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Lawmakers working to boost indian language immersion programs

By Sanjay Talwani
Montana House Minority Aide

HELENA — Three bills before Legislative committees Friday would extend and enhance Indian language immersion programs, helping fulfill the state’s Constitutional mandate to protect Indian culture while increasing the educational opportunities for students on Indian reservations.

Immersion programs on the Blackfeet and Crow Reservations are helping to already helping preserve indigenous languages.

“These language immersion programs connect youth with their elders, their history and their culture.” said Rep. Jonathan Windy Boy, D-Box Elder. “Without them, our languages could disappear forever.”

House Bill 37, sponsored by Windy Boy, would extend the Montana Indian Language Preservation Program into 2019. It also allows for the preservation of sung language, in addition to other expressions of language.

“Language is central to our culture and to our identity,” said Sen. Lea Whitford, D- Cut Bank. “These immersion programs are boosting the confidence among our students and helping them be well-prepared for high school. They’re a great benefit to these students and their communities.”

The House Education Committee heard HB37 as well as House Bill 113, sponsored by Ed Greef, R-Florence. It would allow program funds to be used as matching funds to leverage private and federal grants.

In the Senate Education Committee, lawmakers heard Senate Bill 14, by Sen. Jill Cohenour, D-East Helena. SB14 would expand eligibility for the funding to include programs that start with language immersion as 30 percent or more of their school day, and which then increase the immersion component to 50 percent within two years. Now, programs must include immersion for at least 50 percent of their day.

Cohenour said the increased eligibility for new programs would allow more communities to get immersion programs up and running.

The bills were recommended by the State-Tribal Relations Interim Committee, on which Cohenour, Windy Boy and Greef serve.

“We were able to see the Immersion programs in action and speak with the teachers about the changes to the students such as increased self-esteem, cultural awareness, and increase in community involvement,” Cohenour said. “It is an honor to support the efforts of our Tribal partners to achieve positive changes in their students, schools, and communities.”

The committees took no immediate action on the bills.

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