The Senate Committee on Indian Affairs found strong support for proposed legislation to increase federal support for Native American language programs during a legislative hearing that took up the Native American Languages Reauthorization Act of 2014 (S. 2299) and the Native Language Immersion Student Achievement Act (S. 1948).
The seven witnesses easily found consensus about the need to fund Native language programs for elementary and secondary school American Indian/Alaska Native children in order to preserve the dozens of indigenous languages under threat. “All but 15 or 20 of our Native languages are spoken only by adults who are not teaching their younger generations the language. When language becomes extinct, it takes with it the history, philosophy, culture and scientific knowledge of its speakers,” Clarena M. Brockie, member of the Montana State House of Representatives and dean of students at Aaniiih Nakoda College, told the committee.
That Native language learning provides huge benefits to students was another area where there was no argument. “Place-based and cultural-based education keeps students engaged and increases student achievement,” said Sonta Hamilton Roach, an elementary teacher at the Innoko River School in Alaska and a board member of Doyon Limited. “In Rural Alaska our communities are plagued with high suicide rates, and high drop out rates, which correlate directly with a loss in culture and language.”
Committee Chairman Jon Tester, D-Montana, took William Mendoza, Oglala-Sicangu Lakota, executive director of the White House Initiative on American Indian and Alaska Native Education, to task when he informed the committee that the White House did not yet have a position on the legislation. Tester was clear that the committee wanted a decision by the time Congress returned from its July 4 recess.
Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, urged the White House Initiative to aggressively demonstrate the nexus between Native language acquisition and the academic achievement and well-being of Native children, noting that it was one of the most important ways to improve educational outcomes of Native students.
Mendoza told the committee that language preservation was at the forefront of the initiative’s work. It is “about life and death…” he said. “Our elders are dying and our children are killing themselves and we have to have this as a foundation.”
The potentially devastating impact of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act on Native language programs was of paramount importance to Namaka Rawlins, director of Strategic Partnerships and Collaboration at ‘Aha Punana Leo, a 30-year-old language immersion organization in Hawaii. She testified in favor of several proposed amendments to the Native Language Immersion Student Achievement Act that would reconcile No Child Left Behind with the Native American Languages Act of 1990.
She said NCLB’s “one size fits all” approach to assessment had “moved Hawai’i back toward the time when the federal government outlawed our indigenous language in territorial schools in our language and culture’s own homeland.” NCLB, she said, presented “huge, discriminatory challenges to all Native American language schools throughout the country and to those communities that wish to establish such schools.”
Tester brought up the issue of teacher certification for Native language programs, asking if witnesses thought legislation to exempt teachers of Native languages from certification requirements would be helpful. Brockie pointed out that a law doing just that already exists in Montana (as it does in many other Western states). Thomas Shortbull, president of Oglala Lakota College, said they should probably not be totally exempt, but might be required to have a college degree and be certifiable in a special category. Oneida Tribe of Indians of Wisconsin Chairman Ed Delgado stressed the need for parameters for teachers in regard to techniques and temperament, suggesting some kind of certification but not necessarily a four-year degree.
Rawlins explained that ‘Aha Punana Leo had started with non-certified elders who were fluent speakers. They taught in preschool classrooms with youthful language learners who eventually became certified teachers, thus building the cadre of fluent speakers with teaching credentials who over the course of three decades has increased the number of speakers fluent in Hawaiian from fewer than 50 child speakers in the mid-1980s to several thousand today.