History of the MTDA Indigenous Language Program
The MTDA Indigenous Language Program is part of a larger statewide effort in Montana to preserve and revitalize heritage languages. In 2021, MTDA was directed by the Montana Legislature and Rep. Jonathan Windy Boy in particular to design and offer courses teaching Indigenous languages for the tribes that want them. Given that Montana’s tribal nations are sovereign and diverse, the courses are being developed in partnership with language communities that are interested and ready.
Through generous start-up support from the 21st Century Teaching and Learning Initiative at the University of Montana, funded by the Dennis and Phyllis J. Washington Foundation, a Tribal Relations and Education Fellowship position was created at MTDA in July 2022. The primary purpose of this position is course development and supporting the instructors who will teach these courses.
In fall 2022, the first heritage language course in Neyio (Cree) launched. It is available to any public school student whose school uses MTDA services. The next course to be offered was Apsáalooke (Crow) in spring 2023. These courses are offered repeatedly, each semester, as long as there is teacher availability and student interest.
For fall 2023, we worked closely with Browning Public Schools to digitize a district-wide assessment of Blackfoot language. We also aim to create modules of Dakota and Nakoda language instruction with Fort Peck Tribes, to be deployed by them.
We recognize that we are outsiders to this work, and our desire is to contribute appropriately to heritage language preservation.
The MTDA seeks to build relationships first. Learning whether a language community is interested in having an MTDA course designed for them is the initial step. Then, engaging meaningfully with our language partners is critical. Trust must be built, and we must demonstrate our respect, humility, and dedication to this work with respect.
As each course is being designed, we request guidance throughout the process. The tribal language experts tell us what they require in a course, what cultural components to include, and how best to illustrate the concepts. The MTDA does not possess language or cultural knowledge ourselves; our expertise is in course design. Therefore we lean on our partners for the content. We also include regional audio and video in an effort to make the courses authentic and reflective of their communities. Finally, we aim to decolonize and Indigenize these courses through thoughtful design principles, culturally responsive curriculum, and attention to Indigenous assessment theory.
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Frequently Asked Questions
Q: Do tribes pay for this service?
A: No, this service is part of what MTDA offers. MTDA is the state’s virtual school, directed and funded by the Montana legislature.
Q: Who retains intellectual property rights to the language materials?
A: The tribes always retain intellectual property rights to the materials developed by the MTDA.
Q: Do students have to pay to take the course?
A: The MTDA has a cost-sharing fee with schools of $123 per enrollment.
Q: How are the courses developed?
A: The Tribal Relations and Education Fellow collaborates with tribal language experts from each language community to learn what the community wants in a course and how to develop it. The language partners provide all of the guidance regarding cultural and language information.
Anna East, Ed.D. is the Tribal Relations and Education Fellow. She enjoyed a 22-year career as an educator on the Flathead Reservation in western Montana and taught Native American Studies for MTDA for 11 years before joining the staff full-time in 2021. Her doctoral studies focused on Montana’s Indian Education for All law and teacher preparation. Anna earned the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes’ Distinguished Educator Award in 2014 and is also the 2014 Montana Teacher of the Year.
For questions about the Indigenous Language Program or reservation and off-reservation school supports, please contact Anna at firstname.lastname@example.org or 406-239-4289.