COVID Relief Bill Includes Support for Native American Languages

Native American communities will be receiving a big boost in the most recent COVID-19 relief bill—according to the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, this bill includes the largest federal investment in Native American communities in the country’s entire history, with $31.2 billion devoted to funding Tribal governments and their communities. The bill includes a $20 million grant for preserving Native American languages and mitigating the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on Native languages, which tend to be spoken more widely among older populations who are more susceptible to the virus.

“This historic funding is a down payment on the federal government’s trust responsibility to Native communities and will empower American Indians, Alaska Natives, and Native Hawaiians to tackle COVID-19’s impacts on their communities,” said Senator Schatz (D-HI), the committee’s chairman, in the press release.

According to the bill, the $20 million grant will go toward “emergency Native language preservation & maintenance.” The majority of money going toward Native communities—$20 billion—will be dedicated to “combatting COVID-19 and stabilizing Tribal community safety-net programs.” The bill also includes grants to improve Native American healthcare systems, housing programs and education programs in response to the problems the pandemic has exacerbated.

The COVID-19 pandemic has created unique obstacles for the nation’s Native American communities. The Coronavirus Language Access Act, which was introduced to the Senate in August, would have provided Native American communities with funding for coronavirus-related language access services, such as translations of CDC materials, however the bill did not receive a vote. However, a new version of this bill was introduced by Representative Grace Meng (D-NY) in February.

In November, Representative Deb Haaland (D-NM) introduced a companion bill to the Senate’s Native American Languages Resource Center Act, which aims to create a designated center for preservation and education of Native American languages—at the time, it was noted that curfews and stay-at-home orders had the potential to damage efforts at language preservation and revitalization, thus strengthening the need for a federally funded resource center. When vaccines first began rolling out in December, many Native American communities, such as the Cherokee Nation, gave fluent speakers of Native languages priority in receiving the vaccines.

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