Big Boost for Native Languages

A Native languages bill could bring Native American languages to the classrooms of Colorado.

The respect and recognition shown by Colorado lawmakers for a Native American language bill are encouraging and may portend smooth sailing through the legislative process straight to the governor’s desk for signing, the bill’s author hopes.

State Sen. Suzanne Williams (D-Aurora), Comanche, said, “I’m elated,” after she, Native educators, and Native students spoke at a packed Senate Education Committee hearing February 15 about the need for teaching indigenous languages in Colorado schools.

“The students spoke so well about what this could mean to them—being able to talk to their grandparents and being able to talk to their children in their Native language,” she said.

The committee unanimously approved the bill, sending it forward for additional Senate readings and then a similar approval process in the House, where it is co-sponsored by Rep. J. Paul Brown (R-Ignacio).

The bipartisan bill would create teacher authorization for instruction in Native American languages of federally recognized tribes and school districts could adopt a policy of giving general education credit for successful completion of the language courses.

“Keeping our Native languages alive keeps the culture alive,” said Williams, who worked with other members of the Native community toward language preservation.

Among others who stressed the importance of Native language learning was Rose Marie McGuire, Sisseton-Wahpeton Oyate, manager of Indian Education programs for Denver Public Schools (DPS). McGuire said DPS is “at the forefront” of language revitalization efforts and supports the National Indian Education Association’s belief that “Native students who have a strong foundation in their language and culture perform better academically, at the same time Native culture is preserved not in books, but in the minds of our children.”

The Southern Ute Indian Tribe and Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, both in southwestern Colorado, support the proposed legislation, said Ernest House Jr., Ute Mountain Ute, executive secretary of the Colorado Commission of Indian Affairs. He said there is an opportunity for bridge-building between the tribes and school districts, although together with the Department of Education it’s important to be sure the appropriate tribal nations approve and are involved.

Simon Moya-Smith, Oglala Lakota, noted that many Native families with boarding school histories moved to Denver under the federal relocation program of the 1950s and urban youth from those families are looking for the language legacy that was lost in boarding schools and then in the city. Moya-Smith, a journalism student and writer for ICTMN, said the field “has argued that culture and language cannot be separated.”

Applicants for Native American Language and Culture instruction credentials would be proficient in one or more Native languages and would comply with criteria established by the State Board of Education and its standards for Native language proficiency. The applicants need not have the baccalaureate degree or completion of a teacher education program, Williams said.

Under the bill, authorized instructors would work in partnership with a licensed teacher who currently teaches world languages for the employing school district and the instructors would generally not teach subjects other than Native language and culture.

Others who addressed the committee were Eileen Masquat, Sicangu Lakota, a teacher of Lakota, and students from the Denver Center for International Studies and the University of Colorado-Denver.