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Biden signs 2 bills supporting Native American languages

President Joe Biden has signed into law two bills supporting Native American language education that were authored by U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz of Hawaii.

The first bill signed Thursday by Biden is the Native American Language Resource Center Act, which will establish native language resource centers across the country with the capacity to create grants and offer other forms of support to organizations that perpetuate native languages.

The second bill — the Durbin Feeling Native American Languages Act — aims to periodically review the aid offered by federal agencies to ensure updated, well-coordinated efforts that best support the revitalization of native languages.

“As we have seen in Hawai‘i, Native speaker- led language programs have proven that culturally based instruction is key to revitalizing and maintaining indigenous knowledge and traditions,” said Schatz, who chairs the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, in a news release Friday. “The Native American Language Resource Center (Act) will build on this grassroots momentum to support Native American language schools and programs by providing them with the resources they need to continue to thrive.”

The new law supports native language education at all levels, encouraging the use of native languages as a medium of instruction in schools, offering resources for the use of technology in teaching, and supporting teacher training and certification, according to the bill.

Leaders in Hawaii’s Native Hawaiian education community say the support is greatly needed, especially for smaller organizations that have been instrumental in creating effective curriculum.

“A regular English- speaking school has enormous numbers and varieties of curriculum to call on,” said Jonathan Osorio, dean of the University of Hawaii’s Hawai‘inuiakea School of Hawaiian Knowledge. “We don’t have those things, and they’re being generated basically by nonprofits.”

Maile Naehu, co-founder and curriculum designer for an online Hawaiian educational program, Ka Hale Hoaka, agreed, adding that supporting grassroots organizations also will help native language education become more accessible.

Along with creating Ka Hale Hoaka, Naehu has six years of teaching experience at a Hawaiian-language immersion school and has taught free Hawaiian- language classes for over 20 years.

“For the years that I was teaching, and I still see it happening, you have one teacher that’s teaching multiple grades in one classroom (with) very limited resources because they get a tiny, little budget,” Naehu said.

Providing educators with more resources is an important step in strengthening language education programs, she said.

“When you look at (Department of Education) teachers, it’s a constant struggle to feel appreciated,” Naehu said. “So I think it comes down to supporting the ones who are creating these resources.”

While not opposed to the Durbin Feeling Native American Languages Act, which requires reviews every five years of federal agencies’ support, Osorio questioned whether it will produce beneficial results.

“A lot of times these things simply become check-ins,” he said. “And if it’s every five years, you can be in two different presidential administrations at that point.”

Naehu said she sees potential in the new legislation, as long as it doesn’t “interrupt with the decision making of these organizations or schools.”

“We’ve fought so hard to get funding and support and validation for Hawaiian culture and language education,” she said. “In the end, this is all beneficial, and I think it’s long overdue.”