Legislators have proposed a $500,000 budget cut for the Montana Indigenous Language Preservation program, saying there was a lack of "specific outcomes" and a "slight amount of apparent interest among tribal members" in preserving Native languages.
Decision Package 5103 would reduce Gov. Greg Gianforte's proposed $750,000 for Montana Indigenous Language Preservation (MILP) to $250,000. MILP funds are split among the eight tribal nations in Montana, so the proposed cut would apportion $31,250 to each tribe.
The Legislature established the MILP program in 2013 with a one-time payment of $2 million.
Rep. Brad Tschida, R-Missoula, in the Section A subcommittee meeting on Feb. 10, said the proposed budget cut was in response to a lack of "specific outcomes" from MILP.
"One of the other issues is poorly or nondefined goals or priorities on how the language will be preserved. ... We haven't seen a great deal of follow-through on it. If we're not seeing a continuous return on that investment, then the question is, why do we continue to fund it without seeing at least a measurable outcome?" he said.
Tschida also said there is a "slight amount of apparent interest among tribal members to preserve" Indigenous languages.
"We're seeing more fluent speakers who are passing away or no longer engaged in (language preservation) and fewer members of the tribe who are stepping in to take on the roles of developing a fluency in the Native language," he said.
Rep. Sharon Stewart-Peregoy, D-Crow Agency, spoke in opposition to the proposed budget cut.
"How can you put a dollar amount on a language that is unique? ... This is just a minuscule amount of money to help tribes try and preserve their language," she said. "What do you lose when you lose a language? Everything."
Stewart-Peregoy said she wished the subcommittee would've had a greater discussion on MILP funding and said she was disappointed she was not able to notify Montana's American Indian Caucus in time for the Feb. 10 meeting.
Sen. Pat Flowers, D-Helena, urged the subcommittee to hear from the Native caucus.
"I think it would be wrong for this committee to vote on this pretty dramatic shift in this program without the opportunity to notice a hearing so the American Indian Caucus can come up and represent their views and describe the impacts of this change," he said.
DP 5103 passed in a 5-2 vote with the understanding that the full appropriations committee would give members of the American Indian Caucus an opportunity to address it. Flowers and Stewart-Peregoy both voted no.
A December Montana Budget and Policy Center report urges the Legislature to make funding for MILP permanent to create certainty and help tribes develop sustainable programs.
"When communities and schools include tribal languages as part of an academic curriculum, American Indian students benefit in a number of ways, including improved academic success, increased self-esteem and self-worth, a greater sense of cultural identity and belonging and strengthened relationships," the report reads.
According to the report, Montana is home to 12 Indigenous languages, and of those, Assiniboine, Gros Ventre and Montana Salish are "critically endangered." Because elders are often the speakers of Indigenous languages, COVID-19 has posed an additional threat to language preservation.
"Rather than propose significant cuts in the midst of a pandemic that threatens language loss, we should double down on our commitment to this critical investment," said Preston Parish, state-tribal policy analyst for the Montana Budget and Policy Center.
MBPC is a nonprofit organization focused on providing credible and timely research and analysis on budget, tax, and economic issues that impact low- and moderate-income Montana families.