International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples 2019: Year of Indigenous Languages

Indigenous peoples make up less than 5 percent of the world’s population but speak a majority of the world’s 7,000 languages. According to the United Nations (UN), the majority of languages disappearing are indigenous, where approximately one indigenous language disappears every two weeks. In 2007, the United Nations Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) included the eradication of Indigenous languages and cultures as a basic violation of human rights.

Every August 9 commemorates the International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples; the theme of 2019 was named the International Year of Indigenous Languages. The UN’s proclamation expresses the need to preserve, revitalize, and promote indigenous languages nationally and internationally due to the critical loss of indigenous languages worldwide. This past legislative session, the Montana Legislature passed HJ 20, a resolution supporting the UN’s proclamation of 2019 as the International Year of Indigenous Languages.

Before colonial contact, over 300 tribal spoken languages were estimated in what is now the United States. Today, only 175 tribal languages remain. If no actions to revitalize and preserve these languages are taken, experts estimate that by 2050, no more than 20 will be spoken. Language endangerment and disappearance in Indian Country is linked to generations of historical trauma and disruptions to the continuity of tribal knowledge due to centuries of colonialism. Language is central to indigenous knowledge systems, philosophies, and cultures. As the primary way social, communal, and governance relationships are formed, rights to language are fundamental to personal and tribal identities.

The United States’ responsibility for Indian education was established in treaties between the US and most tribal nations, where tribal children were to be educated in English. However, under the 1819 Civilization Act, federal Indian policy on education quickly moved towards language eradication and cultural assimilation. During the boarding school period from 1879 to 1934, American Indian children were forcibly removed from their families and tribal communities and banned from speaking their tribal language. Federal policies supporting bilingual education were introduced in the latter half of the 20th century, and the first federal statute preserving tribal languages was passed in 1990 under the Native American Languages Act.

Montana has a constitutional commitment to “its educational goals to the preservation of [the] cultural integrity” of American Indians. Montana is home to nine tribal languages, five of which have the highest percentage of speakers of those languages in the United States: Blackfeet, Cheyenne, Cree, Crow, and Salish. However, Assiniboine, Gros Ventre, and Montana Salish are critically endangered, meaning “the youngest speakers are grandparents and older, and they speak the language partially and infrequently.” Languages that are not spoken by children are at great risk of becoming extinct, or of having no remaining speakers.

In Montana, American Indians make up 6.4 percent of the total population and 14 percent of the K-12 student population, more than 10 times the national average for American Indian students attending public elementary and secondary schools. Montana public schools on or near reservations have the highest dropout rates, and most English Learners are from households where an American Indian language is spoken. International research on indigenous languages has found that most indigenous children “are educated through the medium of a language foreign to them and many do not, at least during the first years, understand this language, their school achievement levels are low… and they seldom continue their education after the obligatory school.” Conclusions from these studies show that the length of indigenous language instruction can predict educational success of bilingual students more than any other factor, including socio-economic status.

The Legislature has taken steps to preserve and promote tribal languages in Montana. The Montana Indian Language Preservation Program (MILP) and language immersion programs have helped curb tribal language loss by promoting the creation of language education courses, dictionaries, sound books, and Montana tribal nations language apps, as well as by increasing school districts’ capacity. As a result, all Montanans now have greater access to tribal languages. American Indian students in Montana with access to language-based curricula and instruction have shown an increased sense of cultural identity. For American Indian students in immersion programs, retention rates are higher than those who do not receive language immersion and there is an increase in tribal community engagement. Currently, four school districts in Montana have immersion programs. To learn more about these immersion programs and language preservation, read MBPC’s report, “Continued Preservation of Tribal Languages in Montana.”

The Legislature has historically funded these programs on a one-time-only (OTO) basis. In the 2019 legislative session MILP’s OTO status was maintained in HB 2 at $1.5 million for the 2021 biennium. HB 41 extended the termination date of the Cultural Integrity Commitment Act, supporting immersion programs, from June 30, 2019 to June 30, 2023. The Legislature should make funding for MILP and language immersion programs permanent. These programs are an important step forward in improving student outcomes, strengthening communities, and preserving culture, language, and history in Montana.

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