A bill that recently passed through the Montana state legislature will help to ensure that at least some Native American children in the state can learn their tribal languages. For the better part of a century, Native American children were educated in boarding schools that sought to “integrate” them into American society by denying them the right to practice their traditional religion, wear traditional clothing, or speak their own languages. The result was that entire generations of Native American children grew up not speaking their own languages.
But this bill will help to counteract some of that, providing $22,500 a year to support immersion programs for languages like Blackfeet. Montana is home to nine indigenous languages, and more students than the bill can afford to support, but it’s a start. Although Senator Jonathan Windy Boy sought twice that much for the program, he still thinks the bill is a victory.
Studies have shown that immersion programs are effective at teaching languages, and that Native American children who learn to speak their traditional languages tend to learn more about their culture, rituals, and so on. The end result is that these students are more confident, and more driven to succeed. As it stands, high school graduation rates for Native American students in Montana are a full 20% lower than for other students. Helping those students to understand theory own languages, which many of their parents and grandparents cannot even speak with fluency, should help with those numbers.
Of course, the bill saw resistance, namely from Republicans, who argued that such programs should be paid for by the tribes. But what opponents fail to realize, beyond the simple fact that the Native Americans who were prevented from speaking their languages were prevented from doing so not by their tribes but by the American government, is that more students completing high school is good for the state, regardless of who those students are.