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$5 million campaign begun to preserve tribal languages

SANTA FE, N.M. ? The Indigenous Language Institute announced a $5 million national endowment campaign to provide resources to protect and preserve endangered Native American languages.

The campaign was announced by Cherokee actor Wes Studi during the organization's honoring event. Studi will serve as honorary endowment chairman.

"The Indigenous Language Institute has embarked upon this endowment campaign because it recognizes the critical need to continue assisting Native communities maintain and perpetuate their languages," Studi said.

The fluent Cherokee speaker formerly taught his language. He said efforts like the endowment are important to raise much-needed funds. Studi said he still dedicates time to work with youth to talk about the importance of maintaining tribal languages.

With the constant influx of outside cultures and the use of English in everyday life, Studi said tribal youth are not gaining the exposure and practice needed to preserve languages for future generations.

Throughout the early part of the 20th century, the federal government promoted a policy aimed to wipe out tribal languages and their use by American Indian youth. It was common for the children to be sent to boarding schools where they were punished for speaking their language.

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After years of ignoring the problem, the federal government finally began to address tribal language loss through new federal polices at the close of the century.

In 1990, the Native American Languages Act, or NALA, was passed, declaring it "the official policy of the United States government to preserve, protect, and promote the rights and freedom of Native Americans to use, practice, and develop Native languages."

Tribes are working on their own to preserve their languages and have instituted a number of programs aimed at connecting youth with tribal members who know the language and can teach.

Funds raised for the new endowment will be used to fund further programs, like teacher training, language materials development, tribal language research and field surveys, and educational outreach seminars and publications.

The Indigenous Language Institute is a non-profit organization founded in 1992 to "preserve and protect" endangered native languages through grass-roots collaborations with American Indian community language programs, linguists serving tribal communities, and children and youth in tribal communities participating in the preservation of traditional languages.

A 1993 study shows that of the 300-plus original languages in North America, only 175 exist today. Of those, 155 are endangered. Experts predict that if nothing is done to reverse this trend, by 2060, only 20 Indigenous languages will remain.

"The dream of the ILI is to enhance and amplify the diminishing resource of native speakers," said Gerald Hill, Oneida and president of the ILI's board of directors. "This is no simple task. The long range plan is to create a national center for native languages where community people can come to observe the latest techniques and technologies that can assist them in their work."