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Native language act ready for Bush's signature

A bill named in honor of a Native language teacher who died after receiving a national award for her efforts finally cleared Congress this week.

H.R.4766, the Esther Martinez Native American Languages Preservation Act, was approved by the Senate last Wednesday night. With prior approval from the House, the bill now goes onto President Bush for his approval.

Introduced earlier this year, momentum for the legislation to create Native language programs picked up after the tragic death of Esther Martinez. The 94-year-old language instructor and storyteller was killed on her way home to Ohkay Owingeh, a pueblo in northern New Mexico.

The September 16 accident occurred just days after Martinez received the National Heritage Fellowship award in Washington, D.C. She had been honored for her role in teaching Tewa to generations of students.

"Considering Esther's dedication to preserving her Native language, it is a fitting tribute that this legislation be named after her," said Rep. Tom Udall (D-New Mexico), whose district includes the six pueblos where Tewa is spoken.

Martinez was known by her Tewa name, Poe Tsawa, which means Blue Water. Among her former students, both young and old, she was simply referred to as Ko'o, or Aunt.

Supporters of the legislation said the work of people like Martinez will continue through additional funds for language nests, survival schools and restoration programs. The money will be handled by the Administration for Native Americans within the Department of Health and Human Services.

"Native languages continue to diminish with each generation and the programs authorized by this bill will go a long way to restore this important piece of Native culture and bridge the gap between the old and young generations," said Sen. Tim Johnson (D-South Dakota).

Tribal leaders and organizations worked feverishly this fall to get the bill passed. The National Indian Education Association brought Navajo Code Talkers, the World War II soldiers who used their language to create an unbreakable code, to the U.S. Capitol to lobby for the measure.

"The outpouring of letters, calls, faxes, and emails to members of Congress made an incredible impact and demonstrated Indian Country�s huge support for the revitalization of Native languages," the organization said in a statement.

Tex Hall, the chairman of the Board of the Inter-Tribal Economic Alliance and former president of the National Congress of American Indians, also hailed passage. "I hope that laws like this one help America to really understand just how much of a treasure our Native American cultures are," he said.

Appropriations for the programs are guaranteed through 2012 but an exact amount is not specified in the bill. Rep. Heather Wilson (R-New Mexico), one of the sponsors, said she would ask the White House to increase funding for the ANA, whose budget has remained level at $44 million in recent years.

Native Languages Bill:
Esther Martinez Native American Languages Preservation Act (H.R.4766)

2006 National Heritage Fellowships:
Bio: Esther Martinez | List of Recipients