Seven co-sponsors in the U.S. House and Senate this month introduced reauthorizing legislation funding for The Esther Martinez Native American Language Act, first passed by Congress in 2006 and funded in 2008 through amendments to the Native American Programs Act of 1974 in order to provide support for Native language immersion and restoration programs in tribal communities. The program’s funding authorization, which expires at the end of 2012, has distributed nearly $50 million in 39 competitive grants to tribal language programs since its passage. Cultural Survival’s Endangered Languages Program lobbied with the National Alliance to Save Native Languages for passage of the Esther Martinez Act during the summer of 2007, distributing copies across Capitol Hill of the special Cultural Survival Quarterly issue, “The Last Word: Rescuing Critically Endangered Native American Languages.”
The Act was named for a tribal elder, educator, language advocate, and renowned storyteller from Ohkay Owingeh, in New Mexico, formerly known as San Juan Pueblo—one of six Tewa-speaking tribes whose languages became endangered after generations of children were forcibly enrolled in government boarding schools like the Santa Fe Indian School, which Martinez attended in her youth. Martinez, also known as P'oe Tsawa, or Blue Water, retained her Native language despite the years of punishment she and other students experienced at the school, and was named a National Heritage Fellow by the National Endowment for the Humanities in September 2006. She passed away two days later at age 94 while returning home with her family from the NEA ceremony, the victim of a drunk driver in Espanola, NM.
Members of the bi-partisan New Mexico Congressional delegation, Martin Heinrich (D), Ben Ray Luján (D), and Steve Pearce (R) introduced their legislation on September 13, noting in a press release, “Language is an integral part of our history, culture and way of life in New Mexico. The reauthorization of the Esther Martinez Native American Languages Preservation Act is critical to preserving language in our tribal communities and would make important resources available to achieve this vital goal.”
“I’m honored to cosponsor this bill, in support of preserving Native American languages,” said Rep. Pearce. “I hope this bill ensures that the work of Esther Martinez lives on, and Native languages not only survive, but flourish. These languages are a valuable part of American and New Mexican culture, and represent an important piece of the American story.”
The Senate companion bill was introduced by Senators Tim Johnson (D-South Dakota), Daniel Kahikina Akaka (D-Hawaii), John Tester (D-Montana), and Tom Udall (D-New Mexico), and referred to the Committee on Indian Affairs.
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