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Members of Congress and Advocates Celebrate Passage of Bill to Revitalize Native Languages

December 9, 2019
Press Release

Washington, D.C. – Today, Members of Congress, and advocates celebrated the passage of the Esther Martinez Native American Languages Programs Reauthorization Act, a bipartisan bill to safeguard and revitalize Native American languages.

The bill honors Esther Martinez, an Ohkay Owingeh Pueblo traditional storyteller and Tewa language advocate who passed away in 2006. It amends existing law to reauthorize two federal Native American language programs at the Administration for Native Americans until 2024, expand eligibility for those programs to smaller-sized Tribal language programs, and allow both programs to offer longer grant periods.

The Esther Martinez Native American Languages Programs Reauthorization Act, introduced by Assistant Speaker Luján, will help preserve Native languages to combat the predicted extinction of all of the approximately 148 Native languages still spoken within the next 50 to 100 years. Biennial evaluations by the Department of Health and Human Services show the program increases fluency with 4,000 speakers and trains between 170 and 280 Native language teachers each year.

The legislation was introduced by Asistant Speaker Ben Ray Luján, and was co-sponsored by Reps. Don Young (R-Alaska), Betty McCollum (DFL-Minn.), Tom Cole (R-OK), Xochitl Torres Small (D-N.M.), and Deb Haaland (D-N.M.). It was co-sponsored with nearly unanimous support from House Democrats, including members of Democratic Leadership and the Congressional Native American Caucus. Introduced by Sen. Tom Udall (D-N.M.), the legislation passed the Senate in June.

“Esther Martinez was a champion for Native languages who spent her life teaching others and promoting the growth of indigenous languages and culture. 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 Assistant Speaker Luján. “I was proud to help spearhead the passage of this legislation to ensure language justice for future generations.” 

“Our family is thankful for the decisive action the House of Representatives has taken to pass legislation to safeguard Native languages for generations to come. This important initiative – one that recognizes the legacy of Esther Martinez – will help revitalize and prevent the loss 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. Esther Martinez, our mother, was committed to this cause, and we are proud to see this legislation pass in her honor,” said members of Esther Martinez’s family.

“Alaska Native heritage is central to the culture of our great state, and the diverse languages of our Native communities should be preserved and protected for future generations,” said Young. “Sadly, we have witnessed a steady decline in the number of speakers of various Native languages and dialects. It is urgent that we turn the tide so that these languages aren’t forever lost to history. The Esther Martinez Native American Languages Programs Reauthorization Act represents tremendous progress in our efforts to promote Native language education, and the funding provided to language initiatives by the Esther Martinez Program goes a long way toward revitalizing Indigenous languages in Alaska and across the country. I am grateful to Congressman Ben Ray Luján for his continued leadership on this critical issue, and I look forward to continuing my work as Vice Chair of the Native American Caucus and Co-Chair of the America’s Languages Caucus to help preserve Native language and culture for years to come.”

“As Co-Chair Emeritus of the Congressional Native American Caucus, I was proud to be an original cosponsor of the Esther Martinez Native American Languages Preservation Act,” said McCollum. “By helping tribal communities preserve and maintain their native languages, they are able to pass along centuries-old cultural heritage and share the unique human connection that language provides.”

"Preserving Native American language is vitally important to protecting the special heritage and unique culture that exists within tribes across the United States. Ensuring Native students can learn their historic language not only promotes individual academic success, but it fosters identity and builds unity within tribes as well. As a proud co-sponsor of the Esther Martinez Native American Languages Programs Reauthorization Act, I am very pleased to see its passage in the House,” said Cole, Co-Chair of the Congressional Native American Caucus.

“Our indigenous languages and traditions help keep our rich culture alive, but the programs that support language preservation are underfunded and often times lack funding altogether. Now that our bill honoring the legacy of Pueblo storyteller and self-taught linguist, Esther Martinez, has passed the House and the Senate, I urge the President to sign it into law so we can revitalize our languages and traditions ” said Haaland, Co-Chair of the Congressional Native American Caucus.

“The preservation of Native and tribal languages is essential to protecting our state’s unique cultural identity for generations to come. I’m proud to join the delegation in honoring Esther Martinez’s legacy by removing the barriers schools and organizations often face when accessing resources for Native language programs. This is especially critical to our rural communities, and will ensure Native students in all corners of our state have the opportunity to thrive,” said Torres Small.

“The protection and preservation of our Native languages is crucial to the cultural identities of tribal citizens and the overall sustainability of tribal nations,” said Kevin J. Allis, Chief Executive Officer of the National Congress of American Indians. “We are thrilled to see the House pass the Esther Martinez Native Languages Programs Reauthorization Act, which provides tribal nations the critical resources needed to ensure Native languages continue to be spoken for generations to come. We appreciate Representative Luján and Senator Udall’s tireless efforts to get this important legislation through Congress.”

"Native language preservation is central to advancing culturally responsive education. Our children thrive inside and outside of the classroom when learning their own language,” said National Indian Education Association President Marita Hinds. “The Esther Martinez Native American Languages Programs Reauthorization Act represents a milestone in expanding tribal flexibility to develop and implement Native language immersion programs which serve the unique academic and cultural needs of Native students."

“The long overdue passage of the Reauthorization of the Esther Martinez Native American Languages Program Act gives more opportunity and hope to Native American Nations who want to ensure the survival and growth of their languages. Each language matters, for deeply rooted reasons of culture, human development, and ways of being,” said Dr. Bill Rivers, Executive Director, Joint National Committee for Languages. “The Joint National Committee for Languages is proud of the Rep. Luján, Rep. Cole, and the 240 co-sponsors in the House of Representatives who ensured that this vital bill will pass and proceed to the president’s desk.”

“As indigenous languages face a sharp decline, with only 20 indigenous languages expected to remain viable by the year 2050, the All Pueblo Council of Governors is grateful for the passing of the Esther Martinez Native American Languages Programs Reauthorization Act. The act will help tribes stem the loss of Native languages by significantly increasing support for language immersion programs which will help ensure the cultural practices vital to the traditional well-being of our indigenous nations stays alive with our stories, songs, and prayers being passed on for future generations,” said Chairman E. Paul Torres, All Pueblo Council of Governors.

“Ohkay Owingeh is sincerely grateful for the passage of S. 256, the Esther Martinez Native American Languages Programs Reauthorization Act of 2019. But here at home Poe Tsawa legacy has already been established in the hearts and minds of all the Ohkay people, most of whom she instructed, including this writer,” said Ron Lovato, Governor of Ohkway Owingeh Pueblo.

“We deeply appreciate the leadership of Senator Udall and Rep. Lujan on passage of this important legislation.  This legislation will help support our efforts to preserve the Apache language and our culture by providing critical resources for our Nde’ Bizáá program and at Mescalero Apache schools,” said President Gabe Aguilar of the Mescalero Apache Tribe.