Article from Indian Country Today (fwd)

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Tue Sep 12 14:28:05 UTC 2006

Forwarded from edling at

(C) Indian Country Today September 11, 2006. All Rights Reserved

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. - An Aug. 31 congressional field hearing in Albuquerque on Native
languages generated a wealth of testimony, oral and written, that underscored the
links between language and the survival of cultures, dual language learning and
academic achievement, and federal funding and the language immersion schooling
programs that have shown promising results among Native Hawaiians, the Maori of New
Zealand and approximately 75 tribal communities.

But perhaps three brief words - ''confidence in learning'' - said as much as all
the rest. They appeared in the testimony of Christine Sims, of Acoma Pueblo and the
Institute for American Indian Education at the University of New Mexico, as she
described the impact of learning a heritage Native language, in addition to
English, on other academic studies. A fair amount of evidence offered at the
hearing suggests that this ''confidence in learning'' may be the lost link to
lifelong learning ability for Native students, and that language immersion
schooling can restore it.

To compress a good deal of the Aug. 31 testimony - and of Indian educational
history for that matter - into one expository paragraph: Under assault by settler
policies opposed to just about any expression of Native culture, Native languages
lost much of their traction in Native communities. As intended by the settler
states and their federal administrators, the void in language opened the door to
English and with it a kind of assimilationist psychology that was no doubt a
requisite of survival in times that were hard indeed for most tribes. The threat of
assimilation to Indian culture has been thoroughly recognized since then. But
although in better times the Indian-controlled education movement fueled the larger
drive for tribal self-determination as federal policy - as recognized in the title
of the touchstone law, the Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act -
still the few decades of Indian-controlled schooling have not thrown off a
psychology of assimilation realized in educational practice, to the ongoing
detriment of Native students. Learning the Native language of their heritage,
alongside English as a daily reality, may restore Native students to an adaptive
psychological stance, both individually and on the whole. Confidence in learning,
as reflected in across-the-board academic achievement, is its public signature.

Sims touched on all this in another part of her testimony, concluding that Native
priorities, local school support and congressional interest ''have set in motion a
whole new set of precedents concerning the treatment of Native languages in

But history is still with us, as recognized time and again on Aug. 31. Tribal
language loss is at an acute stage. Only 10 Native speakers are left alive among
the Mescalero Apache, according to Rep. Heather Wilson, R-N.M. Carol Cornelius of
the Oneida Cultural Heritage Department said that only five fluent speakers who
learned Oneida as a first language remain among the Oneida of Wisconsin; two are
over 95 years of age and no longer able to help convey the language, while three of
over 86 years assist with eight tribal language trainees for two to seven hours a
week. Amadeo Shije, chairman of the All Indian Pueblo Council representing 19 New
Mexico pueblos, estimated that only 20 percent of present Native languages will
still be viable 50 years from now. Sam Montoya, a language and cultural resources
administrator for Sandia Pueblo, noted that the scarcity of fluent Tiwa speakers
there makes it difficult to create language immersion settings - ''situations where
a large group of people are speaking nothing but Tiwa in order to teach the
language as it was traditionally passed down: orally.''

A prominent theme of the hearing was that after helping to destroy Native languages
through misguided policy decisions for so long, Congress must now help to restore
them while that is still possible. Ryan Wilson, executive director of the National
Indian Education Association, made a direct appeal to Congress, as represented by
the House of Representatives Committee on Education and the Workforce. ''What we're
saying here, everybody in this room - and you see this huge crowd that's come out -
is it really, it really exemplifies what's dear to our hearts, and that we're in a
crisis ... We're really saying that it [Native language immersion schooling]
belongs in our schools. Maybe not in every school. But we have to create venues in
our communities where this could be taught. And we have to codify, forever, a place
in the Department of Education to fund these schools.''

A bill introduced by Wilson in the House, House Bill 4766, would amend the 1990
Native American Languages Act to accomplish that - at a cost NIEA estimates to be
in the range of $8 million. With fewer than 10 working days scheduled on the
congressional calendar before lawmakers adjourn to campaign for the November
elections, H.R. 4766 will not become law in the current 109th Congress. Rep. Howard
''Buck'' McKeon, R-Calif., chairman of the Committee on Education and the
Workforce, acknowledged as much after the hearing. ''I'm just trying to gin up some
support for the next Congress. I think that's more hopeful.''

Heading into that next Congress, McKeon; Wilson; Rep. Tom Udall, D-N.M.; and Rep.
Thomas Petri, R-Wis., the committee vice chairman, all made strong commitments to
the purposes of the bill at the Aug. 31 field hearing.

''Time is of the essence if we want to stem the loss of these languages,'' Udall
said, adding later, ''I believe we can all agree that there is an urgent need to
protect and preserve Native American languages, and we must advance by implementing
new immersion programs.''

Please visit the Indian Country Today website for more articles related to this


N.b.: Listing on the lgpolicy-list is merely intended as a service to its members
and implies neither approval, confirmation nor agreement by the owner or sponsor of
the list as to the veracity of a message's contents. Members who disagree with a
message are encouraged to post a rebuttal.


More information about the Lgpolicy-list mailing list