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Native Sun News: Native language bill introduced in Senate

Filed Under: Environment | National | Politics
More on: 113th, democrats, languages, native sun news, senate

The following story was written and reported by Brandon Ecoffey, Native Sun News Managing Editor. All content © Native Sun News.

Senator John Tester (D-MT)

Language immersion bill introduced, Four Senators join forces on legislation
By Brandon Ecoffey
Native Sun News Managing Editor

WASHINGTON DC — Four Democratic Senators have teamed up to introduce an important piece of legislation designed to help fund Native Language immersion across the country.

The Native Language Immersion Student Achievement Act is a bill that if passed would create a grant program that provides funding for immersion learning throughout Indian Country.

“We are racing against the clock to save and revitalize our sacred Native American languages,” said Sen. John Tester of MT who introduced the bill. “Preserving Native languages will strengthen Indian culture and increase student confidence – leading to greater academic achievement and a stronger economy. I am proud to help strengthen Indian Country and the languages and traditions that make it a special place.”

The bill that if passed will be an amendment to the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965, is designed to not only help save Native languages but to also improve high school graduation rates, increase college enrollment and better prepare students for the workplace. Studies have shown that immersion learning has led to an increase in all these demographics.

Each of the four cosponsors of the bill hail from states with significant Native American populations and each spoke on the importance of passing a bill designed to promote the preservation and use of Native languages.

“Native American languages are an integral part of American Indian culture and history,” said Senator Tim Johnson of South Dakota. “Unfortunately, throughout the decades, many Native languages have become extinct. I believe this legislation will encourage schools and colleges to develop and strengthen language programs to help our young children develop a fluency in their Native language.”

Sen. Johnson’s views were echoed by Sen. Mark Begich of Alaska. “Preservation of Native American languages through revitalization efforts like this bill is extremely valuable,” Begich said. “Through no fault of their own, our Nation’s First Peoples have suffered from various policies and reform efforts aimed at terminating Native languages. But Alaska Natives are a resilient people who have worked hard to preserve almost two dozen various indigenous languages.”

For the last couple of decades Native culture and language revitalization has slowly gained momentum across the United States. Native Language immersion is the process of creating an environment where the sole medium of communication used is the desired language attempting to be learned. In addition to promoting the language many schools are integrating specific cultural aspects into their curriculums. Native Hawaiians have been on the immersion school bandwagon for years and are receiving support for the bill from their Sen Brian Schatz.

“Forty years ago, the people of Hawai'i faced the possible death of their native language. Today, through the dedicated and concerted efforts of a strong people, the vibrant Hawaiian language lives through thousands of speakers. The people of Hawai'i understand the richness and importance of Hawaiian customs, tradition, and language. We have worked to support incorporating Hawaiian culture, tradition and language into education,” said U.S. Senator Brian Schatz.

“I’ve seen first-hand visiting immersion schools, the vital role immersion and other Native language-medium schools play in preserving Native languages and improving education. This bill will support this important work.”

For Native American advocates of the bill the support from the four democratic senators is appreciated but they say that bipartisan support is a must if the bill is to be passed quickly. Speaking on condition of anonymity, one ranking member of the National Indian Education Association stressed this importance.

“This is a bill that will provide much needed funding for immersion learning that will pay real dividends for language preservation. However tribes need their republican legislators to step up and go to back for this bill in order to streamline the process of getting it passed.”

Sources in DC say that Senator Lisa Murkowski of Alaska is considering cosponsoring the bill but according to her office they are still reviewing the details of the legislation.

The bill is supported by Oglala Sioux Tribal president Bryan Brewer and Rosebud Sioux Tribal president Cyril Scott. In his first few months in office President Brewer declared Native languages to be in a state of emergency and called upon both tribes and the federal government to step up efforts to support immersion learning.

“Bipartisan support on legislation that will have a positive impact on our communities is something that Indian people across the country deserve,” said President Brewer.

South Dakota Senator John Thune in a statement to Native Sun News said that he appreciates the efforts of those who introduced the bill but stopped short of guaranteeing his support of its passage.

“The preservation of Native language is an important issue for tribes across the country, including our nine tribes in South Dakota. Native language continues to contribute greatly to the preservation of Native American culture and heritage.

“The recent Congressional Gold Medal ceremony recognizing the contributions of the Code Talkers of WWI and WWII is a reminder of the role Native language has played for not only our tribes, but to the rich history of our nation. I appreciate Senator Tester’s attention to Native education and look forward to further examining this and other Native education reform proposals.” said Senator Thune.

(Contact Brandon Ecoffey at

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