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By Tim Leeds 

Windy Boy Native language bills progressing through Legislature

 

Last updated 2/22/2021 at 11:52am



State Rep. Jonathan Windy Boy, D-Box Elder, said several bills on Native language education are moving through the Legislature including one of his bills that has a hearing in the House Education Committee today at 3 p.m.

“There’s a whole host of bills that’s tied around this particular issue,” Windy Boy said this morning.

The hearings are livestreamed and saved for future viewings on the Legislature’s website on a “Watch/Listen To Meetings” button under the “Legislative Meetings & Hearings are Streamed and Recorded” header at https://leg.mt.gov .

The changes to state law, which has been in effect since 2015, that will be heard today include proposing to eliminate a termination date, now set at June 30, 2023, and sets a phased-in approach to language immersion with at least 30 percent of content area instruction in a Native language the first year, 40 percent the second year and 50 percent the third year, and adjusts base funding for the program. It also adjusts funding including allowing funding for non-tribal students participating in the program.

Windy Boy said he saw a program using the immersion on the Crow Indian Reservation, and the Blackfeet Indian Reservation also has a program following the statute.

He said he toured the Crow program earlier this year.

“It was amazing to see,” Windy Boy said.

He said unless something is done to preserve the Native languages of the 10 tribes in Montana with their own languages, the languages could disappear in the state.

He said a survey done of the enrolled members of Rocky Boy, 7,000 enrolled and 4,000 resident at the reservation, showed just 168 fluent speakers of Cree and one fluent speaker of Ojibwe, the traditional or native name for Chippewa.

“The trend is … that the language is dissipating, and if the trend continues we will be witnessing the extinction of our languages on the reservations,” Windy Boy said, adding, “That dynamic is synonymous on all the reservations.”

But the push to save the languages is helping, he said. The number of speakers of Native languages on Rocky has grown, with, for example, 50 Ojibwe speakers on the reservation.

He said he also is working on other issues, such as funding. The $1.5 million set for Native immersion programs was cut by $1 million last week, to $500,000, but he worked with the chair of the the Appropriations Education Subcommittee, Rep. David Bedey, R-Hamilton, to move the appropriation into the section for the Office of Public Instruction and get the $1 million restored.

“The majority has been trying to cut that for years,” he said.

Other issues he is working on is getting Native language training to be included in requirements for being eligible for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, along with job seeking, and pressing Commissioner of Higher Education Clayton Christian to include Native linguistics programs in the Montana University System.

He said the state has 82 school districts that qualify by having at least 10 percent Native American students in their regions, and the districts could benefit. For example, he said, a Native language immersion program could rent space from Box Elder schools to hold the program.

He said he also is working with tribal colleges and Montana Digital Academy and hopes to get more adults involved in the program.

A problem that exists, Windy Boy said, is students come home from school but the rest of their family is not fluent and they can’t use the language. He said he hopes the programs will inspire more adults to get involved.

“It might be an incentive for parents to go back to school,” Windy Boy said.

 
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