Sen. Jonathan Windy Boy says that Native American languages on many reservations are nearly extinct, and he wants Montana to help preserve them.
A key legislative committee Tuesday approved $2 million to help do that.
Windy Boy, D-Box Elder, said he is hopeful the entire Legislature will follow suit.
The money would enable tribes to come up with ways to preserving the languages that were used for centuries before the arrival of Europeans, but have slowly faded away.
For instance, he said, there are just 15 fluent Gros Ventre speakers left at the Fort Belknap Indian Reservation.
"That means there are only 15 left in the world," he said.
At Rocky Boy, there is only one Chippewa speaker, though on other reservations, there are other Chippewa speakers, Windy Boy said.
Windy Boy said there is a direct tie between culture and language, and other efforts to preserve Native culture will face a hard time if the language fades away.
"Language is a gift and safety pin for cultural preservation, identity, pride, and communication between two worlds — physical and spiritual,” Windy Boy said. “This measure is critical to preserving what we have left of our languages so that our culture and history can continue.”
Windy Boy said Cree preservation programs at Rocky Boy have been more successful. There are many people who speak Cree, and the language is taught at Stone Child College. Still, he said, more needs to be done.
Windy Boy said the Legislature's Native American caucus will meet with Gov. Steve Bullock next week to discuss this and other matters, Windy Boy said.
Windy Boy said he was pleased with the bipartisan support the legislation received.
It was passed 9-0 in the Joint Appropriations Subcommittee on Education Tuesday, and he said he thinks it has support from Democrats, Republicans, liberals and conservatives in Helena.
Sen. Sharon Stewart-Peregoy, a Democrat from the Crow Agency, said the introduction of Native languages will improve students success in other courses.
She said the legislation is in line with the Montana Constitution's mandate that "the distinct and unique cultural heritage of the American Indians" be preserved.
Other lawmakers spoke in behalf of Windy Boy's legislation at Tuesday's meeting.
“This is one step toward our constitutional commitment to Montana’s American Indians to help with preserving culture through language,” said Sen. Brad Hamlett, D-Great Falls.