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Montana’s Push to Improve Early Education Includes a Partnership to Protect Tribal Languages  

Zero to Five Montana is improving early education by helping to protect the languages of the state’s 12 Native American tribes. It’s an effort to enrich children, support early educators, and draw on the experience and expertise of the larger community and on philanthropic support.

“Young children experience a better understanding of their own cultural identity when they can learn their tribal language,”says Carrie Spotted Bear, Zero to Five Montana’s early childhood tribal policy coordinator. “This cultural knowledge helps heal some aspects of generational trauma that many indigenous families live with, showing children it is OK to learn and speak their language.”

There is also a critical historical need to protect tribal languages, which have been eroded by time. In the 1800s and early 1900s, Native American children were sent to Indian Boarding Schools that were designed to erase their culture and language. And more recently, many native speakers of tribal languages have aged and passed away, a reality made even more stark by the Covid-19 pandemic.

In 2013, Montana’s Legislature took action by creating what came to be known as the Montana Indian Language Preservation Program.

In 2018, the first Early Childhood Tribal Language Summit was held to help early educators weave tribal languages into their curriculums and classrooms. It was an opportunity for early educators to share and discuss the work of using tribal languages in lessons, activities, and games. Zero to Five Montana Executive Director Caitlin Jensen had previously worked with Miker Richardson, American Indian/Alaska Native Head Start National Collaboration Director with the Office of Head Start as part of efforts in Washington State to launch an Early Childhood Tribal Language Summit. When there was interest across Montana tribal early childhood leaders to do the same, it all came together with strong collaboration between Montana tribal college partners, especially Salish Kootenai College who hosted the first summit and have continued to host the annual event.

This year, the 2023 Montana Early Childhood Tribal Language Summit was an example of the power of inclusion. The summit was attended by early educators, K-12 and adult educators as well as community members, tribal officials, and federal officials. Among the speakers was Minnetta Armstrong, director of the Blackfeet Early Childhood Center, who talked about the importance of including elders, experts, colleges, and children as early educators develop their curriculum.

“A coalition of tribes working together with advocates and state organizations not only builds relationships and creates systems, it also focuses attention on the unique needs of the state’s tribal children and families.”

Carrie Spotted Bear
Zero to Five Montana

Behind the summit’s scenes was a supportive web of partnerships. Zero to Five Montana sponsored the event with higher education partners Salish Kootenai College, Blackfeet Community College, and Aaniiih Nakoda College. The summit’s philanthropic partners include the W.K. Kellogg Foundation and the Early Educator Investment Collaborative. The government partners are Montana’s Department of Public Health and Human Services, the National American Indian/Alaska Native Head Start Collaboration Office, and the federal Office of Head Start through the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. The Alliance for Early Success provides core operating support for Zero to Five’s advocacy work in Montana.

To include tribal voices in its work, Zero to Five Montana and Salish Kootenai College are planning to convene a statewide Early Childhood Tribal Coalition “dedicated to tribal needs, and increasing and improving coordination and collaboration among tribal community partners and state partners,” as Zero to Five explains in its recent Montana Tribal Early Childhood Report, Building Partnerships: Leading Policies and Practices Through Our Voices.

Another key Zero to Five Montana strategy has been to visit tribes and learn about the challenges their early childhood programs face, including the low wages and high staff turnover that burden early childhood programs across the country. One challenge is the shortage of tribal language teachers. To address this problem on the Fort Belknap Reservation, Zero to Five was able to introduce staff from a local immersion school to staff from the Head Start Program so they can work on finding language teachers for the classrooms.

Zero to Five Montana also launched the Montana Infant and Toddler Tribal Language Pilot through a statewide partnership funded through the ZERO TO THREE Building Strong Foundations for Families grant to help “infant-toddler programs in Montana to create, strengthen, and promote Tribal language strategies in classrooms.” The pilot provided grants to early education and care programs, and it share resources and webinars on a range of topics, including language development in infants and toddlers and family engagement

Through the partnership Zero to Five Montana and Salish Kootenai College have built over the last few years, they have been able to elevate their partnership to new heights by collaborating to create the Early Childhood Tribal Policy Coordinator position. Though grant funded for three years, they hope to secure additional funding to continue prioritizing and elevating the voices of Montana’s Native families, child care providers, Head Start leaders, and community voices. A dedicated policy position speaks to how important this work is, not only for children and families today, but for the continued work to heal from the past and grow into the future.  

All of this is part of Zero to Five’s powerful relationship and coalition building work, Spotted Bear says,  and they plan to continue building on this success. “A coalition of tribes working together with advocates and state organizations not only builds relationships and creates systems, it also focuses attention on the unique needs of the state’s tribal children and families.”

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