at the Nkwusm Salish Language School spend their days speaking
Salish and Pend d'Oreille with fluent elders
April Charlo is happy to hear that state lawmakers
passed a bill yesterday supporting Native American language immersion
programs in the public schools. Growing up on the Flathead Reservation,
Charlo says the first time she had a chance to learn Salish was
in the 7th grade.
"And I wanted more." Charlo says. "I
couldn't have more until high school, but then it was only, you
know, that 50 minute block a day. To have an immersion program in
public school would have just been amazing."
Charlo says that one class changed the course
of her life, waking her up to her roots and setting her on a positive
course for the future. She's now the Executive Director of Nkwusm,
a Salish language immersion school in Arlee.
"The language and culture and tradition and ceremonies,
they're interlocked, they're interlinked," Charlo says. "So
when a child is learning their language, it just goes right to that
connection. And it's just a confidence, it's a confidence in, I
know my language, I know where I come from. This could really help
The bill, sponsored by Democratic Senator Jonathan
Windy Boy from the Rocky Boy Reservation, makes Montana only the
second state in the nation to provide funding for Native language
immersion, following Hawai'i, which passed similar legislation twenty-eight
"We're investing in a population of this state
that has been neglected for too long," Windy Boy says, "and
I think that by investing in those human resources I think is really,
is going to be the best investment that we can provide for all of
Montana to be a better place to live in."
The legislature capped that investment at $22,500
per year, half of what Windy Boy originally proposed, and only enough
to partially support language immersion in a handful of schools.
But Senator Roger Webb from Billings, who voted against the bill,
says even that is too much. He thinks the cost of immersion programs
should be borne exclusively by the tribes.
"If they really believe that that's an issue,
it could be remedied on a home base," Webb says. "I would
rather see individuals, you know, learn Spanish or French or Chinese."
But for many Montanans, preserving the Native
languages of this place is a top priority.
At the Kyi-Yo Powwow in Missoula, the corridors
of the Adams Center auditorium are echoing with the sounds of jingle
dresses as family members reunite and dancers prepare to compete.
Eighteen-year-old Anthony Tailfeathers, a senior from Browning,
is dancing in the Northern Traditional category. He speaks some
Blackfeet and Navajo, and says many in his generation are hungry
to learn their native languages once they're exposed to them.
"They teach Spanish and French and all these
other languages, you know. So why not Blackfeet?" He asks.
Windy Boy says he initiated the bill in hopes
of connecting with more motivated students like Tailfeathers. In
Montana, the graduation rate for American Indian students is almost
20 percentage points lower than for any other race or ethnicity.
All nine of Montana's indigenous languages are
facing a rapid decline in the number of fluent speakers. That decline
is no accident for over a century, the Bureau of Indian Affairs
actively suppressed the use of Native languages, which means many
Montanans share the experience of 37-year-old Carrie Iron Shirt
of Browning, who was also at the pow wow, says her parents were
afraid to teach her their native Blackfeet language.
"My dad being in the boarding school, they were
taught not to talk their language," Iron Shirt says. "So
he didn't want us to go through that. So my generation missed out
on the language."
Iron Shirt has enrolled her daughter Jade in
a Blackfeet language immersion school. But, like Nkwusm in Arlee,
that school is funded privately. This new bill provides incentives
for public schools to teach Native languages at least half of the
school day. Powwow attendee Roy Big Crane of Ronan says the state
has a special responsibility to help revive Native languages.
"It was through the policies of the government,
the states, Christianity, public school systems that helped almost
eradicate the languages," Big Crane says, "people being
shamed to speak their language, being told not to speak the language,
being punished for speaking their language. So the circle might
as well come back and the state might as well put some money in
to help bring it back."
Schools must apply to receive the funds, which
can then be used to help compensate Native language instructors
and cover other costs of implementing immersion programs. Senator
Windy Boy is arranging a signing ceremony with Governor Steve Bullock
which will include tribal members from around the state.