Native Language Bill Signed Into Law
Finally, some good news from the pen of the president. This bill was signed into law on December 14. I hope it hails a new era in indigenous language preservation and revitalization!
"This innovative and timely legislation helps stem an impending tragedy for our nation; the rapid decline and potential loss of Native American languages" -- Rep. Steve Pearce
WASHINGTON - The New Mexico Congressional Delegation today announced that President Bush has signed into law the Esther Martinez Native Languages Preservation Act. The new law helps prevent the loss of an important part of New Mexico's heritage, the Native American languages that are rapidly disappearing.
The bill, written and introduced by Congresswoman Heather Wilson in February, was passed by the House in September and the Senate earlier this month with the support of the entire New Mexico delegation. "These languages will be preserved with attention and effort. Once lost, they will never be recovered," Wilson said. "The native languages were precious to Esther Martinez, and this bill is designed to help preserve them. It is a fitting tribute to her life's work." "This bill is a tremendous way to honor the memory of Esther Martinez. It aims to preserve the unique linguistic heritage of Native Americans, and I'm pleased to see it become law," said U.S. Senator Pete Domenici, who worked to ensure passage in the Senate. "For many years, tribes were discouraged from speaking their native languages and now many languages have disappeared."
This legislation will help ensure native languages are preserved, and passed on to future generations," U.S. Senator Jeff Bingaman said. "Considering Esther's dedication to preserving her native language, it is a fitting tribute that this legislation be named after her," said Rep. Tom Udall. "The urgent need to protect and preserve Native American languages is clear. We must invest in their preservation by implementing immersion programs. This legislation is an important step toward reversing the trend of disappearing native languages. I would like to congratulate Congresswoman Wilson on this legislation being signed into law, and thank her for her efforts on this important issue." "This innovative and timely legislation helps stem an impending tragedy for our nation; the rapid decline and potential loss of Native American languages," said Rep. Steve Pearce, also a co-sponsor of the legislation. "I commend Rep. Wilson for her leadership in reconnecting younger generations of Native Americans to the language and culture of their ancestors while preserving an irreplaceable treasure for every American."
The bill was designated in honor of Esther Martinez of New Mexico, following her death in September. On September 14, Esther Martinez of Ohkay Owingeh was awarded a National Heritage Fellowship in Washington, DC. She died at 94 years of age in Espanola en route home after attending a ceremony at the National Endowment for the Arts.
Sadly, only an estimated 20 of more than 300 pre-colonial indigenous languages will remain by the year 2050. In 1996, 175 of these languages remained, but now we're losing them at a rate of 12 languages every 3 years. New Mexico is home to 19 different pueblos and 3 tribes. Among the tribes and pueblos, there are six major languages, plus varying dialects. Language is a key element of each community's identity. A recent survey of Native languages found that among the Lipan Apache on the Mescalero reservation in southern New Mexico there are just ten speakers of the native language remaining. At the Sandia Pueblo, north of Albuquerque, most of their Native speakers are middle aged or older. Even Navajo, spoken more than any other Native Language in the U.S., is spoken fluently by less than half of the Navajo children entering kindergarten.
The bill authorizes competitive grants through the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to establish Native American language "nests" for students under the age of seven and their families. It supports Native American language survival schools. It will help to preserve all the indigenous languages that are still being spoken, and increase the support for Native American language immersion programs to create fluent speakers, and allow tribes and pueblos to develop their own immersion programs.