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Montana politics, elections and legislative news

Native Languages: From Forbidden To Funded

Courtesy Nkwusm Salish Language School
Students 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.

Credit Courtesy Nkwusm Salish School

“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 our kids.”

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 years ago.

“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.

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