Montana State University

MSU center hosts conference to support efforts to revitalize endangered indigenous languages

July 28, 2016 -- By Anne Cantrell, MSU News Service

Cathy Keggutailnguq Moses (Yuk’ik), right, shares a book with Theodora Weatherwax (Blackfeet) during the Immersion Programs Conference: Revitalizing Endangered Indigenous Languages on Tuesday, July 26, 2016, in Bozeman, Montana, hosted by the MSU Center for Bilingual and Multicultural Education. MSU photo by Adrian Sanchez-Gonzalez.

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BOZEMAN — In 1995 the Montana Office of Public Instruction began granting a special license for educators to teach courses in Native American languages and cultures. Rather than a traditional teacher’s license, the Class 7 certification does not require a degree in education and other requirements; rather, it is granted solely upon the recommendation from an individual’s tribe.

Part of the reason this certification is offered is to give each tribe the power to determine who is qualified to teach its own language and culture, according to Jioanna Carjuzaa, Montana State University associate education professor and executive director of the MSU Center for Bilingual and Multicultural Education, or CBME, which is housed in the MSU Department of Education.

She noted that many of the Class 7 educators are tribal elders, and, with all 11 indigenous languages in the state currently classified as critically endangered, the need for indigenous language teachers is great. So, too, is the need for professional development and support of those teachers who have earned a Class 7 certification.

So, Carjuzaa and others are working to address the issue. This week, CBME, along with several partners, offered a working conference designed to help Class 7 teachers develop or expand their immersion language programs. Approximately 70 teachers, scholars, elders and others involved in revitalizing endangered indigenous languages attended the conference, “The Immersion Programs Conference: Revitalizing Endangered Indigenous Languages.” It is the second such professional development opportunity the CBME has offered in the past two years.

“The reason we’re offering these professional development workshops is because our mission is to support indigenous communities across Montana, and a large concern right now (among those communities) is revitalization of critically endangered languages in Montana,” Carjuzaa said.

The conference was made possible, in part, by a $50,000 grant from the Spencer Foundation. Partners included Chief Dull Knife College and its president, Richard Littlebear (Cheyenne); the Montana Office of Public Instruction and the office’s Indian education specialist, Mike Jetty (Spirit Lake Lakota); and William Ruff, associate director of the CBME.

The conference included keynote presentations by Littlebear; Ryan Wilson, a member of the Ogalala band of the Tituwan Oceti Sakowin and former president of the National Indian Education Association; and Montana Sen. Jonathan Windy Boy (Chippewa Cree). It also included panel presentations by tribal members involved in a language immersion program and a language preservation program; discussions regarding intellectual copyright issues and standardizing the framework for Class 7 teacher certifications; poster presentations by invited experts and scholars; and a number of small-group exercises and discussions.

According to Carjuzaa, research shows that in order to keep a language vibrant, it has to be spoken by all generations – grandparents, parents and children. In addition, a language can also become vulnerable if the language is spoken infrequently and only at home.

“If children aren’t learning the language at home, it definitely becomes endangered,” Carjuzaa said.

“We have situations here (in Montana) where there are a handful of speakers of certain languages,” she said. “Even with robust ones, like Crow and Blackfeet, there are still situations where you have elders – people who are 60 to 70 years old or older – as the only fluent speakers. Then there are entire generations with only one or two speakers.”

During his keynote address, Wilson said he believes these are “dangerous” times for Native languages. Still, he said he has faith that the Native community is making progress on efforts to keep their languages vibrant.

Carjuzaa said the conference was productive.

“We discussed incredibly sensitive issues, but it was obvious that we had a room full of people with expertise, dedication and passion to work on these issues,” Carjuzaa said. “That made it all worthwhile.”

Language is important, Carjuzaa noted, because it links a people with its culture.

“Language and culture are so intricately intertwined. When you lose a language, you lose all of that knowledge, that wisdom, all of that cultural heritage that goes along with that language,” she said.

Contact: Jioanna Carjuzaa, (406) 994-4941 or