Native American language use has been declining for more than a century.
However, tribes across Indian Country are fighting to revitalize their native languages with immersion schools and other language education programs, according to the U.S. Senate Committee on Indian Affairs.
On June 18, the committee held a hearing on two bills that support Native American language education and development – the Native Language Immersion Student Achievement Act and the Native American Languages Reauthorization Act. The bills were introduced and co-sponsored by committee Chairman Sen. John Tester (D-Montana) to help preserve the vibrant culture and community of Native American communities.
“The history of Native languages in this country is one of great tragedy and great triumph,” Tester said in a news release issued by the committee. “Through decades of failed federal policy, Native languages have been pushed to the brink of extinction. Yet many survive and in fact thrive, thanks to the tireless work of Native educators and others.”
Tribal leaders testifying before the committee including Thomas Shortbull, President of the Oglala Lakota College; Clarena M. Brockie, Dean of Students at the Aaniih Nakada College and Chairman Ed Delgao of the Oneida Tribe of Indians of Wisconsin, supported both bills, which also have bipartisan support.
Shortbull testified that several years ago college administrators began to notice a troubling trend: every year, fewer and fewer of students entering there were fluent in – or could even speak – the Lakota language.
“Even more troubling, we conducted our own survey within our local communities and learned that while 70-80 percent of our elders could speak Lakota, only about 5 percent of our tribe’s 4- to 6-year-olds could speak the language,” he said.
Brockie testified that most native languages are spoken by only a handful of elders and are in serious danger of disappearing.
“In fact, all but 15 or 20 of our native languages are spoken only by adults who are not teaching their younger generations the language,” Brockie said. “This terrible legacy is made even worse when you consider that once a language becomes extinct, it takes with it much of the history, philosophy, ceremonies, culture, and environmental and scientific knowledge of the people who spoke it.”
Delago said their long-term commitment to language revitalization reflects their belief that the Oneida language is a key component of their cultural identity.
“We believe language is medicine, and when we use kanukwatsliyo, the good medicine of our language, we will begin to heal our students and community,” Delago said.
The committee noted that currently there are more than 65 native language immersion programs that teach students exclusively in their tribe’s native language, but only 375,000 Native language speakers remain in the U.S.
The Native Language Immersion Student Achievement Act would amend the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 to authorize the Secretary of Education to award grants to schools and private or tribal nonprofit organizations to develop and maintain, or improve and expand, programs that support the use of Native American languages as their primary language of instruction.
The Native American Languages Reauthorization Act of 2014 would reauthorize the Native American languages grant program from 2015 through 2019 – to support and strengthen Native American language immersion programs.
Running Strong for American Indian Youth® helps Indian nations preserve their traditional languages and cultures for future generations. We support initiatives to preserve knowledge passed down from a disappearing generation of elders and to teach this knowledge to the next generation of American Indian youth through programs such as the Euchee (Yuchi) Language Project in Sapulpa, Oklahoma.