Senator Murkowski Speaks on Native Language Programs

Jun 19, 2014

US Senator Lisa Murkowski spoke Wednesday at a committee meeting in Washington, DC about her Native American Languages Reauthorization Act of 2014.  KDLG’s Thea Card has more.

Senator Murkowski shared her personal connection in wanting to enhance Native language learning in Alaskan schools.  She explained that when she placed her children in an immersion school in Anchorage, it was difficult to get respect and support from districts for those schools. 

“And they wanted to take those very preliminary test results wherein the early years where you have a child in an immersion program perhaps they aren’t performing at the same level as a child in an English speaking program.  We had to demonstrate it.  But when you have resistance from the top, it makes it very difficult.”

Murkowski challenged the Obama administration’s Initiative on American Indian and Alaska Native Education.  She says the initiative doesn’t show the president’s intent to help enhance Native language revitalization, academic achievement and well-being among Native youth.

“The administration’s witness yesterday was Mr. Mendoza who spoke to the president’s initiatives in these areas.  And I will admit I was less than impressed with the commitment that we heard from him, not only his oral testimony but also in writing just in terms in understanding the value of our native language programs. So I pressed him on it, because what I wanted to hear was there was going to be the same level to building out our native languages and the programs and really celebrating them.  I didn’t hear that from him.”

Murkowski says since the president hasn’t made any legislation concerning Native language programs and education, she would like to see an effort in that direction. 

There was testimony from Sonta Hamilton Roach, a teacher at a Shageluk school.  She says although she is from the town she currently works in, a lot of teachers in Alaska are from out of state, and therefor unaware of an entire culture that surrounds Alaskan communities. 

“So there is that need of teaching teachers about the culture.  And just recently with the teacher evaluation of Alaska they are now have to be evaluated on cultural standards and how their acknowledging and celebrating culture in the classroom.  And so with this effort in language I really this blossoming and becoming more.”

Roach says there isn’t one program that will work for every community.  There are Native educational models involving video conferencing, long distance delivery, and languages and dialects are available online.   

What’s impressive, Murkowski says, is how far the Native population has come.  From having their culture suppressed, and children being punished for speaking their native language to communities coming together to teach youth the traditions and history of the native cultures. 

“But I do think we are beginning to see change.  And it feels so good.  I too have been out to the Yup'ik school district and been to the immersion programs there and it’s so good to see. But what you also appreciate is they are building their own program.  They are working with elders, they are making the flash cards, and they are building it on their own.”

Murkowski is working with Senator Tim Johnson from South Dakota to bring about the Native American Languages Reauthorization Act of 2014 which will reauthorize funding and maintaining the program started by the Health and Humans Services Administration for Native Americans.