This year, the Montana state legislature passed a bill that provides funding for public schools to start immersion programs in native languages. It’s part of an effort to preserve these fragile cultures. Across the United States, about 115 languages have been lost in the last five centuries. But so far, the Browning school system, on the southern part of the Blackfeet Reservation, is the only district to take the money.
In Browning, the immersion program started this year with kindergartners. Locals have high hopes for what it will mean for the future of this community, and its native Blackfeet language.
With their teacher as their guide, these young Blackfeet children are becoming more comfortable with this unfamiliar language.
The Browning kindergartners now learn half in Blackfeet and half in English.
"The goal for this particular program is to bring back the language with the younger generation," says Billie Jo Juneau, the Native American studies coordinator in Browning.
This is the first immersion program the district has run. Parents are required to take language classes too, so they are better equipped to support their kids’ learning at home.
The district received nearly 50 student applications, but could only accommodate half that number. The funding provides just $22,500 annually for the whole state, only enough to partially support a few programs.
But Juneau is confident the program will have a lasting impact.
"I actually think that, just the age group that we're dealing with, and the 'buy in' of our school board, of our administration and our community makes this program a little bit more geared to being successful," said Juneau.
The logistics of a program like this aren’t easy. There are 88 school districts eligible for funding, but as yet Browning is the only one to express interest. There was little time to get organized, and limited funds.
In Browning, finding a Blackfeet teacher was a challenge.
The district hired a woman who speaks the Canadian, not American, dialect of Blackfeet. That displeased some members of the tribe.
And with few fluent speakers left in the town – probably no more than 30 — there aren’t many opportunities for the children to practices outside the classroom, and Blackfeet language teaching materials are scant.
"We do have a grammar book that people reference a lot, but although they've been able to document certain things, a lot of it is not in Blackfeet and it's really hard to get resources."
The tribe has been working for years to help keep the local culture alive through education. Although it’s not as extensive as the immersion program, Browning schools offer Blackfeet culture classes.
Today a group of second graders is learning how their ancestors used nature to create art.
Arthur Westwolf teaches Blackfeet language and culture to second and third grade students at Browning Elementary.
Several Native languages disappeared during the decades their children were forced to attend boarding schools off the reservation. Those schools thrived between the 1860s and 1970s. Students were forbidden to speak anything except English.
But a few families, like Arthur Westwolf’s, were able to protect some of their children from being taken away.
"My grandmother was actually hidden," says Westwolf. "She said when they would come they would have a wagon and they would load up all of the children and they would take them to the train depot. Like I said her parents hid her. So when she became an older grandparent she was really adamant that we spoke Blackfoot."
Like so many in this community, Westwolf is worried about the future, and he thinks the key is inspiring the youngest tribal members.
"It really is a concern. I'm hoping that a lot of them will be really interested and do something for our culture. Maybe they'll become teachers, students of the language."
Leslie Harper, who is part of the Ojibwe Tribe in Minnesota and director of The National Coalition of Native American Language Schools and Programs, believes there’s reason to be optimistic.
"There’s hope. And that’s what we need to hang onto."
The Coalition represents 16 schools across 17 states. Harper says immersion programs have a proven track record of strengthening cultural identity.
"With the kids who’ve gone through our school, they’ve totally normalized this idea of speaking our language they see it as positive," says Harper. "This is something that hasn’t happened in several generations in our community. Now we’re starting to build new citizens of our tribal nations. Through knowing our languages and knowing our cultures, and bringing them back out into the light."
The Browning immersion students may only be in kindergarten, but already, the fate of their language and culture lies partly in their hands.
This story was produced by the Teacher Project, an education reporting initiative at Columbia Journalism School