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Montana begins implementing language preservation changes

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News from Alex Sakariassen, Montana Free Press

MONTANA — Montana’s Office of Public Instruction on Friday opened public comment on a raft of proposed rule changes impacting the Montana Indian Language Preservation Program, a decade-old initiative to bolster Indigenous language proficiency in the state’s 12 tribal nations.

The rule changes are a key step in OPI’s implementation of House Bill 287, which passed the 2023 Legislature with strong bipartisan support and was signed into law by Gov. Greg Gianforte in May. HB 287 sponsor, Rep. Jonathan Windy Boy, D-Box Elder, told Montana Free Press this week that his intent was to take the program — a result of a bill he successfully carried in 2013 — to “the next level as far as preservation.”

“We’re light years ahead of other states in this whole effort, but we’re not even close to where my vision of where this should be at,” Windy Boy said. He added that improvements to the program are intertwined with new reporting requirements he pursued this session to hold public schools more accountable for delivering Indian Education for All.

Windy Boy estimated that since its establishment in 2013, the Montana Indian Language Preservation Program, or MILP, has steered $8 million in state funding to tribal governments to preserve local languages. According to a 2019-20 state report, tribes have used those funds to support the development of curriculum and materials promoting language fluency — flashcards, workbooks, mobile app dictionaries, oral story projects and highway signs. State funding for MILP has historically been awarded on a one-time basis every session, but changes this year made the program a permanent fixture in Montana’s two-year budget.

Now, with OPI’s rulemaking, HB 287 enters the phase where Windy Boy said the “rubber meets the road.” The draft rules released Friday offer Montanans a clearer view of how the agency plans to enact the new reporting and performance guidelines laid out in the law. Those guidelines include definitions for language proficiency, examples of eligible uses for MILP funding and documented plans for building “multigenerational fluency.” OPI spokesperson Brian O’Leary wrote in an email that the new rules will “allow for more tracking of the funds and outcomes” by asking tribes to collect more data related to their efforts.

Ta’Jin Perez, deputy director of the nonprofit Western Native Voice, which supported HB 287, said the new law will hopefully streamline the program, bring a new level of accountability and transparency, and strengthen the collaboration between OPI, tribes and schools involved in delivering language instruction. As with Indian Education for All, Perez added, language preservation is an issue that people in numerous communities are “keeping a close eye on,” including in larger communities such as Billings, Great Falls and Missoula that are adjacent to tribal nations.

“This is a great movement towards greater tribal sovereignty because it’s specifically the ability to preserve these languages and expand them through early education all the way through secondary education in our public schools,” Perez said.

Patrick Yawakie, a lobbyist for the Blackfeet Tribe and co-CEO of Red Medicine LLC, said the changes enacted through HB 287 should bring accountability and added progress to a program that’s already supported the inclusion of tribal language in the core curriculum at schools like Arlee’s 

Nkwusm Salish Language School. Furthermore, he continued, improving MILP helps to recognize the historic injustices that imperiled Indigenous languages throughout the country in the first place and comes at a critical time when some tribes are down to less than a handful of fluent elders.

“This is a good opportunity to fix the wrongs of the past, and more funding for these programs after showing the success of these programs is important to follow up on in the future,” Yawakie said.

According to O’Leary, eight tribal governments participated in MILP in 2022, each receiving roughly $169,000 to support their individual efforts. HB 287 requires that OPI begin soliciting applications for 2023 MILP funding on Oct. 1, setting a deadline for adopting the new rules. OPI’s public comment period runs through Aug. 18, and the agency has scheduled an in-person public hearing on the proposed rules on Aug. 11, with an option to participate via Zoom.

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