Association stresses importance of languages

WASHINGTON – The Native code talkers of wartime and national lore took another tour of duty July 12, serving as the centerpiece of the National Indian Education Association’s effort to win congressional backing for Native language immersion school funding.

The Navajo and Lakota veterans, all in or near their 80s, needed all the military bearing they could muster for a day that began in the mid-morning on Capitol Hill and ended that night with a celebratory reception at the National Museum of the American Indian. They were still standing when NIEA President Ryan Wilson urged them to take a seat; and still a turnout in the hundreds couldn’t get enough, snapping picture after picture as the crowd thinned. In the meantime, former Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell and Three Affiliated Tribes Chairman Tex Hall hailed their accomplishments and the long track record of volunteer military service among Natives.

Their presence pointed up the practical value of Native languages in an English-only political climate. In World War II and conflicts since, young soldiers from Navajo, Lakota, Comanche, Choctaw, Sac and Fox, and 13 other tribes helped to develop and deploy American Indian language-based communications codes for the U.S. military.

Famously, the World War II code was never broken. Code-breakers could never decipher its patterns because its ancestral source languages were unfamiliar outside Native communities. One of the Navajo code talkers, Peter MacDonald, said to general concurrence that young men today might not be able to do it because those source languages are becoming unfamiliar inside Native communities.

On Capitol Hill, Wilson delivered the take-home message for congressional members: “Not only do we cherish these languages, but we’re asking America to cherish them as well.”

He said that tribes are in the last minute of the last hour in which their languages can be preserved. “This is the best species you could save, these languages – it really isn’t something that we can go on anymore without advancing. We are the ones who have not been advancing this.”

Lionel Bordeaux, longtime president of Sinte Gleska University at Rosebud in South Dakota, could not be in Washington July 12 but sent a similar message that NIEA included among its advocacy materials: “Our young people want to learn the language. Without the support of Congress, retaining our tribal language will be next to impossible.”

NIEA is citing national studies on language learning and data from language immersion schooling as evidence that increased language learning increases academic achievement in students. In addition, NIEA maintains that for many Native students, learning their Native language through culturally guided pedagogy is the point of interest that makes other studies relevant and so moves them along toward higher overall academic achievement.

A cluster of bills that had come before Congress sought to recognize Native code talkers, create American Indian language grant programs within the Department of Education, establish American Indian language demonstration programs within the early school grades, and set forth alternative standards of teacher qualification and student assessment to those found in the No Child Left Behind Act that dominates the national educational landscape.

But the week of July 17, the leading bill in the Senate, S. 2674, was withheld from a markup hearing by its lead sponsor, Sen. Daniel Akaka, D-Hawaii. Wilson said that if it had gone to the full Senate, the bill would have been subjected to a hold by Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., objecting to its Native Hawaiian provisions. Kyl was a leading opponent of Akaka’s bill to authorize a process for the appointment of a Native Hawaiian governing entity that would have been eligible for federal recognition.

With no bill active in the Senate, a reform law along the lines laid out by NIEA will have to wait until the 110th Congress. Wilson said that on Aug. 31 in Albuquerque, N.M., the Education and Workforce Committee in the House of Representatives will hold a field hearing on a Native languages bill introduced in the House by Rep. Heather Wilson, R-N.M., and co-sponsored by Rep. Rick Renzi, R-Ariz. The hearing will demonstrate Republican support for the issue and help build its prospects for the next Congress, Wilson said.