|May 8, 2014
Opinion: Montana tribes capitalizing on State’s Native language preservation pilot program
By Casey Winn Lozar
I am an enrolled tribal member of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, born and raised on the Flathead Indian Reservation in Polson. For the past 15 years, I have lived outside of Montana pursuing higher education degrees and working for national Native American nonprofits. While I had the opportunity to engage with many tribes across the country and gain valuable experience, I often felt like I was lacking a certain natural or innate balance. I realized that being away from my Montana home, away from my extended family and from my tribes was causing me to feel this way.
As a child, my father taught me that balance was the key to happiness, productivity and service. In fact, the first Salish word that he taught me was “as a shem,” meaning balance. Looking back, this word must have carried great meaning to my father because he was not a proficient speaker. Furthermore, his parents – my grandparents – were asked not to speak their native language. My 88-year-old grandmother was told that her Native language, Nakoda, would only bring her harm and would not allow her to be successful. My 89-year-old grandfather, like most members of his family, was sent to off-reservation boarding schools where it was school policy to not allow Native languages to be spoken.
So you can see how powerful a moment it was for me when my father sat me down as a little kid and taught me about “as a shem.” This word may be the most important word that he has ever spoken to me. As such, in order to find “as a shem,” I recently moved back to Montana to manage the State Tribal Economic Development Commission and to oversee its most critical current project: the Montana Indian Language Preservation Pilot Program (MILP).
In my new role, I have traveled to each of Montana’s seven reservations, including my own, to meet with key individuals working on the MILP projects and to learn about their successes and challenges. Common across all of the project participants is the passion, energy and urgency at which they are working to preserve their languages. Many of the languages have only a handful of fluent speakers remaining. Those speakers are growing older, making time of the essence.
Each Indian community has chosen preservation activities that are as diverse as their communities. These activities range from developing mobile apps and immersion camps to recording talking dictionaries and writing comprehensive language curricula. The tribes’ language teams all mentioned how grateful they are to Governor Bullock and the legislature for providing these resources for language preservation. As a Montanan, a Native American and a father, I am proud that my state is contributing in a good way to improve the health of our Native languages.
This pilot program is just that, a pilot, and the timeframe for the project is very short. The cooperative support from the state of Montana is well-received by our tribal nations. I am convinced that the Montana Indian Language Preservation Pilot Program is going to shift how we talk about Native language. We will begin to replace the word preservation with perpetuation. This will allow for our tribal communities to grow closer to a sense of “as a shem.” For Montana’s tribes, “as a shem” starts with their languages.
Casey Winn Lozar is the Program Manager of the State Tribal Economic Development Commission at the Montana Department of Commerce and an enrolled member of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes. He holds degrees from Dartmouth College, Harvard University and the University of Colorado. Lozar is proud to call Montana his home, where he lives with his wife Reagen and their three children Leighton, Winn and Mary Mac.