ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Federal grant programs aimed at preserving indigenous languages would be extended for a few more years and expanded to allow more American Indian tribes to participate under legislation that has cleared its final congressional hurdle.
The U.S. House approved the measure Monday, sending it to the president's desk. The Senate gave its approval earlier this year.
The measure is named after Esther Martinez, a traditional storyteller and Tewa language advocate from northern New Mexico's Ohkay Owingeh Pueblo who died in 2006. Her family and members of the state's congressional delegation say reauthorization of the programs through 2024 would mark the federal government's commitment to keeping Alaska Native and American Indian languages alive.
The goal of the programs has been to prevent the languages that are still spoken today from going extinct over the next 50 to 100 years. Evaluations by the U.S. Health and Human Services Department show the programs have increased fluency for thousands of speakers and have resulted in the training of between 170 and 280 Native language teachers each year.
“Esther Martinez was a champion for Native languages who spent her life teaching others and promoting the growth of indigenous languages and culture,” said U.S. Rep. Ben Ray Lujan, a New Mexico Democrat. “With the passage of this bipartisan legislation, Congress has taken a major step to deliver results on this top priority for Native communities that are working to preserve their languages."
Dozens of tribes from Alaska to Hawaii, Arizona, New Mexico, Montana and Massachusetts have benefited from the programs over the years. Currently, there are more than 40 active grants totaling more than $11 million that are being used for language preservation and immersion efforts. Martinez's own pueblo was awarded a grant earlier this year after seeing a decline in fluent Tewa speakers and the increase of English as the primary language in the homes of tribal members.
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Ohkay Owingeh also has reported a shortage of resources in the community, such as language classes, youth programs and Tewa teachers. With its grant, the pueblo plans to establish a summer program to increase fluency among students between the ages of 12 and 16. The effort also calls for certifying more Tewa teachers and forming partnerships with schools.
In Montana, the Crow Language Consortium has been using its funding to increase community access to learning materials such as digital and mobile app dictionaries. The Hualapai Tribe in Arizona received a grant earlier this year to establish a “language nest” to provide services for children enrolled in Head Start and for their parents or guardians.
The legislation has the support of the Congressional Native American Caucus, the National Congress of American Indians and the National Indian Education Association.
U.S. Rep. Deb Haaland, a New Mexico Democrat and Laguna Pueblo member who co-chairs the Congressional Native American Caucus, said programs that support language preservation are underfunded and often lack funding altogether.
E. Paul Torres, chairman of the All Pueblo Council of Governors in New Mexico, said the legislation is key to providing more support for immersion programs. That, he said, "will help ensure the cultural practices vital to the traditional well-being of our indigenous nations stays alive with our stories, songs and prayers being passed on for future generations.”
National Indian Education Association President Marita Hinds said the legislation represents a milestone in expanding tribal flexibility to develop and implement Native language programs to serve the unique academic and cultural needs of Native students.
“Native language preservation is central to advancing culturally responsive education. Our children thrive inside and outside of the classroom when learning their own language,” Hinds said.