Legislative review Miracles in the 109th Congress

WASHINGTON – The tale of Native-specific legislation in the now-concluded 109th Congress is a tale of two miracles: the miracle of what did happen and the miracle of what did not happen.

What did happen is that the Esther Martinez Native Languages Preservation Act became law, an unlikely event as recently as mid-September. What did not happen is anti-Indian gaming legislation, considered a distinct threat when the year began.

The language bill had to make headway in a political climate that featured a growing “English only” movement and what Ryan Wilson, president of the National Alliance to Save Native Languages and past president of the National Indian Education Association, termed “the suffocating requirements of the No Child Left Behind Act,” which requires schools to make adequate yearly progress against standardized measures of success in return for federal funding.

Introduced by Heather Wilson, R-N.M., and supported by the entire New Mexico delegation in Congress, the bill authorizes Native language nests and
immersion-learning language schools in a bid to preserve American Indian languages by increasing fluency in them. In the process, the programs hope to improve the academic achievement of Native students and stop the steady loss of Native languages. It made measurable progress right along, particularly following appearances on Capitol Hill by code talkers who testified to the value of Native-based codes to the nation’s war efforts.

In congressional hearings, further testimony told of multiple-language learning in early school years as a marker of later academic achievement. Indian organizations from around the country weighed in favorably, including the All Indian Pueblo Council, the Inter Tribal Council of Arizona, Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians, United South and Eastern Tribes, Alaska Federation of Natives and the Inter-Tribal Council of Nevada.

The bill had clearly built momentum, but it appeared that it would be momentum for next year – a frequent occurrence in a Congress that finds thousands of bills before it every session. Following an Aug. 31 field hearing in Albuquerque, N.M., Rep. Howard “Buck” McKeon, R-Calif., chairman of the Education and the Workforce Committee in the House of Representatives, gave the bill his full backing but added that he would not move it out of committee until 2007, a “more hopeful” course than proceeding with it in 2006.

Then a tragedy altered the emotional dynamics behind the bill. It is one thing to know that Native languages are being lost. It is quite another to know an elder committed to language recovery has been lost, taking irreplaceable knowledge with her. When Esther Martinez, of Ohkay Owingeh Pueblo, died in a car accident in mid-September, congressional members and all of Indian country felt the difference. Days earlier, the 94-year-old language teacher had received a National Heritage Fellowship in Washington for her commitment to the Tewa language. Joe Garcia, president of the National Congress of American Indians, worked with Martinez’s family to permit the use of her name in the bill’s title as homage to her life and the entire pueblo. The bill moved out of committee to the floor of the House for a unanimous consent vote, with another to follow in the Senate.

That set the table for the National Indian Education Association, the National Indian Gaming Association and NCAI to coordinate a final round of Capitol Hill visits by members of the Navajo Code Talkers Association. Ryan Wilson said they turned the tide with a last handful of senators who had been opposed for budgetary reasons. A last holdout, Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., relented when assured the law would not be a setback to English proficiency among Indian students.

Ryan Wilson (no relation to Rep. Heather Wilson) called the bill one of the most important for Indian country in recent decades, restoring Native languages to a place within the official education system. Rep. Steve Pearce, R-N.M., a co-sponsor of the legislation, added: “This innovative and timely legislation helps stem an impending tragedy for our nation, the rapid decline and potential loss of Native American languages. I commend Representative Wilson for her leadership in reconnecting younger generations of Native Americans to the language and culture of their ancestors while preserving an irreplaceable treasure for every American.”

President Bush signed the bill into law on Dec. 14, concluding the 109th Congress on an upbeat note for Native people.

Many would not have expected that in the first months of the year. The misdeeds of criminal ex-lobbyist Jack Abramoff with the fees of his client gaming tribes had unleashed an outpouring of hostility toward Indian gaming, resulting in a handful of anti-Indian gaming measures in Congress. The most baleful of these were stifled in committee, but lingered as possible “rider” amendments while major initiatives to restrict Indian gaming moved forward.

In the Senate, Sen. John McCain, chairman of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, sought to revise the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act so drastically that his bill bogged down on the Senate floor. In the House, Rep. Richard Pombo, R-Calif., chairman of the Resources Committee, primarily wanted to prevent tribes from crossing state lines to establish casinos. But he lost an important vote on the House floor in September; and once Pombo lost his office in the Nov. 7 elections, an effort by Republican leadership to revive the bill in the House went nowhere. In addition, the long effort of the National Indian Gaming Commission to expand its regulatory authority over tribal gaming operations continued to spin its wheels as a key court decision went against it.

So for a second year, Indian gaming has emerged, relatively unscathed by harmful legislation, from a Congress that offered much of it. That may seem little enough in the way of miracles, but it looked like a lot to hope for only a year ago.