Tribes seek support for Native language instruction programs


The Acoma Language Retention Program brings tribal members of all generations together to keep the Keres language alive. Photo by Corrie Photography / University of New Mexico

A few simple changes in federal law will go a long way toward preserving Native languages, tribal leaders and educators said at a hearing on Capitol Hill last week.

Extending grant awards from three years to five, lowering the number of students needed to qualify for Native language programs and encouraging more elders and young people to become teachers were some of the tweaks endorsed by a panel of experts at the Senate Indian Affairs Committee hearing. The witnesses said they needed more funding and support to keep Native languages alive for future generations.

"At Acoma, we have not forgotten our language. We just do not use it," Robert MoQuino, the first lieutenant governor at Acoma Pueblo in New Mexico, said of Keres, the tribe's language.

MoQuino said the Acoma Language Retention Program has stimulated the use of Keres by bringing it into public and Bureau of Indian Education schools. The tribe started a language immersion camp for children ages 5-16 and a language "nest" for even younger tribal members, from birth to age 5.


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"Seeing these youngest children going to their language nest and hearing them learn to speak their Native tongue to their elders brought joy to so many in our community," MoQuino told the committee.

The language nest, however, had to be shut down because the tribe lost a key source of funding, MoQuino said. Grants through the Esther Martinez Native American Languages Preservation Act only run for three years but S.1163, the Native American Languages Reauthorization Act, would allow them to go for five years.

"Based on grantee feedback, we believe that the authority to fund Native language projects for a longer period -- up to five years -- would result in increased sustainability of the gains made," Lillian Sparks Robinson, the head of the Administration for Native Americans, an agency at the Department of Health and Human Services, said in endorsing S.1163 on behalf of the Obama administration.

"Grantees would have more time to build a community of speakers and language learners, strengthen partnerships, and secure additional funding as projects move beyond the initial planning and implementation stages," Robinson added.


The late Esther Martinez was a teacher from Ohkay Owingeh, a tribe in northern New Mexico, who taught the Tewa language to generations of speakers. Her efforts led to the passage of the Esther Martinez Native American Languages Preservation Act in December 2006, three months after her death at the age of 94. Photo from Adminstration for Native Americans

Additionally, S.1163 opens the door for more tribes to seek Esther Martinez grants through ANA. Applicants would only need five students, down from 10 in the current version of the law, to receive funding for language nests. Survival schools would only need 10 enrollees to qualify, down from 15.

The changes are bound to increase interest in the program -- in 2013, ANA received 13 applications, a figure that grew to a combined 54 in 2014 and 2015, Robinson said. MoQuino noted that Acoma Pueblo's second application was rejected because of the high level of competition for Esther Martinez grants.

A second bill discussed at the hearing also addresses Native languages. S.410, the Building upon Unique Indian Learning and Development (BUILD) Act, makes it easier for tribal members, particularly elders who may not have been trained as teachers, to secure certifications to provide Native language instruction in public schools.

"They're telling the elders -- who have spoken this language sometimes for 70 or 80 years -- they have to go back and get a degree in order to learn how to teach the language to the young," said Sen. Tom Udall (D-New Mexico), the sponsor of the bill. "That's a big barrier. We've got to work on that."


Students from the Lakota Language Nest sing to President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama at the Cannon Ball Flag Day Powwow in Cannon Ball, North Dakota, on June 13, 2014. Photo by Desiree Condon / Facebook

Finally, S.1928, the Native Educator Support and Training (NEST) Act, was hailed as a way to help Native languages. The bill extends an existing federal loan cancellation program for Native language immersion instructors.

According to Glenabah Martinez, an associate dean and associate professor at the University of New Mexico, students who receive instruction in Native languages and who learn about their tribal culture end up becoming better students. She said immersion programs are important because they target children at a young age, typically before the age of 5.

"One of the primary benefits is that it establishes a strong cultural and linguistic foundation for Native youth to navigate as they go through elementary, middle school and high school education," Martinez told the committee.

S.1928 also authorizes scholarships for Native students who are going into the education field. Another provision creates a loan forgiveness program for teachers at BIE schools and at public schools on or near reservations.


Young members of the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe of Massachusetts participate in the Wopanaak Language Reclamation Project. Photo from Facebook

Consideration of the three bills comes as Congress moves forward with a reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. Lawmakers are about to unveil major revisions to the No Child Left Behind Act, a 2001 measure that once drew bipartisan support but is now derided as an unfair burden on students, schools, states and tribes.

Sponsors of the bills have been trying to secure provisions in the overhaul that would benefit Indian Country. Lawmakers in the Senate and the House who are working on the package announced a compromise last Thursday that speaks generally to the issue.

"The framework provides grants to support programs for American Indian, Alaska Native, and Native Hawaiian students to ensure that schools address the unique academic and cultural needs of these students," the joint conference committee wrote in a summary. The full text of the package has not yet been released as of Tuesday afternoon.

The bill represents a compromise between S.1177, the Every Student Succeeds Act, and H.R.5, the Student Success Act. A vote is expected after Congress returns to work following the Thanksgiving holiday.

Committee Notice:
Legislative Hearing to receive testimony on the following bills (November 18, 2015)

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