Nearly a half century after the close of the last of the boarding schools that imposed forced assimilation on American Indian children, Montana has taken a small step to undo some of the damage wrought by the systematic marginalization of American Indians and comprehensive efforts to silence their languages and annihilate their cultures.
This week Montana’s governor will sign a bill to provide funds for Native language immersion programs in the state’s public schools. The bill’s sponsor, state senator Jonathan Windy Boy from the Rocky Boy Reservation, describes the bill: “We’re investing in a population of this state that has been neglected for too long. I think that… investing in those human resources… is going to be the best investment that we can provide for all of Montana to be a better place to live in.”
Amy Martin reports for National Public Radio that, “under the bill, schools that are interested in creating immersion programs must apply to receive funding that will help compensate native language instructors… The state legislature capped that investment at $22,500 total per year—half of what Windy Boy originally proposed and only enough to provide partial support to a handful of programs.”
But it is a beginning much appreciated by speakers of the state’s nine native languages. Martin reports that, “As tribes have reclaimed the right to educate their own children in recent years, native language instruction has been introduced in some Montana schools. But this is the first time the state will be supporting immersion programs—which provide instruction in an indigenous language for at least half the school day.”
April Charlo, the executive director of the Nkwusm Salish Language School on the Flathead Reservation, believes the native language immersion programs will not only connect children with their heritage but also support overall school achievement: “The language and culture and tradition and ceremonies, they’re interlocked, they’re interlinked. So when a child is learning their language, it just goes right to that connection… It’s just a confidence… ‘I know my language. I know where I come from.'”
Carrie Iron Shirt who several years ago enrolled her daughter Jade, now 16, in a private Blackfeet language immersion school, explains that now Jade speaks the language fluently with her grandparents. Jade describes what learning the Blackfeet language has meant: “You learn about your culture more… ‘Cause our culture is dying.”
The history of efforts during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries to suppress American Indian cultures is recounted most graphically in Education for Extinction. Tracing the intentional establishment of boarding schools in the 1870s, author David Wallace Adams bluntly describes the intentional use of schools for destroying language and culture:
“In retrospect it is not surprising that reformers should look to schools as central to the solution of the Indian problem. As an instrument for fostering social cohesion and republicanism, no institution had been more important in the spread of the American system. In the case of Indians, the challenge facing educators was particularly difficult: the eradication of all traces of tribal identity and culture, replacing them with the common-place knowledge and values of white civilization. Reformers believed that the school’s capacity to accomplish this transformation would determine the long-term fate of the Indian race, for if the doctrine of historical progress and the story of westward expansion taught anything, it was the incompatibility of white civilization and Indian savagism. The former must inevitably supplant the latter. Fortunately, Indians need not perish as a race. Once they shed their attachment to tribal ways—that is to say, their Indianness—and joined the march of American progress, their continued existence in the nation’s future was assured. Schools would show them the way. Boarding schools, especially the off-reservation variety, seemed ideally suited for this purpose. As the theory went, Indian children, once removed from the savage surroundings of the Indian camp and placed in the purified environment of an all-encompassing institution, would slowly learn to look, act, and eventually think like their white counterparts.” (Education for Extinction, p. 335)
In her NPR report on Montana’s new law, Amy Martin quotes Roy Big Crane, a member of the Salish and Pend d’Oreille tribes, as he reacts to Montana’s new law in the context of this history: “It was through the policies of the government, the states, Christianity, public school systems, that helped almost eradicate the languages. So that circle might as well come back and the state might as well put some money in to help bring it back.”
Last year this blog covered an effort by the public schools in Eureka, California to work with members of the Yurok Tribe to help save the tribal language by teaching it in the city’s public schools. In addition to Montana, the state of Hawaii funds school programs to teach Native Hawaiian.