Tester announces language immersion bill at Fort Peck
During a visit to the Fort Peck Tribes’ Language and Culture Department on Wednesday, Sen. Jon Tester announced the reintroduction of a language immersion bill to preserve endangered Native languages throughout Indian Country.
Through the Department of Education, Tester said the Native Language Immersion Student Achievement Act will provide resources of up to $5 million for tribes to improve or expand existing Native language programs or establish new immersion programs.
“If we don’t act today, within 50 years the 148 remaining Native languages will fall silent, and generations of culture will be lost,” Tester, D-Mont., said. “These grants will help provide Native language expertise and a streamlined application process with limited overhead costs from the folks who seek these funds. Bottom line, these resources will be easy for folks on the ground to access.”
Tester toured the center and met with students and staff members who teach the languages.
Tester said language immersion leads to increased student achievement and graduation rates, increased self-esteem, improved SAT and ACT scores, and improved cognitive skills that translate directly into improved communication skills, critical thinking, and math skills.
Among Fort Peck’s 13,000 tribal members, only 60 Nakoda (Assiniboine) and Dakota (Sioux) speakers remain within the tribes. Twenty years ago, there were about 250 speakers, according to the language department.
With help from the Montana Legislature, Fort Peck and the state’s other reservations have been able to produce immersion programs and education materials that are now being shared with the state’s public schools through the Montana Historical Society and the Office of Public Instruction.
Fort Peck offers a summer youth immersion program, dictionaries in both languages, cultural booklets and a DVD that details the tribes’ effort to save its languages using the elders and youths.
Three of the immersion program students participated in the Dakota Language Bowl in St. Paul, Minn., last month where the Fort Peck team earned a fourth place trophy among the 20 other teams entered from around the country.
“But, unfortunately, not enough students in Indian Country have access to successful language immersion courses like the students here in Poplar,” Tester said.
State Sen. Jonathan Windy Boy, D-Box Elder, said the state language immersion and preservation funding will help in the retention of students and combat social issues that plague the reservations.
“It will revolutionize education in public schools. This (Tester bill) is going to enhance everything,” Windy Boy said.
Dakota language instructor Del First and Nakoda language instructor Ronn Moccasin both said the language is disappearing fast and they’re finding it harder to find fellow speakers.
“Experts say when the language and culture disappear, the people will also disappear. It’s critical these programs keep going,” Moccasin said.
Funding from the new initiative will be available to programs that teach students from pre-kindergarten through college, Tester said. The grants will be awarded to tribes, tribal organizations and public or private schools, he said
“From a Native American standpoint, you are connecting with your culture. You don’t know where you’re going unless you know where you came from,” Tester said.