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March 18, 2010

Native Languages Proposal Delivered to Obama Administration

Cultural Survival joined with a dozen Native language advocacy groups this month, including the National Indian Education Association, Morning Star Institute, Indigenous Language Institute, National Alliance to Save Native Languages, and the Native Hawaiian Education Council to request that the Obama Adminstration implement a White House Initiative on Native Language Revitalization. Members of the groups met with senior policy advisors to the White House on March 2nd to introduce the proposal, which read in part: "This year--the 20th anniversary of the United States’ promise in the Native American Languages Act to assess and coordinate federal efforts to revitalize Native languages--is an ideal time to begin to fulfill that promise and to launch a White House Initiative."

The Administration's response to this proposal will depend on tribal leaders' priorities, per the President's recent memorandum reaffirming the federal responsibility to consult directly with Indian tribal governments.  At an Indian Education Listening Session in Washington, D.C. on March 3rd staffers from the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs (SCIA) and House Native American Caucus gathered to compile testimony from tribal leaders and educators across Indian Country. While decrying both the chronic underfunding of Indian schools, and high drop-out rates among youth, tribal leadership delivered impassioned statements calling for education reform that supports and reinforces Native language education and culturally-based curricula.

Kathleen Tom, tribal council member from the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde, said she would like to see the Department of Education develop a program to support Native American language immersion schools, as well as community-based tribal language programs, and language classes for high school and college students. Current federal funding for Native langauges is available only through the the Department of Health and Human Services' Administration for Native Americans.

Makah tribal leadership called for Congressional oversight hearings on early childhood programs like Head Start which must better support language instruction.  Matthew Franklin, Chairman of the Ione Band of Miwok Indians, relayed the conflict young Indian students feel when their cultures and languages are not honored in academic settings, by sharing a Miwok fourth graders' reponse to a confusing and culturally-biased standardized state test question: "How do you want me to answer the question? As a student or as an Indian?"

Scott Russell, Secretary of the Crow Tribe (Apsaalooke Nation), introduced himself in his language and said "an immersion school is our first priority." Raised with Apsaalooke as his first language, Russell is ensuring that his own children also speak their Native language, and urged more families across Indian Country to instill the ancestral language in their young people.  Turning to face the predominantly Native American audience in the hearing room he asked, "How many of you speak your language?"  When only a half-dozen or so hands among over one hundred attendees were raised, he responded, "No offense to a lot of you here--I know you're very educated--but this scares me. Some of these people are older than me [and even they don't speak their languages] and this is where we're headed. We're educating all our students to be non-Native right now." 

Senator Byron Dorgan (D, ND) who chairs the SCIA released a letter to the group thanking them for their attendance: "I want to hear about your concerns and priorities for Indian education. Knowing of your interests will be critical as we shape the education agenda of the Committee for the 111th Congress.  Because our time is limited today you may also want to submit your comments in writing, either through the internet or by mailing or faxing your comments to the Committee office.  The internet email address is  The mailing address is Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, 838 Hart Senate Office Building, Washington, DC  20510.  The Committee fax number is 202-228-2589."

House staffers offered an email address as well and urge comments be submitted by Friday, March 26th:

Express your support for Native language revitalization before nearly half the remaining Indigenous languages in the United States vanish within this decade. Tell Congress to fulfill the promise of the 1990 Native American Language Act, particularly Section 106, and ask for their support for a White House Initiative on Native Language Revitalization.