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Native Language Preservation Bill Becomes Law
Friday, December 15, 2006

A bill that will help tribes preserve their languages was signed into law by President Bush on Thursday.

H.R.4766, the Esther Martinez Native American Languages Preservation Act, authorizes funding for new programs that tribes will use to prevent the loss of their heritage and culture. "These languages will be preserved with attention and effort. Once lost, they will never be recovered," said Ryan Wilson, the president of the National Indian Education Association.

The act took on significance this fall following the death of Esther Martinez, a Native language teacher and storyteller from New Mexico. She was killed in a car accident on September 16, just days after receiving a National Heritage Fellowship award for her efforts to preserve the Tewa language.
"The Native languages were precious to Esther Martinez, and this bill is designed to help preserve them," said Wilson. "It is a fitting tribute to her life's work."

New Mexico's Congressional delegation worked to pass the bill in the closing weeks of the 109th Congress. It had passed the House in September but was held up in the Senate and failed to gain approval before the November elections. After some feverish lobbying by the National Alliance to Save Native Languages, a coalition that includes the NIEA and other organizations, the measure passed the Senate earlier this month. Tribes then turned their attention to the White House to get it signed before the end of the year.

"The urgent need to protect and preserve Native American languages is clear," said Rep. Tom Udall (D-New Mexico), whose district includes Ohkay Owingeh, the pueblo where Martinez taught her language for decades. "We must invest in their preservation by implementing immersion programs."
By authorizing funding for language nests, language survival schools and language restoration programs, supporters hope to prevent the loss of additional languages. Of the more than 300 languages spoken in the U.S. at the time of European contact, only 175 remain, according to the Indigenous Language Institute.

By 2050, only 20 will be spoken with regular use, the organization says, unless efforts are taken to teach the languages to new generations.
The United States played a major role in the loss of Native languages. Students at government boarding schools were prohibited from using their languages. The Bureau of Indian Affairs at one point outlawed ceremonies, a critical method of preserving languages and history. Through the government policies of termination, relocation and assimilation, the efforts continued through the 1950s and 1960s even as the U.S military enlisted Native soldiers to create unbreakable codes using their languages. In 2000, President Bush honored Navajo Code Talkers who served in World War II.

"For many years, tribes were discouraged from speaking their native languages and now many languages have disappeared. This legislation will help ensure native languages are preserved, and passed on to future generation," said Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-New Mexico). The grants for the new programs will be distributed by the Administration for Native Americans within the Department of Health and Human Services. Wilson said tribes must work to ensure Congress and the White House provides adequate funds to carry out the bill.


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Indians gather to heal and prepare for action

TEMECULA ---- A collective voice rose up from the valley Saturday ---- a voice of indignation, defiance and determination.

The voice belonged to former members of 16 Indian tribes from throughout the country who are embroiled in membership disputes with their tribes. About 200 people who have been either disenrolled, disenfranchised or denied membership converged at Harveston Park. Many of them had been chairmen and other high-ranking leaders in their tribes.

Accustomed to fighting their battles on their own turf, the members banded together Saturday in a groundbreaking day of healing and empowerment, sharing their stories and finding out how they can act together to remedy the injustices they say have been perpetrated upon them. Most of the disenrollments have come from tribes with existing or pending casinos.

The gathering was organized by a group of California Indians, including John Gomez Jr., whose family was disenrolled by the Pechanga Band of Luiseno Indians. Gomez's family members already set up a Web site to publicize the disenrollment disputes of various tribes. He announced Saturday they will be launching another one to provide Indian families an opportunity to share their histories.

Accustomed to fighting their battles on their own turf, the members banded together Saturday in a groundbreaking day of healing and empowerment, sharing their stories and finding out how they can act together to remedy the injustices they say have been perpetrated upon them. Most of the disenrollments have come from tribes with existing or pending casinos.

The gathering was organized by a group of California Indians, including John Gomez Jr., whose family was disenrolled by the Pechanga Band of Luiseno Indians. Gomez's family members already set up a Web site to publicize the disenrollment disputes of various tribes. He announced Saturday they will be launching another one to provide Indian families an opportunity to share their histories.


California doesn't have these courts now because of Public Law 280, which authorizes courts in the state to interpret tribal law, Velie said. But some of these courts don't feel they have the authority to interpret tribal law, making it difficult for all California Indians to have their day in court, he said.

During the morning of the day-long gathering, Indians told stories of how they believe their civil rights have been violated by the tribes. Bob Foreman shared how his family was disenrolled from Redding Rancheria, which has a small reservation, because his mother didn't have an official birth certificate. He had been chairman of the tribe four times, he said.

His mother was disenrolled after her death in 1995. Her body was exhumed for DNA testing, which came back with an almost perfect match. Yet the tribe didn't accept the results because it wasn't a 100 percent match, Foreman said.

His family is still trying to reclaim its membership, he said.

"It will never be the same," Foreman said. "Like (Nelson) Mandela in South Africa said, 'You can forgive, but not forget.' I don't know if I could be that graceful."

Vicky Shenandoah told of the travails of being one of 125 Indians who were disenrolled from an Oneida Nation tribe in upstate New York.

"It's a spiritual struggle," she said. "I know there's a lot of pain and anger. Every morning, we have a tobacco burning to pray and have that anger and hate fall away from us, into a basket, so to speak. We need to respond with love and peace."

The afternoon portion of the gathering was devoted to taking action.

"We've cried a lot, but it's time to get up off the floor and use this as a momentum builder," Gomez said. "From this day forward, we're not gonna play victim anymore."

He urged the participants to sign petitions asking Congress to hold hearings on issues that violate Indians' civil rights.

Felix Ike, who is involved in an enrollment dispute in tribal court with the Western Shoshone, said he brought 400 signatures to the gathering with him. He visited six Shoshone communities to get the signatures, he said. The Western Shoshone are spread out in states that include Idaho, Utah and Nevada.

His community in Nevada will be hosting the next gathering, which is expected to attract more than 800 Indians, he said.

Gomez said he was thrilled with the turnout from the first gathering Saturday.

"I think it's a reflection on the issue itself," he said. "People in Indian country want something done because of this."

The disenrolled Pechanga members have filed two lawsuits against tribal members. The first is under appeal by the tribal members after a Riverside County Superior Court judge determined that the suit could be heard in state court under Public Law 280. The second lawsuit was filed March 17.

Since being disenrolled, the adult Pechanga plaintiffs are losing about $15,000 per month in payments from the tribe, which now operates one of the most successful casinos in California, as well as other benefits, including free health insurance. They are seeking an as-yet-unspecified amount of financial compensation for the damages they have suffered.

Contact staff writer Deirdre Newman at (951) 676-4315, Ext. 2623, or dnewman@californian.com

From North Country Times, 2005

 


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