A federal law designed to help preserve Native languages is now moving toward reauthorization after being stalled in the U.S. Congress.
The Esther Martinez Native American Languages Programs Reauthorization Act seeks to revitalize Native American languages through immersion and restoration programs.
Martinez was a linguist and storyteller for the Tewa people of New Mexico and was known for her commitment to preserve the Tewa language. She is the author of the San Juan Pueblo Tewa Dictionary, published in 1982. Martinez died in 2006 at 94 years old.
After her death in 2006, Congress passed a law to amend the existing Native American Programs Act of 1974. The amended Act provided funding opportunities to “assess, plan, develop and implement projects to ensure the survival and continuing vitality of Native languages.”
It expired in 2012, although the program continued to be funded after that time.
In 2015, U.S. Rep. Ben Ray Lujan, D-NM, introduced a bill to reauthorize appropriations until fiscal year 2020. He was joined on the Senate side by U.S. Sen. Tom Udall, D-NM. Even though both bills were introduced in their respective chambers of Congress, they were not passed and the bill’s future has been in limbo since.
The current 116th Congress is now taking up the reauthorization.
Second term Florida Congressman Darren Soto, a Democrat, is an original cosponsor of the current reauthorization. He is also on the House subcommittee of Indigenous Peoples of the United States. Soto’s District 9 stretches from areas of eastern Orlando, south-southeast to Yeehaw Junction. It includes the cities of Kissimmee and St. Cloud.
Soto told the Seminole Tribune that it was important for him to be a cosponsor of the bill and to be on the subcommittee, knowing the large Native population of Florida.
“It’s critical that we preserve these historic American languages not only for Native children, but for all children,” Soto said. “It’s about history and getting in touch with culture.”
Soto noted his own personal history, being of Puerto Rican descent. “I learned some Spanish growing up, but it took effort to learn it and for me to rediscover my heritage,” he said.
Soto confirmed that the reauthorization was voted on favorably in the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs Feb. 6.
“It shows some movement,” he said. “It never even got a hearing last term.”
Soto said the midterm elections that recently placed Democrats back in power in the House of Representatives is a positive sign the reauthorization will keep moving forward. Not only that, but he said having Lujan as the lead sponsor is also an encouraging sign. Lujan is currently the Assistant House Speaker, among his other committee positions.
“He’s a strong advocate for Native American rights,” Soto said. “It bodes well for the progress of the bill compared to last term when it didn’t get a hearing. Now that you have shared government, it also bodes well for many social programs affecting Natives.”
Message from the NIEA
According to the National Indian Education Association, the survival of Native languages is intricately tied to the success of Native communities and survival of Native cultures.
“Immersion programs have proven to be the best model for creating fluent speakers and successful Native leaders,” the NIEA said in a statement. “Grants provided under Esther Martinez have empowered Native communities to establish immersion programs that are successfully revitalizing Native languages and improving Native economies.”
The NIEA is encouraging Congress to act quickly on the reauthorization.
“Preserving and promoting Native language is crucial to the advancement of Native education, said NIEA president Robin Butterfield in a statement. “By introducing and supporting this important program, Congress will ensure every Native student can thrive socially and academically because they are taught their own language.”
The Seminole Tribe of Florida’s own Pemayetv Emahakv Charter School (PECS) on the Brighton Reservation has been lauded for its language immersion program.
PECS students are immersed in the Creek language throughout the school day. The program is also unique because parents are required to be involved and take a class to learn Creek.