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Action sought on Native language bills
27 July 2006

BISMARCK (UTN) - Members of Congress should take action on pending legislation that addresses the loss of Native languages across the country.

      That's the hope of Ryan Wilson (Oglala Lakota), president of the National Indian Education Association (NIEA), Tex G. Hall, chairman of the Mandan-Hidatsa-Arikara Nation, and David M. Gipp, president of United Tribes Technical College.

Ryan Wilson, NIEA President
Ryan Wilson, NIEA President, gestures during a talk July 27 about Native language revitalization.

      The three leaders believe that tribal languages are in jeopardy and will not survive without a concerted effort, including help from the Congress.

      "Not only are these dying languages sacred to Native people, they're part of America's heritage," said Wilson on July 27 at United Tribes Technical College.

      As use of tribal languages declines, NIEA's Language Revitalization Initiative is the organization's number one education priority.

      An estimated 500 distinct Native languages were spoken in North America prior to European contact. Fewer than 100 have survived; today only 20 different languages are spoken by Native children.

      "If we don't act now, these languages will go away," said Hall, who's Three Affiliate tribal education system in North Dakota requires native language training in the early grades. "Our best hope of reviving them is by getting Congress to pass amendments to the Native American Languages Act."

      Two bills contain elements that update the act and invigorate the preservation of indigenous languages. Both call for creation of a competitive grant program in the Department of Education to support Native American language immersion programs in Native communities. The grants would create pilot programs for "language nests" and "language survival schools."

      "The goal is to provide a strong early foundation in the languages," said Wilson. "We know from the few immersion programs in existence now that youngsters acquire the language rapidly and retain it later on."

      A 2004 Executive Order signed by President Bush promised assistance for American Indian students in meeting the academic standards of the No Child Left Behind Act "in a manner consistent with tribal traditions, languages and cultures." According to the NIEA, their language initiative is an important step toward refining the act so it works for Native students in a manner that supports Native culture.

      "Saving the language and saving Indian people is what's at the heart of this," said Gipp. "The research is beginning to show that effectively taught language programs enhance the overall academic strength of students. And that plays directly into the goals of No Child Left Behind."

      Hall called on North Dakota U. S. Senator Byron Dorgan to "champion the cause" for passage of a bill.

      A member of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, Dorgan co-sponsored Senate Bill 2674, Native American Languages Act Amendments. The other bill, H.R.4766, Native American Languages Preservation Act of 2006, was introduced by Representative Heather Wilson of New Mexico.

      Originally passed in 1990, the Native American Languages Act reversed long-standing government policies of eliminating Native languages. The act sought to protect and promote the use and development of Native languages.

      Electing to learn a tribal language is just as valuable for American Indian students as learning a foreign language is for mainstream students, said Wilson.


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