The United States Senate Committee on Indian Affairs has passed two bipartisan acts geared to strengthen revitalization projects for Native American languages, S.989 and S.1402. The first, S.989, would support Native American language schools and establish a federally funded resource center for Native American languages, while S.1402 would support the use of Native American languages and also authorize regular “health checks” for such languages to better pinpoint areas of improvement in revitalization efforts.
“These bipartisan Native languages bills will improve federal support for culturally-based Native language instruction and ensure Native American language use continues to grow,” said committee chairman Brian Schatz (D-HI).
S.989, also known as the Native American Language Resource Center Act of 2021, would essentially do exactly what’s in the name: establish a national resource center for languages indigenous to the United States. “Native speaker-led language programs have proven that culturally-based instruction is key to revitalizing and maintaining indigenous knowledge and traditions,” Schatz said back in March.
S.1402, also called the Durbin Feeling Native American Languages Act of 2021, would outline major goals for revitalization efforts, providing language teachers and administrators in such programs with tangible milestones to aim for. The bill is named after the Cherokee linguist Durbin Feeling, who passed away in 2020 (almost exactly a year before this act was passed by the committee). Feeling has been referred to as the “single-largest contributor to the Cherokee language since Sequoyah,” due to his work in preserving and teaching the Cherokee language. Feeling encoded the Cherokee syllabary for word processing systems in the 1980s, later beginning the process to get it added to Unicode.
Both bills are widely supported by advocacy groups throughout the nation, including the Joint National Committee for Languages-National Council for Languages and International Studies and the National Indian Education Association (NIEA).
“Native languages are essential to education systems that serve Native students. Our languages connect Native culture, thought, histories, and peoples. NIEA is thrilled to support legislation that will expand education sovereignty by strengthening language revitalization and preservation,” said Diana Cournoyer, executive director of NIEA.