Montana Governor Steve Bullock signed into law two bills early in the week to preserve the native languages of Montana. About 6.5 percent of the state’s population are Native Americans and within its seven reservations, there are over 12 distinct ethno linguistic groups.
In front of Montana’s tribal leaders, the governor signed the bill authored by Senator Jonathan Windy Boy, D-Box Elder, which would create an Indian language immersion program for schools that have an Indian enrollment of at least 10 percent. The other bill, authored by Representative George Kipp, D-Heart Butte, is about the Montana Indian Language Preservation Program. This program creates teaching materials, recordings and dictionaries for the languages that were spoken by the first residents of Montana. The bill sponsors later presented braided sweetgrass and an eagle feather as a token of appreciation to the governor.
The governor said that his state is leading the country in the preservation and promotion of Native American languages. He said that these languages are not only a collection of word and phrases but represent the history and culture not only of the Native Americans but also the history and culture of the State of Montana.
For the next two years, Senate Bill 272, the language immersion law sponsored by Senator Windy Boy will allocate $45,000 for the creation of language immersion programs. According to Pad McCracken, state legislative analyst, it would be enough to fund the language immersion programs of about five public school districts where a certified specialist would be teaching 17 students in any of the Indian languages for at least half a day.
There had been interest over the years for a language immersion program but the schools were unable to act on it. But with the new bill, it provides the schools with the incentive to add the program. Although there are no public schools in Montana offering Indian language immersion programs, teachers with license to teach the language immersion classes are already working in some of the 88 public schools that are eligible to apply to the program, according to Dennis Parman, who is the Deputy Superintendent of the Office of Public Instruction. The program would build on the existing classrooms with materials and teachers that are already funded and enable the schools to add language immersion classes.
Representative Kipp’s bill, HB 559, is for the extension of the Montana Indian Language Preservation Program that was started in 2013. With the bill, a fund of $1.5 million will go to the preservation of the sign, written and spoken forms of Indian tribal languages for the next two years, with part of the fund to be used in the curricular goals and language preservation efforts of the Indian Education for All Program of the state. This program enabled the tribes to create online tools, curricula and several other resources aimed at the promotion of the state’s tribal languages.