Indianz.Com on YouTube: U.S. House of Representatives - S.256, the Esther Martinez Native American Languages Programs Reauthorization Act - December 9, 2019

Native language bill clears final hurdle in divided political climate

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- It took awhile in this era of divided government but the first stand-alone Indian bill of the 116th Congress is one step closer to becoming law.

S.256, the Esther Martinez Native American Languages Programs Reauthorization Act, cleared its final hurdle on Capitol Hill on Monday. The bill attempts to reverse decades of federal policy in which Native Americans were discouraged or prevented from speaking their own languages.

"The history of the United States tells us about the deliberate efforts to eliminate Indigenous peoples' languages and cultures through forced assimilation, boarding school forced attendance, treaties that have not been honored, and promises not kept," Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-Arizona), the chairman of the House Committee on Natural Resources, said during debate on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives.

Democrats weren't the only ones highlighting the need for the measure, which authorizes $13 million a year for Native language initiatives across the nation. Republican lawmakers also stood strongly behind S.256, which is named in honor of the late Esther Martinez, an Ohkay Owingeh linguist and educator who taught the Tewa language to generations of students and scholars.

"There are 175 Native languages spoken in this country today, and there are estimates that, 30 years from now, fewer than 20 will be spoken," said Rep. Dusty Johnson (R-South Dakota), a new member of Congress who attempted to speak Lakota during consideration of the measure.

Esther Martinez, 1912-2016, was a linguist and educator from Ohkay Owingeh who was known for her efforts to preserve the Tewa language. She taught the language to countless numbers of students and her work inspired the Esther Martinez Native American Languages Preservation Act. Photo: Granger Meador

Despite the bipartisan backing for S.256, getting it across the finish line hasn't been easy. Although the Esther Martinez Native American Languages Preservation Act first became law in 2006 with the support of both parties and during a Republican presidential administration, Congress let it expire in 2012, during another era of divided government.

"Generations of Native families had their children torn from their arms, bound for schools that forced English and Western education on Native students," said Rep. Ben Ray Luján (D-New Mexico), whose district includes Ohkay Owingeh and five other Pueblo communities where Tewa is spoken.

Martinez, Luján noted, was instrumental in keeping the language alive even though she was sent to a government-run educational institution "where nearly everything that made her a Pueblo woman was banned."

"Despite living through a period of overt racism with federal policies aimed at exterminating Native culture, Mrs. Martinez defied the odds by returning to Ohkay Owingeh," Luján continued. "She raised her children and family to speak the Tewa dialect. Esther went on to teach many more as a linguist, a schoolteacher, and the director of bilingual education for her pueblo."

With countless Native languages in danger of losing more speakers, supporters kept trying to renew the Native language program at the Administration for Native Americans but progress was slow moving. They came close during the last session of Congress, when the U.S. Senate passed the bill only for it to falter in the House.

Once the 116th Congress began in January, backers in the Senate became intent on moving it as quickly as possible. The Senate Committee on Indian Affairs approved S.256 at a business meeting a month later. In a sign of its non-controversial nature, it easily cleared the chamber by a voice vote on June 27 -- there wasn't even any debate on the measure.

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“Native languages remain a vital part of not only tribal identity and culture, but our nation’s history as well,” Sen. John Hoeven (R-North Dakota), the chairman of the committee, said after action in the House on Monday. “The passage of the Esther Martinez Native American Languages Preservation Act reaffirms Congress’ commitment to supporting Native languages and provides the opportunity for tribal communities to preserve their linguistic heritage and traditions."

But while lawmakers were happy to see the bill finally clear both chambers this time around, at least one detected a bit of gamesmanship. Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska), who co-sponsored the original bill back in 2006, accused his counterparts in the Senate of attempting to take credit for getting the Esther Martinez program reauthorized.

"I am a little bit concerned, if I may," Young said during debate in the House. "I don't want to speak about the other body, but we know who it is."

"They have taken Mr. Luján's bill and sort of put their name on it, but we will forgive them because we will get it done," Young said of H.R.912, the version that was introduced in the House, also in January of this year.

The slow movement on S.256, however, reflects a larger issue. Since the arrival of Donald Trump in the nation's capital almost three years ago, Indian Country has seen its legislative agenda fall behind.

Historically, about 20 Indian Country bills become law during a two-year session of Congress, regardless of which parties are running the show. That changed during the 115th Congress, when only about a dozen Indian Country bills became law -- fewer than the goal set by the Republicans who controlled both the House and the Senate at the time.

It's still too early in the 116th Congress to make comparisons, as only the first year of the session is about to come to a close. But with Democrats in charge of the House and Republicans at the helm of the Senate, the signs haven't been good for Indian Country.

A key example is the Violence Against Women Act. After Democrats in the House passed a version which expands protections for Native women and children, Republicans in the Senate unveiled a proposal that turns back the clock on tribal jurisdiction.

But for now, advocates are welcoming final passage of the Native language bill. The National Congress of American Indians, the largest inter-tribal advocacy organization in the U.S., passed a resolution in support of S.256, over the summer and followed up with a letter to key lawmakers in July.

“The protection and preservation of our Native languages is crucial to the cultural identities and lifeways of tribal citizens and the overall sustainability of tribal nations,” said Kevin J. Allis, a citizen of the Forest County Potawatomi Community who serves as NCAI's Chief Executive Officer. “We are thrilled to see the House pass the Esther Martinez Native Languages Programs Reauthorization Act, which provides tribal nations the critical resources needed to ensure Native languages continue to be spoken for generations to come.

Martinez's family at Ohkay Owingeh -- some of whom were watching the debate online -- also hailed the latest development. Her children and grandchildren continue to carry on the Tewa language in their community in northern New Mexico.

“Our family is thankful for the decisive action the House of Representatives has taken to pass legislation to safeguard Native languages for generations to come," the family said in a statement on Monday. "This important initiative – one that recognizes the legacy of Esther Martinez – will help revitalize and prevent the loss of Native languages. Our language is central to our culture, and it’s critical that we train Native language teachers and increase fluency with Native speakers to protect it. Esther Martinez, our mother, was committed to this cause, and we are proud to see this legislation pass in her honor."

Dancers at Ohkay Owingeh, a Pueblo community in northern New Mexico. The tribe's name in the Tewa language means "place of the strong people." Photo: Larry Lamsa

“Ohkay Owingeh is sincerely grateful for the passage of S.256, the Esther Martinez Native American Languages Programs Reauthorization Act of 2019," added Governor Ron Lovato, the leader of the tribe, whose name means "place of the strong people" in Tewa.

"But here at home Poe Tsawa's legacy has already been established in the hearts and minds of all the Ohkay people, most of whom she instructed, including this writer,” said Lovato, using Martinez's Tewa name, which translates to "Blue Water."

As the Esther Martinez package made its way through Capitol Hill over the years, tribes and educators sought several changes to the Native language program at the Administration for Native Americans, which is part of the Department of Health and Human Services. Once S.256 becomes law, Native language grants can be awarded for initiatives that run for up to 5 years, instead of the 3-year limit in the original version of the law.

The bill also expands the federal grant program to more Native communities. Native language nests would only need 5 students to qualify for awards, down from the 10 required by the current law. Native language survival schools would only need 10 students, down from 15 in existing law.

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“Our indigenous languages and traditions help keep our rich culture alive, but the programs that support language preservation are underfunded and often times lack funding altogether," Rep. Deb Haaland (D-New Mexico), who is one of the first two Native women in Congress, said on Monday.

"Now that our bill honoring the legacy of Pueblo storyteller and self-taught linguist, Esther Martinez, has passed the House and the Senate, I urge the President to sign it into law so we can revitalize our languages and traditions," Haaland concluded.

Statements of Support
Here are additional statements of support for S.256, the Esther Martinez Native American Languages Programs Reauthorization Act.

“Native languages in the U.S. represent some of the greatest linguistic diversity in the world and embody the cultures, histories, and resiliency of the Native communities that speak them. With passage of the Esther Martinez Native American Languages Programs Reauthorization Act today, Congress has continued its commitment working with Tribes to protect and renew Native languages. This bill is also important for its recognition of Esther Martinez’s legacy of Native languages advocacy in New Mexico and across the country. I’m proud the House joined the Senate to honor Esther Martinez’s work and look forward to this bill becoming law.”
-- Sen. Tom Udall (D-New Mexico), sponsor of S.256 and vice chairman of Senate Committee on Indian Affairs

“Preserving Native languages is central to maintaining cultural identity. I’m proud to continue honoring Esther Martinez’s legacy by ensuring that Native students are connected to their language and that their rich culture and traditions can be handed down to future generations.”
-- Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-New Mexico)

“The preservation of Native and tribal languages is essential to protecting our state’s unique cultural identity for generations to come. I’m proud to join the delegation in honoring Esther Martinez’s legacy by removing the barriers schools and organizations often face when accessing resources for Native language programs. This is especially critical to our rural communities, and will ensure Native students in all corners of our state have the opportunity to thrive.”
-- Rep. Xochitl Torres Small (D-New Mexico)

“Native language preservation is central to advancing culturally responsive education. Our children thrive inside and outside of the classroom when learning their own language. The Esther Martinez Native American Languages Programs Reauthorization Act represents a milestone in expanding tribal flexibility to develop and implement Native language immersion programs which serve the unique academic and cultural needs of Native students."
-- Marita Hinds, President of National Indian Education Association

“The long overdue passage of the Reauthorization of the Esther Martinez Native American Languages Program Act gives more opportunity and hope to Native American Nations who want to ensure the survival and growth of their languages. Each language matters, for deeply rooted reasons of culture, human development, and ways of being. The Joint National Committee for Languages is proud of the Rep. [Ben Ray] Luján, Rep. [Tom] Cole, and the 240 co-sponsors in the House of Representatives who ensured that this vital bill will pass and proceed to the president’s desk.”
-- Dr. Bill Rivers, Executive Director of Joint National Committee for Languages

“As indigenous languages face a sharp decline, with only 20 indigenous languages expected to remain viable by the year 2050, the All Pueblo Council of Governors is grateful for the passing of the Esther Martinez Native American Languages Programs Reauthorization Act. The act will help tribes stem the loss of Native languages by significantly increasing support for language immersion programs which 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.”
-- E. Paul Torres, Chairman of All Pueblo Council of Governors

“We deeply appreciate the leadership of Senator [Tom] Udall and Rep.[Ben Ray] Lujan on passage of this important legislation. This legislation will help support our efforts to preserve the Apache language and our culture by providing critical resources for our Nde’ Bizáá program and at Mescalero Apache schools.”
-- Gabe Aguilar, President of Mescalero Apache Tribe

"The Esther Martinez Act is essential to the strengthening and expansion of dual language education in Tribal Language Communities throughout the United States. Dual Language Education of New Mexico greatly appreciates Representative [Ben Ray] Lujan and Senator [Tom] Udall’s work to ensure the acts’ passage. The act means much needed support for ensuring the revitalization, maintenance and preservation of Tribal Languages that are currently in endanger of extinction with the recognition of tribal sovereignty and autonomy to develop their language programs.”
-- David Rogers, Executive Director of Dual Language Education of New Mexico

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