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Native language bills could mean more school dollars for Indian Country

WASHINGTON — Two bills pending in Congress could deliver millions into education budgets to ensure the survival of Native American languages via Native schools nationwide.

The Native American Languages Reauthorization Act of 2014, sponsored by Sen. Tim Johnson, D-S.D., would bring $17 million in grants to eligible Tribal language programs. The Native Language Immersion Student Achievement Act, sponsored by the Chairman of the U.S. Senate Committee on Indian Affairs Sen. John Tester, D-Mont., could provide $20 million in $5 million increments through 2019 for Native schools that drive curriculum through indigenous language.

The funding, however, is for full-year, full-time immersion programs. Ahfachkee School in Big Cypress and Pemayetv Emahakv Charter School in Brighton are not currently eligible because neither includes Native language enough throughout the curriculum to be considered immersion schools.

But that could change in time.

During a joint meeting in early September, Chairman James E. Billie directed Tribal department heads to brainstorm ways to incorporate Native language across reservations and support language use throughout the Tribe’s schools and youth programs.

At Ahfachkee, Mikasuki is already laced in throughout the day, especially during culture classes, but the language is not offered as a formal class.

PECS purposefully immerses children 30 minutes daily in Creek language classes. Separate 35-minute culture classes also engage children to deliberately speak the language. Further, the language is peppered into the school day from the morning announcements and Seminole Pledge to “phrases of the week” and school sports competitions, where fans cheer and athletes and coaches call plays in Creek.

PECS principal Brian Greseth and culture language instructor Jade Braswell Osceola said the groundwork is being laid regardless of congressional money for a future where the entire student body will speak fluent Creek.

“In a perfect world we would love to arrive at school, park our car, walk through the doors and be totally immersed,” Braswell Osceola said.

But the language, in addition to being considered an endangered language, is still evolving in translation and has only in recent decades been recorded in written words. The first Creek dictionary, in fact, is in the publication process.

Still, PECS officials this year have formally requested that the Florida Department of Education recognize Creek academically as a foreign language so that PECS seventh- and eighth-graders can claim two high school foreign language credits by the time they leave PECS. Convincing colleges to accept Creek language credits will also be tackled.

Braswell Osceola said PECS could become an immersion school but only after a generation of students becomes certified teachers and Creek speakers, such as herself.

“It’s a circle of knowledge. We always push the students to become college graduates then come back to the Tribe,” said Braswell Osceola, who has a teaching degree from Indian River State College in special education.

Meanwhile, according to the office of the U.S. Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, the Native Language Immersion Student Achievement Act may be heard by the end of the current legislative session. If not, it will be resubmitted to the next Congress.

“This bill will not only revitalize Native languages, it will also keep kids in school and lead to greater pride, academic achievement and economic growth in Indian Country,” Tester said in a statement provided to The Seminole Tribune.

Identical bills were also referred respectively to the House by Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla., who is a member of the Chickasaw Nation and staunch supporter of Native issues and Tribal government, and Rep. Ben Ray Lujan, D-N.M., whose district contains 15 Pueblo Tribes and the Tribal lands of the Jicarilla Apache Nation and the Navajo Nation. The bills will see the Senate floor first, but because the bills exist in both congressional chambers, the chances for passage are high.

Both bills have garnered support from major Native organizations throughout Indian Country.

In a joint letter from the National Indian Education Association (NIEA) and 32 Native groups – including the United South and Eastern Tribes (USET) to which the Seminole Tribe of Florida belongs – NIEA President Pamela Agoyo implored Congress to pass the Native Language Immersion Student Achievement Act.

“Every Native child should have the right to be educated in his or her own language. Today, we have the opportunity to make that a reality,” Agoyo said in a Sept. 16 statement on Native languages.

Data compiled by NIEA reveals that Native student achievement rates are higher when they are taught through immersion programs. The Rough Rock English-Navajo Language Arts Program, for example, reported that after four years in the program, student scores in English comprehension jumped from 58 percent to 91 percent. The program serves 200 students per year.

Agoyo also called for Congress to modernize the Indian Education Act of 1972 – designed to meet the unique needs of Tribal children then to now – to “include the growing body of educational research that established Native language immersion schools as an emerging ‘best practice’ in the field of Indian education.”

Proof that teaching Native language classes in Tribal schools helps children grow academically and culturally comes with everyday experiences, Braswell Osceola said. During a recent school pep rally when students cheered for classmates in Creek, she was filled with joy.

“I was so proud. The children were speaking and not even thinking about it – it just came,” she said. “We tell them they are the only ones, the only Tribe in the whole world who has this one language – use it.”