WASHINGTON — A Colorado senator and tribal advocates added their support to a plea to Congress on Wednesday to help preserve Native American languages.
The Senate Committee on Indian Affairs held a hearing to consider methods for preserving quickly disappearing Native American languages that are vanishing as their speakers become increasingly assimilated into mainstream America.
In Colorado, there are about 2,000 native speakers of Colorado River Numic, the language of the Southern Ute and Ute Mountain Ute tribes. Both tribes have reservations in the southwestern corner of the state.
There are about 70,000 Native Americans living in Colorado, most in the Denver and Colorado Springs metropolitan areas.
“Colorado’s history and culture have been deeply enriched by long-standing Native American communities,” a spokesperson for Colorado’s Democratic U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet told Colorado Politics. “Michael has worked with tribal leadership to protect lands sacred to their heritage, such as Bears Ears National Monument. He similarly supports efforts to preserve their language and culture.”
A leading effort to preserve the estimated 175 languages native to the United States, Esther Martinez Native American Languages Preservation Act, was passed by Congress in 2006. Named after an educator, the act is primarily a grant program. Community colleges, tribal language programs and other educational institutions receive federal funds to pay for Native American language instruction.
This year, the U.S. Health and Human Services Department’s Administration for Native Americans plans to give out $2 million for new projects under the act. The total budget for the Administration for Native Americans this fiscal year is $54 million.
In Colorado, the Southern Ute Tribe opened the Southern Ute Indian Montessori Academy at Ignacio in 2001 to immerse young students into the Ute language and culture.
A large part of the hearing Wednesday focused on whether the legislation that authorized the language programs should be continued or modified.
Additional proposals Congress is considering would expand Native American language instruction into public schools, much of it from teachers certified by the tribes. In addition, the Indian Health Service would be required to offer health care using Native American language experts.
Jessie Little Doe Baird, vice chairwoman of the Massachusetts-based Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe, discussed how closely Native American history and language were tied to U.S. history.
“The Wampanoag was the first Indian nation to adopt an alphabetic writing system in 1632,” Baird told the Senate committee. “The first Bible printed in the New World was printed in the Wampanoag language in 1663.”
Nevertheless, discrimination and political pressure to assimilate Native Americans nearly wiped out their language.
“For six generations we could not introduce ourselves, or speak to our ancestors, in our own language,” Baird said.
Federal grant programs recently helped linguists study records of the Wampanoag language and revive it for instruction in schools, she said.
The National Indian Education Association expects that by 2050, only 20 Native American languages still will be spoken in the United States without assistance to continue teaching them to children.
Nobody from Colorado testified during the Senate hearing Wednesday. However, several Colorado tribal advocates expressed strong sentiments about continuing Native American language education in response to questions from Colorado Politics.
“The Ute language derives from the Uto-Aztecan family, more specifically the Numic branch,” said Lindsay J. Box, spokeswoman for the Southern Ute Tribal Council. “Our language is a vital part of our identity. It is the life-blood and foundation of our daily lives as Ute people, in our traditional ceremonies and at the core of Ute resiliency.”
She also said her tribe’s history, economy and culture coexist with Colorado.
“Our creation story teaches us that our people were carefully placed in the Rocky Mountain region that would eventually become the state of Colorado,” Box said. “And since our creation, our people have left memories, both cheerful and tragic, and have left scattered traces of our centuries of existence throughout the state.”
Ernest House, executive director of the Colorado Commission of Indian Affairs, said protecting the language and heritage of Native Americans has tangible benefits beyond history.
“The preservation of American Indian and Alaska Native languages is also of importance to non-tribal groups that work with tribal communities as they seek to learn about and create effective ways to advocate for improved health, education, public safety and economic development,” House said.
He added that the Ute Mountain Ute and Southern Ute Indian tribes are “the largest employers in their respective counties and partner with federal, state and local entities on a variety of initiatives.”