Montana Offers A Boost To Native Language Immersion Programs Montana, home to nine Native American languages, becomes the second state to fund indigenous language immersion programs in public schools. The same languages were once forbidden in many schools.

Montana Offers A Boost To Native Language Immersion Programs

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Native Americans in Montana were once forbidden to speak their native language in public schools. Now, Montana public schools will be offering Native American language immersion programs, thanks to new state funding. Montana Public Radio's Amy Martin explains the historic reversal.

AMY MARTIN: Many people attending a recent powwow in Missoula can remember being punished for speaking a tribal language. Up through the 1970s, the Bureau of Indian Affairs ran boarding schools for Native American children. Those schools removed children from their homes and separated them from their language and culture. One of them was the father of 37-year-old Carrie Iron Shirt.

CARRIE IRON SHIRT: My dad, being in the boarding school, they were taught not to talk their language.

MARTIN: Iron Shirt says her father has bad memories of the treatment he received for speaking Blackfeet at school.

IRON SHIRT: He didn't want us to go through that, so my generation missed out on the language.

MARTIN: After her daughter Jade was born, Iron Shirt tried to make up for that loss. She enrolled her in a private Blackfeet language immersion school. Now 16, Jade can speak fluently with her grandparents. She says she's grateful she had the opportunities her mother was denied.

JADE: Well, you learn about your culture more. And that's what's more important, you know? Because our culture is dying.

MARTIN: (Speaking Salish).

APRIL CHARLO: (Speaking Salish) So you put like a (speaking Salish), and then like an S. But it's like a (speaking Salish). So it's a real fast S. (Speaking Salish).

MARTIN: (Speaking Salish).

CHARLO: There you go. (Speaking Salish).

MARTIN: (Speaking Salish).

CHARLO: There you go.

MARTIN: Making sure another of Montana's indigenous languages doesn't die is April Charlo's passion. She was first exposed to her tribe's Salish language in a seventh-grade class.

CHARLO: And I wanted more, and I couldn't have more until high school. But then it was only, you know, that 50-minute block a day. And we - and to have an immersion program in public school would have just been amazing.

MARTIN: Charlo is now the executive director of the Nkwusm Salish Language School on the Flathead Reservation. For her, immersion programs aren't only about preservation of indigenous languages. She believes they are also an essential component in closing the achievement gap. The high school graduation rate for American Indian students is almost 20 percentage points lower than for any other race or ethnicity in Montana.

CHARLO: The language and culture and tradition and ceremonies - they're interlocked, they're interlinked. So when a child is learning their language, it just goes right to that connection.

MARTIN: And Charlo says that connection is what helps kids succeed.

CHARLO: And it's just a - it's a confidence. It's a confidence in - I know my language. I know where I come from.

MARTIN: The only other state providing funding for native language immersion in public schools is Hawaii, but that state has only one native language. In Montana, there are nine. Democratic State Sen. Jonathan Windy Boy from the Rocky Boy Reservation sponsored the bill.

JONATHAN WINDY BOY: We're investing in a population of this state that has been neglected for too long. 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.

MARTIN: The legislature capped that investment at just $22,500 per year. That's half of what Windy Boy originally proposed and only enough to partially support a handful of programs. The bill eventually passed by a wide margin, but did face opposition along the way.

ROGER WEBB: You know, I would rather see individuals, you know, learn Spanish or French or Chinese.

MARTIN: That's Republican State Sen. Roger Webb from Billings, who voted against the bill. He thinks the cost of immersion programs should be borne exclusively by the tribes.

WEBB: If they really believe that that's an issue, it can be remedied on a home base.


MARTIN: But back at the powwow, Roy Big Crane says the state has a special responsibility to help revive native languages.

ROY BIG CRANE: It was through the policies of the government, the states, Christianity, public school systems, that helped almost eradicate the languages. So that circle might as well come back and the state might as well put some money into help bring it back.

MARTIN: Montana schools interested in creating these immersion programs must apply to receive funding, which will help compensate native language instructors. For NPR News, I'm Amy Martin in Missoula.


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