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Native language preservation bill becomes law

A bill that will help tribes preserve their languages was signed into law by President Bush on Thursday.

H.R.4766, the Esther Martinez Native American Languages Preservation Act, authorizes funding for new programs that tribes will use to prevent the loss of their heritage and culture. "These languages will be preserved with attention and effort. Once lost, they will never be recovered," said Ryan Wilson, the president of the National Indian Education Association.

The act took on significance this fall following the death of Esther Martinez, a Native language teacher and storyteller from New Mexico. She was killed in a car accident on September 16, just days after receiving a National Heritage Fellowship award for her efforts to preserve the Tewa language.

"The Native languages were precious to Esther Martinez, and this bill is designed to help preserve them," said Wilson. "It is a fitting tribute to her life's work."

New Mexico's Congressional delegation worked to pass the bill in the closing weeks of the 109th Congress. It had passed the House in September but was held up in the Senate and failed to gain approval before the November elections.

After some feverish lobbying by the National Alliance to Save Native Languages, a coalition that includes the NIEA and other organizations, the measure passed the Senate earlier this month. Tribes then turned their attention to the White House to get it signed before the end of the year.

"The urgent need to protect and preserve Native American languages is clear," said Rep. Tom Udall (D-New Mexico), whose district includes Ohkay Owingeh, the pueblo where Martinez taught her language for decades. "We must invest in their preservation by implementing immersion programs."

By authorizing funding for language nests, language survival schools and language restoration programs, supporters hope to prevent the loss of additional languages. Of the more than 300 languages spoken in the U.S. at the time of European contact, only 175 remain, according to the Indigenous Language Institute.

By 2050, only 20 will be spoken with regular use, the organization says, unless efforts are taken to teach the languages to new generations.

The United States played a major role in the loss of Native languages. Students at government boarding schools were prohibited from using their languages. The Bureau of Indian Affairs at one point outlawed ceremonies, a critical method of preserving languages and history.

Through the government policies of termination, relocation and assimilation, the efforts continued through the 1950s and 1960s even as the U.S military enlisted Native soldiers to create unbreakable codes using their languages. In 2000, President Bush honored Navajo Code Talkers who served in World War II.

"For many years, tribes were discouraged from speaking their native languages and now many languages have disappeared. This legislation will help ensure native languages are preserved, and passed on to future generation," said Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-New Mexico).

The grants for the new programs will be distributed by the Administration for Native Americans within the Department of Health and Human Services. Wilson said tribes must work to ensure Congress and the White House provide adequate funds to carry out the bill.

Native Languages Bill:
Esther Martinez Native American Languages Preservation Act (H.R.4766)

2006 National Heritage Fellowships:
Bio: Esther Martinez | List of Recipients

Relevant Links:
Indigenous Language Institute -