Washington, D.C. – Today, U.S. House Assistant Speaker Ben Ray Luján (D-N.M.), Members of Congress, and advocates celebrate the passage of the Esther Martinez Native American Languages Programs Reauthorization Act, a bipartisan bill to safeguard and revitalize Native American languages.
The bill honors Esther Martinez, 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 Martinez 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, has 4,000 speakers and trains between 170 and 280 Native language teachers each year.
The legislation was introduced by Luján, and was co-sponsored by 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. Introduced by Sen. Tom Udall (D-N.M.), the legislation passed the Senate in June.
“Esther Martinez 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 Martinez – 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 Martinez, our mother, was committed to this cause, and we are proud to see this legislation pass in her honor,” said members of Esther Martinez’s family.
“Alaska Native heritage is central to the culture of our great state, and the diverse languages of our Native communities should be preserved and protected for future generations,” said Young. “Sadly, we have witnessed a steady decline in the number of speakers of various Native languages and dialects. It is urgent that we turn the tide so that these languages aren’t forever lost to history. The Esther Martinez Native American Languages Programs Reauthorization Act represents tremendous progress in our efforts to promote Native language education, and the funding provided to language initiatives by the Esther Martinez Program goes a long way toward revitalizing Indigenous languages in Alaska and across the country. I am grateful to Congressman Ben Ray Luján for his continued leadership on this critical issue, and I look forward to continuing my work as Vice Chair of the Native American Caucus and Co-Chair of the America’s Languages Caucus to help preserve Native language and culture for years to come.”