twin Ports, many programs are committed to producing licensed Ojibwe teachers, he said. Finding six might not be as easy, but with a staggered approach there would be time, he said.
“Much has been done and has happened to indigenous languages, but they are still alive and viable,” William Howes said.
Places such as federal boarding schools forced generations of American Indians to assimilate to white culture and prevented them from speaking their native languages.
“Everything within Ojibwe culture and tradition is within our language, just like any culture,” William Howes said. “As we begin immersion, we want to begin with the language spoken here first.”
JUNEAU, Alaska — Amid cheers and clapping from spectators in a packed room, the House Community and Regional Affairs Committee unanimously moved forward a bill symbolically making 20 Alaska Native languages official languages of the state along with English.
Savoogna High School student Chelsea Miklahook told the committee her high school no longer teaches her native language and she was eager to learn it. Savoogna is located on St. Lawrence Island.
The committee room was packed by Native and non-Native speakers ranging from Savoogna and Bethel to Tanacross and Southeast Alaska.
Rep. Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins, a Democrat from Sitka, who authored the bill said it does not have the force of law, but is only symbolic in giving the languages recognition.
The bill now goes before the House State Affairs Committee.
By Mark Gnadt | House Democratic Caucus 01/10/2014
Alaska Native News
On Thursday, Representative Charisse Millett (R-Anchorage), Representative Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins (D-Sitka), Representative Benjamin Nageak (D-Barrow), and Representative Bryce Edgmon (D-Dillingham) announced they are pre-filing the Alaska Native Language Bill to make each of the Native languages in Alaska an official language of the state.
In current state law, English is Alaska’s only official language. This bill would expand the list to include Iñupiaq, Siberian Yupik, Central Alaskan Yup’ik, Alutiiq, Unangax̂, Dena’ina, Deg Xinag, Holikachuk, Koyukon, Upper Kuskokwim, Gwich’in, Tanana, Upper Tanana, Tanacross, Hän, Ahtna, Eyak, Tlingit, Haida, and Tsimshian.
“Losing a language is losing a way of understanding the world,” said Kreiss-Tomkins. “We hope this legislation will add even more momentum to the revitalization of Alaska Native languages.”
“Native culture enriches the lives of Alaskans in so many ways,” said Millett. “Naming Alaska’s twenty indigenous languages as official languages of the state of Alaska demonstrates our respect and admiration for their past, current, and future contributions to our state.”
“This legislation will highlight the importance of preserving and revitalizing the rich and diverse cultural legacy inherent in Alaska Native languages,” said Edgmon, chairman of the House Bush Caucus. “We recently celebrated our 50th year of statehood. In another 50 years I would like to see the many languages of our first Alaskans playing a vibrant role in the lives of people all over the state.”
“I want to thank Representative Kreiss-Tomkins for starting the process of the passage of this bill. We, the co-sponsors, feel this bill will be a positive and long overdue formal legislative recognition of all the Native languages still spoken in this great state of ours and the people who still speak their own language,” said Nageak.
Nageak continued, “Those of us who still speak and write our language want to make sure that all Native languages in the state of Alaska do not die off and want them passed on to the younger generation and the generations that will come in the near and distant future. The first words I ever spoke in my life were Iñupiaq words. My generation spoke only Iñupiaq when we were growing up and did not learn to speak English until the age of 6 years old when we started school as kindergartners. Our generation has struggled with and has been somewhat complicit in not speaking our languages when we became parents, therefore the majority of the generation we parented does not speak or write the different Native languages that were spoken entirely by Native people from generations past. We, as prime co-sponsors, feel that this bill is a start in making sure that future generations of Native speakers multiply until someday all of our Native people will once again be totally fluent in their own Native tongue with the added capability of speaking the English language.”
Making these languages official languages of the state of Alaska is a symbolic gesture to acknowledge their importance to Alaskans and the state’s heritage. Passage of the bill will not require public signs and documents to be printed in multiple languages, and it will create no additional costs to the state.
The bill will be assigned a bill number and released on Friday, January 10. It will be read into the official record and assigned committees of referral on the first day of the upcoming legislative session, January 21, 2014.
PINE RIDGE INDIAN RESERVATION, S.D. — Dodge tumbleweeds and stray dogs. Venture down a deeply rutted dirt road. Walk into the warmth of a home heated by a wood-burning stove. There’ll be a deer roast marinating on the kitchen counter.
It is here, in a snug home that sits on the edge of nearly 3 million acres of South Dakota prairie, that you’ll find the heart of a culture. It’s here, at the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, where Joe and Randi Boucher make dinner for their two young daughters. The smaller one squirms and is gently admonished: “Ayustan,” she is told — leave it alone.
It’s here where the Lakota language is spoken, taught and absorbed in day-to-day life.
That makes the Boucher home a rare find. According to the UCLA Language Materials Project, only 6,000 fluent speakers of the Lakota language remain in the world, and few of those are under the age of 65. Of the nearly 30,000 people who live on Pine Ridge, between 5 and 10 percent speak Lakota.
For the past four decades, the race to save the language has started and stuttered, taken on by well-meaning individuals and organizations whose efforts were often snuffed out by lack of funding, community support or organizational issues.
Some days, saving the language “seems like an insurmountable challenge,” said Bob Brave Heart, executive vice president of Red Cloud Indian School on the reservation.
The reason, some say, is a number of serious socioeconomic issues that overwhelm the Pine Ridge communities and make it difficult to successfully revive the dying language. The reservation has an 80 percent unemployment rate, and half the residents live below the federal poverty line, making it the second poorest county in the United States. Next to Haiti, it has the lowest life expectancy in the Western Hemisphere. Men live an average of 48 years; women, 52.
But those aren’t hurdles to learning the language, Randi Boucher said. Instead, they should stand as the very reason to perpetuate it.
“It is our language and our life way that will make change,” she said. “We have a loss of self-identity. We’re trying to exist without that. The language, that’s where the healing starts.”
‘Time to do it right’
Language signs at Red Cloud Indian School, which plans to publish the first comprehensive Lakota language K-12 curriculum by the end of this year. Kayla Gahagan
Brave Heart agreed.
“If you lose the language, you lose the culture,” he said. “When students are informed and part of their culture and their language, they have a better sense of self-worth.”
From Joe Boucher’s point of view, they face a much more serious hurdle.
“The biggest enemy we’re battling is apathy,” he said. “Our young people don’t care. They’d rather live in the now.”
They aren’t the only generation resisting the past. Cultural assimilation practices in the U.S. in the 19th century — sometimes in the form of verbal and physical punishment — forced many natives to speak English.
Elders here relive stories of having their mouths washed with soap or their tongues snapped with rubber bands by boarding school staff for speaking their native language.
“We were persecuted; it was dehumanizing,” said high school language teacher Philomine Lakota. “I was completely brainwashed into thinking English was the only way.”
And yet, Brave Heart said, now is the time to move forward.
“We’ve been teaching the language for 40 years, and we’ve been very ineffective,” he said. “It’s time to do it right.”
The school, alongside the American Indian Studies Research Institute at Indiana University, is about to publish the first comprehensive K-12 Lakota language curriculum. The private Catholic school embarked on the project six years ago, developing, testing and revising the curriculum, with the goal to publish by the end of this year.
Starting next year, students will be required to take Lakota language classes through elementary, middle and the first three years of high school. The final year is optional.
“This year’s first graders will be the first group to go through the entire curriculum,” said Melissa Strickland, who serves as the Lakota language project assistant at Red Cloud. She works with the six Lakota language teachers and trains staff across campus to use the language when conversing with the 575-member student body.
An immersion school
The Boucher family lives on the edge of the nearly 3 million acres that make up the reservation. Here, a shelter, constructed with a view of the scenic Badlands, that is used by Native American artists during the summer to create and sell their artwork. Kayla Gahagan
And is it working?
Last year, language test scores at Red Cloud jumped by 84 percent, and this year more than 70 percent of students reported using Lakota at home, in school and in their communities.
Teacher Philomine Lakota is encouraged, but is also aware that many students do not have family members speaking the language at home, and that many will leave the reservation and enter a world where it is not used.
“I realize I will not turn them into fluent speakers,” she said, but her desire is that they become proficient and eventually teach others. “There is hope.”
The $2.2 million project has not been without its hiccups, including personnel changes and disagreements among staff over which materials to use.
“Many programs for language revitalization are immersion,” Brave Heart said. “We’re not. We’re trying to do it within the confines of the educational system.”
Others have taken a road less traveled.
Peter Hill taught Lakota at Red Cloud before embarking on what he calls an exhausting journey to create the reservation’s first successful Lakota language immersion program, one that promises to fill two major gaps for families — language learning and quality, affordable child care.
“Child care out here is horrible. There’s no day care,” he said. “People just kind of get by with family members.”
After months of often unfruitful fundraising and research, the Lakota Language Immersion School opened a year ago with five babies and toddlers, including one of Hill’s daughters.
“At some point, you feel like it’s now or never,” Hill said. “There’s never going to be enough money or the ideal situation.”
The word has since spread, he said, and things are looking up. Today the program has 10 kids and three full-time staff members.
“We literally have kids on a wait list a couple years into the future, for kids not even born yet,” Hill said.
‘Love’ in two languages
The program was almost derailed last month when a severe South Dakota blizzard forced it out of its building. It was given another building in Oglala and recently moved in, but Hill knows the clock is ticking.
“The oldest kids are between 2 and 3 and starting to talk,” he said. “Eventually our feet will get held to the fire. If we say we’re an immersion program, we need to produce fluent kids.”
Finding qualified staff and enforcing 100 percent spoken Lakota remains the biggest hurdle.
“Even fluent speakers aren’t used to avoiding English,” he said. “People aren’t used to speaking Lakota to children. If they were, the language would be in much better shape. It’s a steep learning curve.”
If the language is to survive, the greater movement to save it will have to center on two things, Hill said — kids learning it as a first language and people like himself learning and teaching it as a second language.
Randi and Joe Boucher, who both studied the language in college and learned it from relatives, say they are encouraged by the new efforts.
They speak in Lakota half the time, gently pushing their kids to learn more than names of household objects. They want conversation:
Le aŋpetu kiŋ owayawa ekta takuku uŋspenič’ičhiya he? (Has the dog been fed?)
Wana wakȟaŋyeža kiŋ iyuŋgwičhuŋkhiyiŋ kta iyečheča. (We should put the kids to bed.)
And: thečhiȟila (I love you), a sentiment now mastered by both girls.
Randi is pursuing a master’s degree in language revitalization and hopes to someday open a school focused on a holistic approach to culture and language.
She is expecting another child next summer, and said that even with her aspirations to start a school, the heart of language learning should be in the home.
In their home, their daughters’ traditional native cradleboards — built, sewn and beaded by family — are out on display, a visible reminder of the couple’s insistence on raising their children with ties to their native blood.
“The day we have grandchildren and they can speak to us in Lakota, then we’ll know we did it right,” Randi said. “Then we can die happy.”
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.