Native language preservation bill becomes law
Friday, December 15, 2006
A bill that will help tribes preserve their languages was signed into
law by President Bush on Thursday.
H.R.4766, the Esther Martinez Native American Languages Preservation
Act, authorizes funding for new programs that tribes will use to prevent
the loss of their heritage and culture. "These languages will be
preserved with attention and effort. Once lost, they will never be
recovered," said Ryan Wilson, the president of the National Indian
The act took on significance this fall following the death of Esther
Martinez, a Native language teacher and storyteller from New Mexico. She
was killed in a car accident on September 16, just days after receiving
a National Heritage Fellowship award for her efforts to preserve the
"The Native languages were precious to Esther Martinez, and this bill is
designed to help preserve them," said Wilson. "It is a fitting tribute
to her life's work."
New Mexico's Congressional delegation worked to pass the bill in the
closing weeks of the 109th Congress. It had passed the House in
September but was held up in the Senate and failed to gain approval
before the November elections.
After some feverish lobbying by the National Alliance to Save Native
Languages, a coalition that includes the NIEA and other organizations,
the measure passed the Senate earlier this month. Tribes then turned
their attention to the White House to get it signed before the end of
"The urgent need to protect and preserve Native American languages is
clear," said Rep. Tom Udall (D-New Mexico), whose district includes
Ohkay Owingeh, the pueblo where Martinez taught her language for
decades. "We must invest in their preservation by implementing immersion
By authorizing funding for language nests, language survival schools and
language restoration programs, supporters hope to prevent the loss of
additional languages. Of the more than 300 languages spoken in the U.S.
at the time of European contact, only 175 remain, according to the
Indigenous Language Institute.
By 2050, only 20 will be spoken with regular use, the organization says,
unless efforts are taken to teach the languages to new generations.
The United States played a major role in the loss of Native languages.
Students at government boarding schools were prohibited from using their
languages. The Bureau of Indian Affairs at one point outlawed
ceremonies, a critical method of preserving languages and history.
Through the government policies of termination, relocation and
assimilation, the efforts continued through the 1950s and 1960s even as
the U.S military enlisted Native soldiers to create unbreakable codes
using their languages. In 2000, President Bush honored Navajo Code
Talkers who served in World War II.
"For many years, tribes were discouraged from speaking their native
languages and now many languages have disappeared. This legislation will
help ensure native languages are preserved, and passed on to future
generation," said Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-New Mexico).
The grants for the new programs will be distributed by the
Administration for Native Americans within the Department of Health and
Human Services. Wilson said tribes must work to ensure Congress and the
White House provide adequate funds to carry out the bill.
Native Languages Bill: http://thomas.loc.gov/
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