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.
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
“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.
Can you name all the Pueblo languages? There are 3 language families—Keresan, Tanoan and Zuni—and 5 recognized...Posted by Indian Pueblo Cultural Center on Saturday, February 6, 2016
Statements of SupportHere 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
Join the Conversation
Related StoriesSenate Committee on Indian Affairs focuses on Administration for Native Americans (February 13, 2019)
Senate Committee on Indian Affairs advances more legislation in troubled climate (February 6, 2019)
Senate Committee on Indian Affairs schedules second business meeting (February 4, 2019)
Indian Country legislative agenda falls behind in the Trump era (November 19, 2018)
'We are still here': Advocates seek support for Native languages (August 23, 2018)
Tribal employment measure gives President Trump his first chance to sign an Indian bill (November 30, 2017)
Senate Committee on Indian Affairs advances nine bills at first meeting (February 9, 2017)
Senate Committee on Indian Affairs moves quickly on bipartisan bills (February 6, 2017)