On October 30, U.S. Senators Tom Udall (D-N.M.), vice chairman of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, and Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) commemorated the 30th anniversary of the Native American Languages Act (NALA) with the announcement of new bipartisan legislation, the Durbin Feeling Native American Languages Act of 2020, to ensure the federal government is living up to policies and principles set out in NALA three decades ago.
The NALA, which was led by Senators Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii), John McCain (R-Ariz.), and Frank Murkowski (R-Alaska) was enacted on October 30, 1990. For the first time in U.S. history, federal law formally rejected past policies that sought to suppress use of Native American languages and recognized the rights and freedoms of Native Americans to use their traditional languages.
The new bill announced by Udall is named after Durbin Feeling, a renowned Cherokee linguist and Vietnam veteran who passed away on August 19, 2020. It would direct the president to review federal agencies’ compliance with NALA requirements and make recommendations to improve interagency coordination in support of Native American languages. It will also authorize a federal survey of Native language use and language revitalization program unmet needs every five years. These surveys will serve as “health checks” to allow Native communities and Congress to improve targeting of federal resources for Native American languages.
“Native languages hold within them the culture, history, and resiliency of their communities. Over the last 30 years, catalyzed by the Native American Languages Act, Congress has promoted the protection and revitalization of Native languages,” said Udall. “Throughout my congressional career, I have worked to support these language revitalization efforts. And, today, I am proud to mark this important anniversary by announcing a new bipartisan bill, the Durbin Feeling Native American Languages Act of 2020, to hold the federal government accountable for its work to live up to the policies and principles set out in the Native American Languages Act over three decades ago. Congress must continue to do its part to support the advancement of community-driven Native language use and revitalization.”
“Native languages are integral to culture and identity. When the Native American Language Act or NALA was signed into law in 1990—a bill my father worked on over 20 years ago—the purpose was to promote and protect the rights of Native people to use and maintain their Native languages. Today, we continue to work to ensure that our federal agencies are meeting the expectations of that legislation. Our bill will ensure that policies and procedures are compliant with NALA, improve interagency coordination, authorize funding to help gain a greater understanding of Native languages, and more,” said Senator Murkowski. “I remain committed to maintaining and revitalizing the languages of Alaska’s Native peoples to help strengthen and empower their communities for generations to come.”
The bill is supported by the Joint National Committee for Languages, the National Council for Languages and International Studies, the National Congress of American Indians, the National Indian Education Association, the National Coalition of Native American Language Schools and Programs, and the Cherokee Nation.
“Our Native languages are an essential part of our identities and are critical to the survival of our cultural and political integrity,” said Fawn Sharp, President of the National Congress of American Indians. “The Durbin Feeling Native American Language Act of 2020 will help ensure Native languages continue to be spoken for generations to come by assessing the current landscape of our Native languages and producing critically important information regarding language vitality, types of language maintenance and revitalization projects currently being carried out, and information on unmet needs pertaining to Native language programming.”
“The Cherokee Nation is honored to strongly support the Durbin Feeling Native American Language Act of 2020,” said Cherokee Nation Principal Chief Chuck Hoskin, Jr. “Durbin Feeling was the largest contributor to the Cherokee language since Sequoyah. For decades, Durbin led the effort to not only save and preserve the Cherokee language, but breathe new life into the Cherokee language. He was a tireless advocate for Native language and revitalization efforts, and no one is more worthy of this honor than Durbin Feeling. His generosity to the Cherokee people and his unwavering commitment to Cherokee language perpetuation will be the foundation upon which we teach future generations to honor and carry on our traditions.”