After years of fits and starts and intermittent funding, a federal law that seeks to strengthen tribally-developed Native American language revitalization programs has found more solid ground.
The Esther Martinez Native American Languages Programs Reauthorization Act was signed into law in late December 2019 by President Donald J. Trump after making its way through Congress.
The bipartisan legislation would help to revitalize Native American languages through immersion and restoration programs, something the Seminole Tribe is very familiar with.
The Tribe’s own Pemayetv Emahakv Charter School (PECS) on the Brighton Reservation has been recognized in Florida and across the country for its unique language immersion program.
PECS students are immersed in the Creek language throughout the school day. Parents are also required to be involved and take a class to learn Creek.
Martinez was a linguist and storyteller for the Tewa people of New Mexico and was known for her drive 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, Congress passed a law to amend the, then, Native American Programs Act of 1974. The amended legislation provided funding opportunities to “assess, plan, develop and implement projects to ensure the survival and continuing vitality of Native languages.”
But the legislation expired in 2012, although the program continued to be funded. 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.
However, neither chamber ever passed the bill and its future stayed in limbo. It is now funded through 2024.
“When we invest in revitalizing Native languages, are we also investing in rebuilding connections between generations of Native Americans and promoting higher academic achievement outcomes among Native youth,” Udall, who is vice chairman of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, said in a statement.
Deb Haaland, D-NM, the co-chair of the Congressional Native American Caucus and one of two Native American women members of the House of Representatives, said the bill’s passage was important because programs that support language preservation are underfunded or have no funding at all.
“Now that our bill … is signed into law, we will move forward on important work to revitalize our languages and traditions,” Haaland said in a statement.
The National Indian Education Association has long been lobbying for passage of the reauthorization.
“This bill represents a milestone in expanding tribal sovereignty to develop and implement Native language immersion programs that serve the unique academic and cultural needs of Native students,” the NIEA said in a statement.
Currently, there are more than 40 active grants totaling more than $11 million that are being used for language preservation and immersion efforts.