FARMINGTON – The U.S. House on Monday passed a bill promoting the preservation of Native languages.
The Esther Martinez Native American Languages Program Reauthorization Act was designed to help preserve Native languages and combat the predicted extinction within the next 50 to 100 years of the roughly 148 Native languages still spoken. The act extends two federal language grants through 2024, offers longer grant periods and broadens grant eligibility to smaller tribal-language programs.
“With the passage of this bipartisan legislation, Congress has taken a major step to deliver results on this top priority for Native communities that are working to preserve their languages,” said U.S. Rep. Ben Ray Luján of New Mexico.
According to evaluations by the Department of Health and Human Services, the programs in the act increase fluency with 4,000 speakers and train 170 to 280 Native language teachers every year.
The original preservation act passed in 2006 under President George W. Bush, and was named for Esther Martinez, an Ohkay Owingeh Pueblo traditional storyteller and Tewa language advocate who died that same year.
The reauthorization, which passed in the U.S. Senate earlier this year, had bipartisan support in both chambers. New Mexico Sen. Tom Udall, who authored the bill, said, “Native languages in the U.S. represent some of the greatest linguistic diversity in the world and embody the cultures, histories and resiliency of the Native communities that speak them.”
The president of the Mescalero Apache Tribe, located in New Mexico, also applauded the support provided to “preserve the Apache language and our culture by providing critical resources for our Nde’ Bizáá program and at Mescalero Apache schools.”
Support for the legislation crossed both party and state lines. In 2018, the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs was considering ways to support Native languages, including the reauthorization of the 2006 act. At the time, Sen. Michael Bennet of Colorado said he supported the efforts to preserve the languages of Native speakers, including the roughly 2,000 speakers of Colorado River Numic, the language of the Southern Ute and Ute Mountain Ute tribes.
After the bill’s passage in the U.S. House, family members of Martinez released a joint statement praising the act and emphasizing the importance of Native languages. “Our language is central to our culture, and it’s critical that we train Native language teachers and increase fluency with Native speakers to protect it,” the statement read. “Esther Martinez, our mother, was committed to this cause, and we are proud to see this legislation pass in her honor.”