Last week US Senator Lisa Murkowski spoke in front of the National Indian Educational Association. In her speech, she pledged her support for native language immersion programs.
Senator Murkowski has a history of supporting native language immersion programs. In June, Murkowski spoke in support of the Native American Languages Reauthorization Act of 1974. Both that bill and the Native Language Immersion Student Achievement Act went in front of the Committee on Indian Affairs in late July. They are both under review.
The Native American Languages Reauthorization Act of 1974 would reauthorize funding for the fiscal years of 2015-2019. The funding is intended to set up a grant program to ensure the survival and growth of Native American languages. The Native Language Immersion Student Achievement Act would authorize the Secretary of Education to award grants to schools and private or tribal nonprofits to develop and maintain programs of Native American language instruction.
Murkowski says she supports these bills because she wants to encourage Native Language skills as well as keep traditional customs alive.
“In Alaska, we see Native languages that are just bordering on the brink of extinction. We lost Marie Smith who was the last speaker Eyak and it seems to me that within the past five years or so. But when you can in your lifetime, identify the last person who has spoken this language and we don’t act with a little urgency to help to address that then shame on us.”
She says there is a link between the problems Native Alaska faces socially and their disappearing culture.
“But with our suicide rates, particularly among young native men, domestic violence, sexual assault-- these issues, you cannot untie them from the identity of our native people. Again, I use the word urgency when talking about federal policies, to change the reality for the next generation and this inner connectedness, the nexus, between native language revitalization, educational achievement and really a productive and positive lifestyle.”
Murkowski says when her children were in school, she fought for them to have a language immersion education. She says although the country has foreign language immersion schools, there is a hesitation to set up Native language schools.
“We’ve got Spanish immersion, we’ve got Japanese, we have German, we have Russian-- and yet, the Native immersion, hmm, maybe that’s a little bit speculative. Excuse me, they were the first languages. As Alaskans we should all be embracing the opportunity to learn whether it’s Yupik or Athabaskan or Inupiaq. Why would we not want to embrace that as Alaskans to know and better understand who our neighbors are, who our first people are?”
According the University of Alaska Fairbanks Alaska Native Language Center the state is home to at least 20 Native languages. However, the National Congress of American Indians reports 74 Native languages will disappear with the next decade and only 20 will be spoken by 2050. Those alarming statistics are why Murkowski is pushing the bills so hard.