Senator Jon Tester Visits Language Program in Phillips
by Laura Waterman Wittstock
Jon Tester won office in 2006 and has wasted little time since then to look deeply at the needs of tribes and nations. He became chair of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs this year when former chair Maria Cantwell stepped down.
Senator Tester’s visit to Minneapolis and the Wicoie Nandagikendan program is an example of how seriously he takes his chairman role: he wants to see Indian communities in action. He told Wicoie executive director Jennifer Bendickson that Congress needs to hear from people like her and others who are teaching Dakota and Ojibwe in the state. He said he enjoys his visits but the voices of the people are critical to restoring language.
This year, Senator Tester, along with four other senators, introduced and the Senate passed the ‘‘Native Language Immersion Student Achievement Act.’’ Under the Act, those eligible for funding include schools or private tribal, nonprofit organizations that have plans to develop and maintain, or to improve and expand, programs that support schools using Native American languages as the primary language of instruction of all curriculum taught at the schools.
The bill states that “[the] Secretary [of Interior] may award grants to eligible entities to develop and maintain, or to improve and expand, programs that support schools, including prekindergarten through postsecondary education, using Native American languages as the primary language of instruction of all curriculum taught at the schools.”
Wicoie Nandagikendan is a small organization in the Phillips Neighborhood that works very hard to teach Dakota and Ojbwe to children from 16 months of age to kindergarten-ready five year olds. These tots are just at the brink of using language and their parents want them to learn their native languages. Wicoie also struggles, like many small nonprofits, to raise sufficient funds to keep the project going. Jennifer and consultant Jewell Arcoren are the hardworking engine of the organization who work with the language teachers to serve families from Little Earth of United Tribes and other parts of the metro area.
Two Dakota women (Jennifer is Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate and Jewell is Sisseton/Sicangu) had a taco sale on November 7th at the preschool immersion program – 2438 18th Avenue South in Minneapolis. Wicoie plans two events for Spring 2015: a community feast and a cook-off contest during Indian Month in May. All of these fundraising events are open to the public. They also invite donors to go to GiveMN.org and support language learning.
For those who are interested, the Wicoie Nandagidendan web site has phrases with pronunciations in Ojibwe and Dakota and information about program activities.
All of this activity sounds incredibly busy, but the major work of supporting language restoration and revitalization is where Wicoie and its partners meet part of the response Senator Tester said he needed. Wicoie will be visiting the state legislature to provide information about the program and others like it to keep state Legacy funds going to the dozens of language programs throughout the state.
In preparation, Wicoie received resolutions of support for this work from the Indian Affairs Council, representing all eleven reservations in the state; the Urban Affairs Advisory Board to the Council; and the Metropolitan Urban Indian Directors (MUID) group.
Jennifer and Jewell appeared on First Person Radio on Wednesday, October 29 to talk about their work and they brought a three-year old from the Wicoie program. The youngster sang three songs in Dakota. It was a stunning example of what can happen when language is taught to very young children. Wicoie starts with babies as young as 16 to 18 months, when language begins, on up to readiness for kindergarten. Data are showing much higher percentages of Wicoie kids to be ready for kindergarten than other groups. It’s a program that we should all know about.
Laura Waterman Wittstock is a retired nonprofit executive and now hosts First Person Radio with Roy Taylor on KFAI-FM, Wednesdays at 9 am
*Jon Tester (born August 21, 1956) is the senior United States Senator from Montana, serving since 2007. He is a member of the Democratic Party.
Tester was first elected to the Senate in 2006, beating Republican incumbent Conrad Burns in one of the closest Senate races of that year. He won reelection in 2012 against Rep. Denny Rehbergin another close race. Tester previously served as the president of the Montana Senate and worked as a music teacher and farmer.