Senate Committee on Indian Affairs
William Mendoza, Oglala-Sicangu Lakota, executive director of the White House Initiative on Indian and Alaska Native Education, said there are only 375,000 American Indian language speakers remaining in the U.S. Lillian Sparks Robinson Rosebud Sioux Tribe, commissioner for the Administration for Native Americans, said the agency expected in 2014 to fund 20 percent of Esther Martinez Initiative grant applications and 16 percent of Native American Language Preservation and Maintenance Program applications.

Speaking of Languages: Educators Back Native American Language Bills

Tanya H. Lee

The Senate Committee on Indian Affairs found strong support for proposed legislation to increase federal support for Native American language programs during a legislative hearing that took up the Native American Languages Reauthorization Act of 2014 (S. 2299) and the Native Language Immersion Student Achievement Act (S. 1948).

The seven witnesses easily found consensus about the need to fund Native language programs for elementary and secondary school American Indian/Alaska Native children in order to preserve the dozens of indigenous languages under threat. “All but 15 or 20 of our Native languages are spoken only by adults who are not teaching their younger generations the language. When language becomes extinct, it takes with it the history, philosophy, culture and scientific knowledge of its speakers,” Clarena M. Brockie, member of the Montana State House of Representatives and dean of students at Aaniiih Nakoda College, told the committee.

That Native language learning provides huge benefits to students was another area where there was no argument. “Place-based and cultural-based education keeps students engaged and increases student achievement,” said Sonta Hamilton Roach, an elementary teacher at the Innoko River School in Alaska and a board member of Doyon Limited. “In Rural Alaska our communities are plagued with high suicide rates, and high drop out rates, which correlate directly with a loss in culture and language.”

Committee Chairman Jon Tester, D-Montana, took William Mendoza, Oglala-Sicangu Lakota, executive director of the White House Initiative on American Indian and Alaska Native Education, to task when he informed the committee that the White House did not yet have a position on the legislation. Tester was clear that the committee wanted a decision by the time Congress returned from its July 4 recess.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, urged the White House Initiative to aggressively demonstrate the nexus between Native language acquisition and the academic achievement and well-being of Native children, noting that it was one of the most important ways to improve educational outcomes of Native students.


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