As part of his budget proposal, Gov. Jim Doyle set aside $250,000 a year to help the state’s Native American tribes preserve their endangered languages.
The funding will go toward an existent competitive grant program for school districts and cooperative educational service agencies who work with tribal education authorities to support instruction in Native American languages, according to Doyle spokesperson Lee Sensenbrenner.
“This [program] is something unique to Wisconsin that the governor saw an opportunity to protect and save,” Sensenbrenner said.
Sensenbrenner added the proposed funding for the program would come out of money paid to the state by tribal casinos. According to Sensenbrenner, it is culturally important for the state to protect the languages since Wisconsin is one of the few areas left where they are spoken.
John Anderson, spokesperson for Joint Finance Committee co-chair Sen. Mark Miller, D-Monona, said Miller supports preserving Native American languages and culture but has not made a final decision on this particular budget item.
“With each generation, fewer and fewer people are speaking the native languages, and it’s important that we preserve our past,” Anderson said.
He added Miller approves of using tribal gaming revenue collected by the state to fund the program since it would be important to many tribes statewide.
David Grignon, tribal historic preservation officer for the Menominee tribe of Wisconsin, said tribal schools would benefit greatly from this funding because it would enable them to hire more teachers and develop a better language program. He also said this would ultimately have a number of benefits for the tribe as a whole.
“Language is probably the most important thing that identifies us as Menominee people, and if we lose it we would lose a lot,” Grignon said. “This money will help us preserve who we are.”
Grignon said language education is already taught in Menominee schools and colleges, but language programs are still needed for those tribal members who do not attend either institution.
“There is more that has to be done as far as teaching tribal members who are not in college or school,” Grignon said. “We need to perpetuate the language.”
The proposal sparked criticism from Republican lawmakers concerned about the $5.9 billion budget shortfall the state is expected to face over the next two years.
Rep. Scott Suder, R-Abbotsford, called the program “goofy and crazy” given the state’s current financial atmosphere and the loss of so many jobs throughout Wisconsin.
“The governor should concentrate more on using our tax money to preserve jobs rather than preserving dead languages,” Suder said.
Suder also said the taxpayers should not be forced to pay for this program because most tribes make enough revenue from their casinos to pay for it. He added he is sorry for the situation but jobs are definitely more important than dead language preservation.