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Revisiting the Native American Languages Act of 1990

At a summit for revitalizing indigenous languages held this week here in Washington, a founder of a Native Hawaiian language-immersion school asked Charles Rose, the general counsel of the U.S. Department of Education, to "please look at" the Native American Languages Act of 1990. The educator was among several founders of language-immersion schools who argued that provisions of the No Child Left Behind Act are in conflict with the Native American Languages Act and a hindrance to running language-immersion schools. I wrote about the educators' petition to Rose for relief from some of those provisions in an article published yesterday by Education Week.

The request of Rose by William "Pila" H. Wilson, the head of the academic-programs division for the University of Hawaii's College of Hawaiian Language, in Hilo, to revisit the Native American Languages Act prompted me to read the act for the first time. I had trouble finding a copy posted by the federal government so I pulled up a copy that had been posted by the National Association for Bilingual Education.

The act says that it is the policy of the United States to "encourage and support the use of Native American languages as a medium of instruction." That means that the federal government is going much farther than simply saying students should be able to study the language of their indigenous community only an hour or so each day. The act is saying the federal government supports students to take actual core academic subjects in a Native American language.

And interestingly, the act goes on to say that it's the policy of the United States to "recognize the right of Indian tribes and other Native American governing bodies to use the Native American languages as a medium of instruction in all schools funded by the Secretary of the Interior." That statement would refer to the schools run by the Bureau of Indian Education, an arm of the U.S. Department of the Interior.

While Native American students may have the right to receive core instruction in the language of their communities at BIE schools, in fact, it appears not to be happening much.

A recent federal study found that at BIE schools, only 23 percent of American Indian or Alaska Native 8th graders who participated in a survey reported that people in their schools talk to each other in a Native American language "every day or almost every day." Forty-one percent of the 8th graders at the BIE schools said people at their school talk to each other in a Native American language "never or hardly ever." (Thirteen percent said "once or twice a month" and 23 percent said "once or twice a week.") The study didn't report if any of these BIE schools use a Native American language as the medium of instruction.

At regular public schools, American Indian or Alaska Native students reported even less exposure to Native American languages than their peers at the BIE schools.

At the summit, Wilson said in a presentation that "the Native American Languages Act says we have these rights in the United States, but that law hasn't really been used."

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