HELENA - When Sen. Sharon Stewart Peregoy, D-Crow Agency, stood among fellow members of the Montana Senate during swearing-in ceremonies, she spoke in her Crow language, breaking the state's English-only law.
Peregoy, a bilingual educator, said she invoked her "senatorial privileges" as Crow friends and family watched from the balcony in the Senate chambers. The state calls for all official state business to be conducted in English.
The Crow woman is one of nine members of the American Indian Caucus, one of the most representative Native contingents in the country with Native legislators at an even match with the state's 6 percent Indian population.
As a Native caucus member, she said the nine-member group would "stand in unison for anything brought forth by tribal leaders across the state."
The 61st session marks Peregoy's first term in the Montana Senate. While she didn't submit any bills for debate during the 90-day session, she will support colleagues' legislation. She said she also plans to speak up during legislative debates on bills that would affect Native people.
A history in education
Peregoy, a research and development specialist for the Crow tribe, has dedicated a good part of her work to education. She has run the gamut in the classroom environment, working with students from kindergarten through elementary school. She is now an adjunct professor at Little Big Horn Tribal College.
When the legislative session opened on Jan. 5, she had considered proposing a bill to create a charter or alternative school to help improve the learning environment for Native students. The majority of Native students attend public schools on or around reservations. But each year, those schools typically fail to meet federal annual yearly progress, or AYP standards.
"The community should have an opportunity to say, 'This isn't working,' " said Peregoy. "Let's take a look at this. There are schools that are struggling but there is no mandate that says, 'Your schools are struggling and you haven't been meeting the AYP and it's obvious that what you are doing is not meeting the needs.' "
Peregoy said there should be some form of intervention to help such schools.
She decided not to introduce the alternative school bill, given the financial restraints on the Legislature this year. The bill likely would not have received funding, meaning schools would have to use existing money for an alternative school, she said.
But, the idea for alternative teaching methods is still possible, even if there is no legislation. "You're looking at quality instruction, quality schools," she said. "If you do that, the community would have to have a big buy-in; otherwise, it doesn't work. You can throw a lot of money at stuff, but I find it's the commitment of the community and the commitment of the teachers and administrators."
"If they have that commitment, they can make the change and make the improvement," said the senator. "You have to have the vision to carry it through, the vision will carry you through when there's very few dollars."
Peregoy is a graduate of Montana State University in Bozeman, where she studied elementary education. She earned her master's degree in curriculum instruction from Seattle University. She has also worked with the Office of Bilingual Language Affairs.
"From the beginning, I've been promoting Native language and culture and integrating it into the classroom," she said. "That was before this administration went with English only." She has seen how bilingual students falter in school's that present information in an English-only format.
Peregoy sees bilingual students arrive in the classroom with basic interpersonal language skills, but often lacking academic English skills. "And that's where they fail," she said.
The educator introduced herself to her Senate colleagues in her Crow language to press the importance of supporting bilingual education.