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Senate bill called vital to Native language survival
FRIDAY, MAY 16, 2003

A bill to expand the education of Native languages drew so much support at a Senate hearing on Thursday that just about everyone asked to be a part of it.

Amendments to the Native American Languages Act, first passed in 1990, will authorize the creation of three "survival schools" in Alaska, Hawaii and Montana. Modeled after a successful Native Hawaiian program, the schools will provide comprehensive education in an all-Native environment.

"Language is important," said Sen. Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii), the bill's sponsor. "It's a link to the past and I think it's an anchor to the future."

The idea was warmly embraced by more than a dozen witnesses who documented their own successes in teaching Native languages. During the hearing, which was interrupted several times due to frequent Senate votes on the tax cut, they asked to be included in the survival school initiative.

"Given our unique circumstances the Southwest, we hope this committee will entertain a recommendation that a fourth center be established that will serve Native people in the Southwest," said Dr. Christine Sims, chairwoman of the Linguistic Institute for Native Americans and an Acoma Pueblo tribal member. Sims said Pueblo, Apache, Navajo and other tribes will benefit.

Speakers also asked the Senate Indian Affairs Committee to address the impacts of the No Child Left Behind Act, which mandates federal standards in public education. They said a teacher certification requirement will hurt Native instructors, some of whom are tribal elders who were forbidden to speak their own languages.

"It doesn't take into account our Native language that are endangered and [it] will endanger all Native American children," said Geneva Navarro, 77, who teaches Comanche at the Comanche Nation College in Oklahoma.

"These Native languages helped save our country in World War I and World War II," she added.

Rita Coosewon, 71, is the only Comanche language instructor in her area's public school system but has to work with a certified teacher. She was taken to a Bureau of Indian Affairs boarding school at a young age and marveled at the changes federal law and policy have brought about in her lifetime.

"What a twist for them to ask me to come and teach this language that they wanted so hard for me not to know," she said.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) said Education Secretary Rod Paige had an "eye-opening experience" when he visited rural Alaska Native schools last week. "Keeping the languages alive -- we recognize that it is a challenge in the state," she said. "It ought not to be so."

Witnesses testified about the benefits of Native language instruction. They said it boosts boosts academic performance, preserves tribal culture and lowers drop out rates.

Jocelyn DesRosier started off as a volunteer at the Piegan Institute / Nizipuhwahsin School on the Blackfeet Nation in Montana and is now a teacher. She said graduates of the school, which serves up to grades 8, receive praise when they enter high school.

"The principal keeps phoning us and asking us what we did to these children," she said, "because they are so brilliant."

Dr. Kalena Silva, director of the Ka Haka‘Ula O Ke‘elikolani College at the University of Hawai'i, said 80 percent of students in the Native Hawaiian immersion program enter college.

Aside from the survival school, the bill authorizes "language nests." Tribes, tribal colleges, Native language educational organizations and other organizations can receive funds from the Department of Education for instructional programs.

Inouye acknowledged the changes suggested by the witnesses and said he hopes the bill will be approved by the Senate committee by the end of July.

Relevant Documents:
Witness List (May 15, 2003)

Get the Bill:
Native American Languages Act Amendments Act of 2003 (S.575)

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