U.S. House Assistant Speaker Ben Ray Luján (D-N.M.), Members of Congress, and advocates this week celebrated the passage of the Esther Martínez Native American Languages Programs Reauthorization Act, a bipartisan bill to safeguard and revitalize Native American languages.
The bill honors Esther Martínez, an Ohkay Owingeh Pueblo traditional storyteller and Tewa language advocate who passed away in 2006. It amends existing law to reauthorize two federal Native American language programs at the Administration for Native Americans until 2024, expand eligibility for those programs to smaller-sized Tribal language programs, and allow both programs to offer longer grant periods.
The Esther Martínez Native American Languages Programs Reauthorization Act, introduced by Assistant Speaker Luján, will help preserve Native languages to combat the predicted extinction of all of the approximately 148 Native languages still spoken within the next 50 to 100 years. Biennial evaluations by the Department of Health and Human Services show the program increases fluency with 4,000 speakers and trains between 170 and 280 Native language teachers each year.
“Esther Martínez was a champion for Native languages who spent her life teaching others and promoting the growth of Indigenous languages and culture.”
Rep. Ben Ray Luján
The legislation was introduced by Luján, and was co-sponsored by Reps. Don Young (R-Alaska), Betty McCollum (DFL-Minn.), Tom Cole (R-OK), Xochitl Torres Small (D-N.M.), and Deb Haaland (D-N.M.). It was co-sponsored with nearly unanimous support from House Democrats, including members of Democratic Leadership and the Congressional Native American Caucus.
“Esther Martínez was a champion for Native languages who spent her life teaching others and promoting the growth of Indigenous languages and culture. With the passage of this bipartisan legislation, Congress has taken a major step to deliver results on this top priority for Native communities that are working to preserve their languages,” said Luján. “I was proud to help spearhead the passage of this legislation to ensure language justice for future generations.”
“Our family is thankful for the decisive action the House of Representatives has taken to pass legislation to safeguard Native languages for generations to come. This important initiative – one that recognizes the legacy of Esther Martínez – will help revitalize and prevent the loss of Native languages. Our language is central to our culture, and it’s critical that we train Native language teachers and increase fluency with Native speakers to protect it. Esther Martínez, our mother, was committed to this cause, and we are proud to see this legislation pass in her honor,” said members of Esther Martínez’s family.
Kevin J. Allis, Chief Executive Officer of the National Congress of American Indians praised the efforts: “The protection and preservation of our Native languages is crucial to the cultural identities of tribal citizens and the overall sustainability of tribal nations. We are thrilled to see the House pass the Esther Martínez Native Languages Programs Reauthorization Act, which provides tribal nations the critical resources needed to ensure Native languages continue to be spoken for generations to come. We appreciate Representative Luján and Senator Udall’s tireless efforts to get this important legislation through Congress.”
“This is especially critical to our rural communities, and will ensure Native students in all corners of our state have the opportunity to thrive,” said Rep. Torres Small.
“Our Indigenous languages and traditions help keep our rich culture alive, but the programs that support language preservation are underfunded and often times lack funding altogether. Now that our bill honoring the legacy of Pueblo storyteller and self-taught linguist, Esther Martínez, has passed the House and the Senate, I urge the President to sign it into law so we can revitalize our languages and traditions ” said Haaland, Co-Chair of the Congressional Native American Caucus.
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