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Tester isn’t alone in fighting to help save Montana’s endangered tribal languages. Last year, state Sen. Jonathan Windy Boy, a former vice chairman of the Chippewa Cree Tribe on the Rocky Boy’s Indian Reservation, successfully sponsored legislation establishing the Montana Indian Language Preservation Pilot Program. The one-time, $2 million allocation is geared toward backing existing language efforts and providing the financial foundation necessary for others to begin. Most of Montana’s tribes have for years hosted language immersion camps, worked to establish language classes in public schools and tribal colleges, and identified language preservation as a long-term priority. And yet UNESCO lists three languages in Montana as definitely endangered and three others—the languages of the Salish, Gros Ventre and Assiniboine tribes—as critically endangered.
“If we don’t preserve what little we have left, we won’t have anything to immerse,” Windy Boy said before the Montana Senate Education and Cultural Resources Committee in February 2013.
Chandler is heartened by the political support demonstrated by elected officials like Tester and Windy Boy. She and her husband opened the White Clay Language Immersion School at the Aaniiih Nakoda College in October 2003, and they continue to instruct children grades K-8 entirely in A’ani. Building community support proved difficult at first, particularly the task of convincing tribal members of the value of learning the language. By 2006 the school had attracted 11 students; in 2012, the total was 26. Along with the current immersion school students, Chandler says White Clay’s graduates now constitute the biggest A’ani speaking population left on Fort Belknap.
“They’re a living legacy for our people,” Chandler says. “It’s not something that we’ve created and put on the shelf and may pull down and study. These are actually living, breathing human beings that embody our language and our culture.”
Even after 11 years, however, funding at White Clay is a constant struggle. The school’s graduates have gone on to excel academically in public high school, Chandler says. Three of them have even promised to return as teachers. Tester’s bill could help the effort, provided it passes Congress and White Clay qualifies for and receives one of the competitive grants. But the state’s pilot program funding—which is administered on each reservation by designated tribal advisory boards—hasn’t reached White Clay. “We haven’t seen any impact here at the White Clay Immersion School from any of that funding,” Chandler says. “None whatsoever, which surprised me.”
In fact, the first quarterly report issued for the pilot program by the Montana Department of Commerce in January stated that the pace of language preservation activity on most reservations is a “cause for concern.” Many of the projects are working on the most basic of tasks: Creating language dictionaries, developing websites and scheduling additional immersion camps. The funding for those efforts—roughly $250,000 for each of the state’s eight tribal organizations—is only good through September of this year. Folks like Chandler have struggled for over a decade to build momentum, and while they’ve claimed some victories in the fight for revitalization, time is still a potent enemy.