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Olson bill preserves Ojibwe, Dakota languages

An American Indian language program in elementary schools could help preserve the language, says Sen. Mary Olson, DFL-Bemidji.

Her provisions for an American Indian language preservation program were included in the omnibus outdoors heritage funding bill signed late Friday night by Gov. Tim Pawlenty.

Known as the Legacy Act bill funded by a 0.0375 percent increase in the state's sales tax, it appropriates $150,000 to the Minnesota Indian Affairs Council for a working group on Dakota and Ojibwe language revitalization and preservation.

An added bonus, however, is that the Legislature added $1.25 million -- $550,000 in 2010 and $700,000 in 2011 -- for grants to preserve the Dakota and Ojibwe languages and to foster educational programs in those languages, especially in the early grades.

The legislation by Olson is among several bills making law this session, including provisions for a restorative justice program, and other bills that affect local government.

The language working group will be led by the 11 tribes who make up the Minnesota Indian Affairs Council, said Olson, as well as some legislative and gubernatorial appointees.

It will "make recommendations related to a number of elements in the legislation," she said. "The first thing is really assessing what's already out there, as far as what the tribes are doing. ... One of the goals is to inventory what the tribes are already doing. Another goal is to be making recommendations about what the state Department of Education could and should be doing to facilitate speakers, with a focus on children learning to speak."

For instance, a program at the Bug-O-Ne-Gay-Shig School on the Leech Lake Reservation aids language instruction and some tribes offer summer camps, she said.

"There are materials that have been published mostly through home-made publishing efforts," Olson said. While there are many scholarly books on the two languages, there are few language instructional books for young grades.

"There aren't many books geared toward children," she said. "We're talking about both storybooks for kids -- books they would be able to read in that language."

A metro-area American Indian classroom uses homemade books, illustrated with kids' drawings, she said. "It seems like each tribe has developed a little bit of material but it isn't available across the board to the other tribes."

There is a concern, however, that the information isn't just "given away," Olson said, such as the University of Minnesota, and then not having the tribe retain control over how the information is used or where it is stored.

Two programs will see funding under the measure. The Bug School's Niigaane Ojibwe Immersion School and the Wiconie Nandagtikendan Urban Immersion Program will each see $125,000 a year to develop and expand a K-12 curriculum, to provide fluent speakers in the classroom, to develop appropriate testing and evaluation procedures and to develop community-based training and engagement.

"We don't have a curriculum at the higher ed level with regard to how to teach people to teach these languages," Olson said. "We do have programs a the higher ed level to learn the languages, but not to learn to be teachers of the languages."

The state also help remove legal barriers for tribes to share materials, she said. Also, some impediments in state rules could be lifted, such as allowing para-professional elders to teach the language in classrooms.

"We may need to treat this as an emergency-type of situation ... I heard that there are very few speakers left," Olson said. "If there isn't a real concentrated effort to focus on language revitalization now, in a few years there may no longer be that opportunity."

No Child Left Behind Act rules mandating tests in English in the- second grade may also need reform, she said, as in an immersion program English isn't taught until the fourth or fifth grade.

"If you test them in a latter point in time, they usually will do better than students that just went through a traditional program," Olson said. "Anytime children are learning a second language it's really good for their brain development and they tend to perform better overall in the future."

Restorative justice

Olson's measure providing for a Restorative Justice Program for first-time non-violent juvenile offenders was included in the omnibus public safety funding bill, a conference committee on which she served.

"I will be working locally to help make the counties in my district more aware of that opportunity," says Olson. "Also, to make sure they are aware of federal grant money that is available through the stimulus dollars to apply for diversion programs, including restorative justice."

Olson said she added language to the bill that American Indian Circle programs are specifically included in the definition of a restorative justice program. Tribes with such programs would have primary jurisdiction on where low-level juvenile offenders would be referred.

The program should save money, she said, as charges referred to the county attorney would allow the county attorney to instead refer the offender to the restorative justice program instead of juvenile court.

Under the program, the offender meets with the victim (if the victim agrees) and an arrangement is reached over punishment and restitution.

The law says "if there is a program available, the county attorney will make the referral unless there's another more appropriate type of diversion program," Olson said.

"If the youth successfully completes the contract that he or she makes within that program, then the juvenile charges will be dropped and they won't end up with those on their record," she said.

The restorative justice model has been shown to reduce recidivism by 85 percent, Olson said. "It really brings home to kids the consequences of their behavior when they have to come face-to-face with people that they've impacted or hurt."

Administrative fines

Cities and counties seeking an administrative fine system rather than issuing state citations were given authority to do so by the 2009 Legislature with restrictions, Olson said.

"It's been a way to try to make up for some of the loss in revenue with cuts in Local Government Aid," she said. "Another reason we've been given by law enforcement is that there has been so many surcharges and increases in fines tacked onto these costs that they just don't want to give someone a fine that they really can't afford to pay."

The new law authorizes administrative fines, but promotes uniformity from one community to another. They can only be used for speeding tickets up to 10 mph over the limit.

"We specifically said cities can't set quotas for speeding tickets," Olson said.

Other issues

Olson said much work was done on mortgage foreclosures, such as having banks mediate with homeowners before a foreclosure. Most of the measures, however, were vetoed by Pawlenty, including the mediation requirement.

Olson's bill to prevent credit scoring from being used to determine auto or home insurance premiums was defeated, but she plans to work on the measure to bring it back.

A conference committee on an omnibus data practices bill was never held as a bill never emerged from the House. Olson was to have chaired that committee.

As a result, many measures in the Senate's data practices bill were attached as riders to bills still clearing the Senate. As a result, a measure to make Department of Natural Resources license and permit data private did pass.

Olson, who sits on the Legislative Commission on Pensions, hopes the panel will hold an interim public meeting in Bemidji to let local public pensioners know that their investments are safe.

"It may be reassuring, not that we don't have issues because of the economy as everyone does, but they're not issues anyone should panic over," Olson said. "Those funds are conservatively managed."