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(Reuters) - Two bills designed to preserve the dying languages of Montana's 13 Native American tribes have been signed into law by Governor Steve Bullock, who said the indigenous tongues represented "the culture and history of our entire state."
The legislation seeks to protect and promote languages that began to wither in the 19th century during white settlement of the American West and early campaigns by the U.S. government to force Indian children to adopt English.
Montana is the latest of just a few states to approve initiatives aimed at reviving links to a past where indigenous languages and customs predominated. Alaska and Hawaii have formally recognized indigenous languages, although English remains the official tongue in both states.
Bullock, a Democrat, hailed the legislation approved by the Republican-led legislature during a signing ceremony on Wednesday.
"Tribal languages are more than just a collection of words and phrases tied together. They represent the culture and history of not only Native Americans in our state, but in fact they represent the culture and history of our entire state," he said in a statement.
The bills, sponsored by Democratic state lawmakers who are Native Americans, would encourage school districts to create Indian language immersion programs and formalize a pilot program that seeks to preserve and perpetuate native languages through methods that include audio and visual recordings.
Montana Democratic state Representative George Kipp said efforts were needed to prevent native tongues from extinction.
"First-person speakers of the native languages are disappearing fast. One projection indicates they will die out in 15 years if steps are not taken," Kipp said.
He said the programs were designed to bolster a Native American identity strained by oppression and displacement that led to the devaluing of American Indian speech, customs and religions.
The lawmaker said the programs were ways to address the broader problems facing children, teenagers and young adults on the seven reservations in the state, all plagued by high unemployment, suicide and poverty rates.
"Language reinforces identity and self-esteem," he said. "I’m hopeful restoring our languages will restore the pride of who we are and what we are."
Reporting by Laura Zuckerman in Salmon, Idaho; Editing by Dan Whitcomb and Peter Cooney