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Native languages bill moves closer to House vote

WASHINGTON – A bill that would provide Department of Education funding for Native language immersion schools passed the House of Representatives late Sept. 27. It will now go to the Senate.

The Esther Martinez Native American Languages Preservation Act, H.R. 4766 in the House, was placed on the “suspension calendar” in hopes it would get to the floor of the House for a vote before lawmakers take their pre-election recess. Sponsored by Rep. Heather Wilson, R-N.M., and pushed by the National Indian Education Association among others, the bill has been renamed to honor Martinez, a lifelong champion of the Tewa tongue before her recent death in a car accident. The Ohkey Owingeh (formerly San Juan Pueblo) elder was returning to New Mexico from an honoring ceremony in Washington, in recognition of her linguistic efforts, when her car was hit by an allegedly drunken driver.

The bill and its subject matter had gained momentum in Congress recently, but it was not expected to reach the floor following a field hearing in Albuquerque, N.M., Aug. 31.

“What we’ve done is expand the vocabulary in Congress as it pertains to Native language immersion,” said Ryan Wilson, executive director of the NIEA, of the bill’s progress.

Support for the bill is based on scientific arguments that make two points, he said. One is that the education of Indians in America simply isn’t working right now. Successful Indian students aren’t a rarity, “but they’re more anomalous than they are the norm.”

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The second scientific basis for the bill is that research is now emerging, especially from Native Hawaii, to demonstrate that immersion schooling in a heritage language creates an attachment to school and learning that is not now commonly found at Indian schools. The research suggests that Native language immersion schooling creates a sense of ownership in a school and a say in individual destiny, Wilson said, that ultimately leads students to love their learning, cherish their teachers and value their days. These feelings underpin later academic achievement, nostalgia for school days and alumni support.

“What the immersion school does is create a kinship system, a community within the community. When you walk through those hallways, you feel that.”

Native language immersion learning is not meant to displace English as an everyday language. But Native students have not historically had a chance to learn Native languages in an academic setting, Wilson said, and that loss is connected to academic performance. Immersion learning of heritage languages should be instituted at every level for Native students, he added.

“What we need to do is create seamless learning venues” – from Head Start to kindergarten through elementary school, high school and college.

Indians want Indian children to be the most educated students in the nation, Wilson said. “But it’ll never happen under the exclusive dominance of English.”