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Senators Schatz and Tester's Legislation to Support Native American Languages Passes Key Senate Committee

Washington, D.C. –Today, the Senate Indian Affairs Committee advanced the Native Language Immersion Student Achievement Act, legislation introduced by U.S. Senators Brian Schatz (D-Hawai‘i), Jon Tester (D-Mont.), Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.), Heidi Heitkamp (D-N.D.), and Tom Udall (D-N.M.). The Native Language Immersion Student Achievement Act creates a new grant initiative to establish or expand Native language immersion programs.  The grants will support the revitalization and maintenance of indigenous languages while increasing educational opportunities for Native Hawaiian, American Indian, and Alaska Native students.

“Language is vital to every culture, and schools like Nawahiokalaniopuu on Hawai‘i Island have shown us how Native language education can revive a once near-extinct language and help preserve the traditions and customs of Native communities,” said Senator Schatz, a member of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee.  “With today’s key vote, we are one step closer to strengthening Native language schools and programs in Hawai‘i and across the country and ensuring the Hawaiian language and many others continue to thrive.”

“Preserving Native languages will keep students connected with their culture and heritage,” said Senator Tester, Vice-Chairman of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee.  “This bill will limit overhead costs that often keep tribes and schools from establishing Native language immersion classes and will ensure the survival of these historic languages.”

The Native Language Immersion Student Achievement Act establishes a grant program under the Department of Education.  The bill seeks to limit overhead costs and reduce the resource demands on tribal and school administrators seeking language immersion funding.

The grant program totals $5 million per year for five years.  The grants can be awarded to tribes, tribal organizations, Tribal Colleges and Universities, and public or private schools to establish or expand existing immersion classes for students ranging from Pre-K through post-secondary education levels.

“We could not have asked for better champions than Senator Tester and Senator Schatz,” said Leslie Harper, Director of the National Coalition of Native American Language Schools and Programs.  “They have a firm grasp of the issues and a strong commitment to native communities within their own states and across the nation.  The establishment of new programs to support Native American language medium schools is critically important for our children that represent the future of American Indian, Alaska Native and Native Hawaiian communities.  Without such schools the languages of their ancestors will remain out of the reach of our children, and unique academic benefits of indigenous language schools will be lost to them as well.”

“I’m glad this bill has passed another milestone in the legislative process, because it is much needed and so important for schools like Ke Kula O Nawahiokalaniopuu that are using our own native American language as the medium of instruction,”
said Kauanoe Kamana, Director of Ke Kula O Nawahiokalaniopuu.  “For us in Hawaii where such schooling now serves approximately 3,000 students statewide, this support is greatly needed by parents and teachers to support growing demand.  It is exciting that Senator Schatz has been able to help advance this bill on our behalf.”

“This bill represents the kind of help we need to continue the long and difficult process of revitalizing our language,” said Ekekela Aiona, Director of Aha Punana Leo.  “The day it was  introduced was a happy moment and it is wonderful news for Hawaiian language schools to hear that S.1419 is moving forward.  We appreciate all of the hard work of our Senator to ensure that olelo Hawaii will continue as a living language for future generations.  The Hawaiian language remains the key to the survival of Hawaiian culture in its traditional form.”

All of the approximately 148 remaining Native languages that are still spoken in the United States are at the risk of extinction within 50-100 years unless preservation actions are taken.