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Educators seek grants for language programs

SEATTLE – Three bills in Congress have the potential to offer grants for programs that work to foster Native children’s learning skills through language immersion and would help to continue the languages and strengthen cultures.

A language summit, bringing together organizations and supporters, will take place in Washington, D.C., on July 12 to convince Congress that languages among the American Indian cultures is essential to the learning process for young people.

The summit is a call to action to help get people behind the three language bills now in Congress, which will convene for its summer recess at the end of July.

“We will get information and talking points to advocates in advance, and to representatives. The other part is to bring together the last surviving code talkers to come forward to showcase how America cherished those languages to use as a weapon,” said Ryan Wilson, chairman of the National Indian Education Association. Wilson said the message to Congress is more important than large numbers of people at the upcoming summit.

The National Congress of American Indians established language education as part of the education issues and the National Indian Gaming Association will be holding meetings in Washington at the same time. This puts some high-stakes advocates on the issue of language education.

“This country is culpable in the outright destruction of these languages. We are the only group that systematically had rights violated openly.

“We are doing this in a positive way and not playing the role of the victim,” Wilson said.

Language in the curriculum is funded, but the smallest portion goes to the immersion aspect. For some time, advocates of immersion programs have touted the success rates these programs have on students in their upper grades and at the collegiate level.

Hawaiians followed a Maori model of language schools to find success and both programs have good track records.

In an atmosphere of English-only currently filtering through Congress and the country, groups may find it difficult for groups to convince Congress that Native languages are important for many reasons.

“In America, we treat languages as a political issue and seldom look at human or educational benefits from knowing multiple languages,” said Darrell Kipp, from the Piegan Institute in Brown, Mont.

“Native Americans want to maintain dignity and function as a homogeneous group. The language is a way to maintain as a group. Many are relegated to reservations and their homelands and it only makes sense that they be supported in the language issue,” Kipp said.

The Piegan Institute, a private nonprofit organization, runs a K – 8 Blackfeet language school. All curriculum is conducted in the Blackfeet language. Kipp said that when the students move on to high school they excel academically.

“This is really what academic success was all about: to achieve the skills to make you competitive in reading, math and science,” Wilson said.

Companion bills appeared in the House of Representatives and the Senate, and the NIEA supports the wording of both. They are not perfect, Wilson agreed, but it is a start. In the last Congress, an attempt to pass similar legislation failed by a slim margin.

The legislation would allow the secretary of Education to offer grants to schools, organizations and programs that operate language nests. No dollar figures have been included in the legislation. Bills in both houses are still in committee.

The legislation includes language programs in colleges and universities, in addition to elementary and secondary education. A demonstration program is part of the legislation that will provide grants for schools wanting to establish language nests.

“Tribes have a right … they have a responsibility to maintain their language; it’s part of their uniqueness. English is not going away. This will not harm the English language,” Kipp said.

English-only is not foreign to American Indians. Boarding schools of the 19th century attempted to eradicate the languages by requiring all students to speak English. But people spoke the language in their homes, and today the standard profile shows fewer than 100 language speakers in some tribes and very few with fluency below the age of 70, Kipp said.

Wilson said what is intriguing is the fact that students who attend language immersion schools compete better than those who attend traditional western academic programs.

“We can make a case that this [western education] has failed Indian country – why not look at alternatives to western styles? It is proven [western education] hasn’t worked for our kids. The onus is on us as leaders to advance to the forefront to Indian education those sets of practices of learning styles.”

Wilson said the elders prophesied that “we would hit this wall. We are at it now.”

Children are in a gray area, not knowing tribal values and culture, and they don’t make it in the mainstream, Wilson said.

He said that if language immersion education is not provided, there could come a day when the ceremonies will be done in English without a repository of speakers.

“We are in a battle for the soul of Indian country. Who defines what Indian education is and what Indian country is? Is it Indian people?” Wilson asked.

“Indian country is unique and the pressure from Christianity made us want to abandon that when the first wave of Indian educators came in,” he said. Now we are starting to climb out of the pit; I don’t know if we will make it, but we have to try. Why should our language take a back seat?”