Efforts to save Wisconsin's endangered native languages receive no real state investment and only modest federal money, a Wisconsin State Journal review has found.
The state stopped directly funding tribal language initiatives in 2003, when the then Republican-controlled Legislature cut the $220,000 a year they were receiving. That cut eliminated a program, dating to 1980, that helped fund language and culture classes at five schools for American Indian students in Wisconsin.
Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle, who in the past has sought modest increases for that program, said the state can no longer ignore the dangers facing Wisconsin's five native languages.
"It's a very, very important part of our heritage" in the state, said Doyle, who as a young lawyer once worked with Navajo-speaking clients on their tribe's Arizona reservation. "We have the opportunity with older people to preserve the language ... and it's something that somewhere years down the road we're going to regret that we didn't do."
The newspaper's review found tribes seeking to save their endangered languages get little government help, and even face some obstacles:The federal No Child Left Behind Act makes difficult demands on small tribes to back up their education programs with strong research. That could hamper the creation of promising tribal "language immersion" schools in the state that would teach most subjects in students' native languages.
Several federal agencies together provided roughly $850,000 in grant money this year to native groups in the state to help fund a tribal immersion school, train tribal language teachers and digitally record their languages. That sum, though significant, is much less than the money the government once spent on Indian boarding schools that sought to kill off those languages.
The state received $168.5 million in payments from tribal gambling casinos over the two most recent years, but spends none of that on tribal language programs. In contrast, not counting federal money, the state is expected to spend $2.6 million this year to protect threatened wildlife like the trumpeter swan and the Karner blue butterfly.
The money tribes devote to their language programs partly reflects their priorities. But with little public money available, that spending also depends on whether the tribes have a lucrative casino or can win competitive outside grants.
For instance, the Ho-Chunk tribe, whose business operations include a large casino near Baraboo and a bingo hall outside Madison, has more than 30 employees in different departments working to teach and preserve their language, said Richard Mann, who oversees the tribal language division. The Sokaogon band of Ojibwe, which has a much smaller casino in Crandon, has had no more than one paid language worker in recent years, Robert VanZile Jr. said.
VanZile, the former language preservation officer for the Sokaogon band, said his tribe made a frustrating, unsuccessful bid for a federal grant to preserve the Ojibwe dialect spoken on his reservation.
"It was always a struggle because we're always competing with other tribes," he said.
Rep. Terry Musser, chairman of the Legislative Council's state-tribal relations committee, said he hopes this summer his group can consider how to help fund tribes' language efforts.
"If we want to continue the tradition of those languages, something's got to be done now before it's too late," said Musser, R-Black River Falls.
Both Doyle and Musser said the state should bring back its modest language program using money from tribal casino payments. Previously, Doyle has sought state spending of $260,000 a year for that now defunct program. State schools Superintendent Libby Burmaster also said that, as in the past, she will include money for native language and culture programs in the budget request she will make to Doyle on Sept. 15.
The state does already provide some indirect aid to tribes in preserving their languages, such as help in applying for federal grants, said J.P. Leary, an American Indian studies consultant for the state Department of Public Instruction.
Even with the right resources, however, native language immersion schools face obstacles, Leary said.
The federal No Child Left Behind Act mandates that all state public schools and federally administered tribal schools base their teaching practices on rigorous research. Those scientific studies require money and large groups of similar pupils to study - high hurdles for small tribes to clear, he said.
For now, tribes interested in starting an immersion school probably have to open a private institution or persuade a local public school district to sponsor a charter school, since neither are bound by those parts of the federal mandates, Leary said.