Udall, Heinrich, Luján and Pearce Introduce Bipartisan Bill to Promote Preservation of Native American Languages

WASHINGTON, D.C. Today, U.S. Senators Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich and U.S. Representatives Ben Ray Luján and Steve Pearce announced they have introduced the Esther Martinez Native American Languages Preservation Act, a bill to provide grants to Native American language educational organizations to preserve disappearing Native languages in Indian Country. The bill reauthorizes the Native American Languages Program until 2020, and includes improvements to expand the program's eligibility to smaller-sized classes and allow for longer grant periods. 

The bill reauthorizes legislation that first passed in 2006 with Udall's leadership, named for the Ohkay Owingeh Pueblo master storyteller Esther Martinez. The Esther Martinez Native American Preservation Act amends the Native American Languages Act of 1990 to strengthen Native language education by creating and funding Native language nests, Native language survival schools, and Native American language restoration programs. The program’s current authorization expired in 2012, but annual appropriations have continued during the lapse. 

"Esther Martinez was one of New Mexico's strongest advocates for preserving Native heritage and language, and I'm proud to introduce this legislation to honor and continue her work. Grants through the Esther Martinez Native American Languages Preservation Act help families and communities keep their languages alive, preserving the deep history and culture behind them," Udall said. "Language education is about more than tradition; it fosters pride and an interconnectedness between generations and has been linked to higher academic achievement among Native youth. I'm proud to support the continuation and expansion of these important grants in New Mexico and across the country." 

“Preserving Native language is central to cultural identity, and that’s what Esther Martinez fought for. Languages like Keres, Tewa, Tiwa, Towa, Zuni, Diné, Eastern Apache and Western Apache, make us a stronger, more culturally rich and historically grounded nation,” Heinrich said. “Simultaneously, the preservation and instruction of these languages raises high school graduation rates and college enrollment for tribal students. Teaching and preserving these languages should be a central educational priority. This bill helps to achieve that goal.”

“Preserving language is essential to ensuring the preservation of the rich history and culture of tribal communities in New Mexico and across the country,” Luján said. “Without urgent and sustained intervention many Native languages risk extinction in the coming decades. This legislation will support language immersion programs that expand fluency in Native languages and strengthen valuable connections between Native students and their culture and communities. It will help carry on the proud traditions that Esther Martinez worked so hard to protect and pass down from generation to generation.”

“The preservation of Native American languages is essential in retaining the rich culture and history of the various tribes in New Mexico,” said Pearce. “The grant money provided through the Esther Martinez Native American Languages Preservation Act is critical to accomplishing this goal. I am proud to support the reauthorization of this program as it will allow Native languages in New Mexico and across the country to be passed on to future generations.

Based on recommendations from tribes and the administration, the New Mexico members included improvements to the program in this bill to reduce the class size eligibility for the grants and allow longer grant periods of up to five years. The bill reduces the number of students required for eligibility from 10 to five for Native American language nests, which provide childcare and instruction for children up to age seven and their parents. The bill also reduces the class size required for eligibility from 15 to 10 students for Native language survival schools, which aim for their students to achieve Native language fluency, and provide teacher training and development to support successful language learning. The urgent need to protect and preserve Native American languages is clear and applications for grants through the program roughly doubled from fiscal year 2013 to 2014, according to the Department of Health and Human Services.

This bill is cosponsored by U.S. Sens. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), Heidi Heitkamp (D-N.D.), Jon Tester (D-Mont.), Al Franken (D-Minn.), and Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) and has the bipartisan support of eight cosponsors in House.