Language advocate Lanny Real Bird

Language advocate Lanny Real Bird speaks Tuesday at the Stabilizing Indigenous Languages symposium at the Radisson Hotel.

There’s no magic formula to creating a school rooted in Native American languages.

Leslie Harper knows, having been a part of creating one of the U.S.’s first language immersion schools in Minnesota. She spoke at the Stabilizing Indigenous Language Symposium held in Billings on Monday and Tuesday at the Radisson Hotel.

“I can’t tell you guys what’s gonna work for you,” she said. “You are the experts, you know what’s going to work best for your community.”

Language immersion programs — especially preschools — have grown in popularity in Montana in recent years. A bill passed by the 2015 Legislature offers funding for immersion programs.

The conference, in its 23rd year, is organized by the National Alliance to Save Native Languages and addresses the fading of traditional languages being experienced by tribes across the nation. For the Crow Tribe, Crow fluency has dropped from 86 percent among adults in 1969 to 28 percent in 2014, according to tribal surveys.

Harper advocated for an approach similar to the one she helped build on the Ojibwe’s Leech Lake Reservation, where she and other tribal members created a language immersion program within the existing Bureau of Indian Affairs-operated school. The program was featured in a PBS documentary. 

“We had to get rid of those ideas of what the American public school system wants us to do,” she said. “It was just kind of reframing our thinking. We had grandmas and grandpas with no formal education training, but they had a lifetime of Ojibwe skills.”

The program began as just kindergarten in 2004 but expanded each year until it became K-6.

Having cultural foundations is just as important as linguistic ones, said Lanny Real Bird, an instructor at Little Big Horn College who’s developed materials for teaching the Crow, Hidatsa and Mandan languages.

“Some of the needs that they have are with their cultural foundations,” he said of existing immersion programs. “Even though some of us might be able to speak Spanish, that doesn’t make me Hispanic.”

Part of that solution is filling more teaching roles with Native Americans, he said. Multiple studies, though not focused on Native Americans, have linked increased achievement for minority students to having a teacher of the same race.

“I hope, sometime or another, there is more contribution to creating more teachers,” he said. “We need to support our teachers and we need to recruit more teachers.”

Both Harper and Real Bird said that the larger public school system might not be the best fit for Native American students.

“Erase the ideas of those public school systems, erase the idea of superintendents and principals … erase the idea of state standards,” Harper said.

“We think that white people have the answer,” Real Bird said. “That’s not the case. We have the answers. It’s in our heart, it’s in our vision, it’s in our prayers.”

Darrin Old Coyote, chairman of the Crow Tribe, reflected on his time as a Head Start teacher on the reservation.

“I was exhausted from those 3-year-olds running all over me and trying to speak Crow and the kids not understanding,” he said. “There’s no state of emergency for our language being lost. ... If we don’t participate in these dying arts, this dying language, then we’re part of the problem.”