A loss for words 

Montana tribes have been fighting for over a decade to save their Native languages, but time is not on their side.

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Lynette Chandler, cofounder and director of the White Clay Immersion School on the Fort Belknap Indian Reservation, can’t stress enough how critical timing can be for Native language revitalization. In 2001, shortly after obtaining their master’s degrees from Montana State University, Chandler and her husband, Sean, took up the task of saving the A’ani language of the reservation’s Gros Ventre tribe. The language was on the cusp of becoming dormant, Chandler explains. She shies away from using the words dead or extinct, but “we were in the big-time danger zone.”

The two quickly assigned a small group of young tribal members to a master apprenticeship program, partnering them with the seven remaining elders still fluent in A’ani in the hopes of producing a new generation of potential teachers. Chandler felt the clock ticking, and looking back, she’s relieved she acted when she did. “As we predicted back in like 2000, 2001, all of our elders that we went to to learn our language have passed away,” she says. “Every single one of them.”

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  • Cathrine L. Walters
  • Nkwusm instructors Stephen Small Salmon and Jesse Nenemay have devoted themselves to reviving the Salish language on the Flathead Indian Reservation. Yet in the 12 years since Nwusm opened its doors, the number of fluent speakers has continued to decline.

The same story has played out to varying degrees throughout Indian Country in recent decades. As populations of tribal elders continue to shrink, scores of languages are in danger of disappearing completely—if they haven’t already. Data from the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, or UNESCO, lists nearly 200 known tribal languages native to the United States; 54 are already classified as “extinct.” UNESCO estimates 74 more stand to vanish from use in the next decade. According to the National Congress of American Indians, the number of spoken Native languages could dwindle to 20 by the year 2050 without immediate action.

“This crisis is the result of longstanding federal policies—enacted particularly through government boarding schools—that sought to break the chain of cultural transmission and destroy American Indian and Alaska Native cultures,” the NCAI stated in a 2012 release supporting reauthorization of federal legislation to preserve Native languages.

Congress has heeded the call for help over the years by committing federal funds to prevent loss of heritage and culture in Indian Country. Sen. Jon Tester positioned himself at the center of the latest push in January when he introduced the Native Language Immersion Student Achievement Act, a bill aimed at bolstering the efforts of schools like Nkwusm and White Clay through a competitive grant program.

“It’s $5 million, which isn’t a lot of money,” Tester says. “But the truth is it’s a lot more than they’ve got now, and I don’t think schools should make a choice between teaching math and teaching Native languages. This will help give them some flexibility and, I think long-term and short-term, improved quality of life.”

The idea stemmed from Tester’s repeated visits to reservations in Montana, where he says he’s seen firsthand the benefits of “keeping that culture and that identity alive.” Native language instruction has helped accelerate learning and increase self-esteem among students in Indian Country, he adds. The bill itself references reports from the Bureau of Indian Affairs as well as tribal, public and private schools indicating that students coming out of language immersion schools have demonstrated higher high school graduation and college attendance rates than their non-immersion peers.

That by-product of Native language revitalization strikes at the heart of one of Tester’s primary goals as the newly minted chairman of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs. He introduced the immersion school bill largely as a show of support for Native education, which he feels stretches “far, far, far beyond” the classroom.

“Some people will say, ‘Who cares?’ I’ll tell you who cares,” Tester says. “When you have the kind of poverty you’ve got out there and the fact that education will help rise you up in the economic strata, and these languages will not only help preserve identity and preserve culture but also help kids stay in school—this is a win-win deal. Culture’s fluid today, and children need to know where they come from in order to know where they’re going.”

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