Language is Who We Are and Who We Want to Be

September 18, 2015
Photo of Youth Panelists Teddy McCullough, Vanessa Goodthunder, and Vance Home Gun, and with the White House Initiative on American Indian and Alaska Native Education Executive Director Bill Mendoza.

Larger image of Youth Panelists and White House director.Youth Panelists Teddy McCullough, Vanessa Goodthunder and Vance Home Gun meet with the White House Initiative on American Indian and Alaska Native Education Executive Director Bill Mendoza.By Lillian Sparks Robinson, Commissioner, Administration for Native Americans

Last week I had the pleasure of participating in the second Native American Languages Summit co-hosted by the Administration for Native Americans (ANA), the Bureau of Indian Education (BIE) and the White House Initiative on American Indian and Alaska Native Education Visit disclaimer page (WH Initiative).  This second Summit expanded the audience to include members of the Association of Tribal Archives, Libraries and Museums Visit disclaimer page , who were holding their annual conference in Washington, DC.

Hosting the Summit is one of the purposes of the Memorandum of Agreement on Native Languages (PDF) Visit disclaimer page signed in 2012 between ANA, BIE, and the WH Initiative, in order to share across agencies and with Native American language programs resources available to preserve, protect, and promote Native Americans rights to use their indigenous languages anywhere, including as a medium of instruction in schools.

A display sign at the summit that reads: Encouraging collaboration among tribal and non tribal cultural institutions.This year we had a lot to share from ACF.  ANA is gathering feedback on a new funding opportunity that is in the President’s budget for next fiscal year, the Native Language Coordination Initiative (PDF).  This Initiative will help support communities seeking to integrate Native American languages in learning settings from preschool to higher education. We also hope to debut a new tool, called the FAST form, which will help applicants applying for the Native Language Preservation and Maintenance funding opportunity have an easier time responding to ANA’s funding announcement.

The Office of Head Start Visit disclaimer page will soon issue a report based on site visits to programs that are implementing Native language activities and will share lessons learned. The Office of Planning, Research, and Evaluation will host a research meeting in November to discuss, among other things, community-level measures of native language revitalization. This session will explore how community-level engagement in heritage languages may relate to healing, enhanced cultural identity, and positive youth development.

We had a wonderful opportunity to hear first-hand from a panel of young adults who are each working to revitalize their Native languages through very different means.  Each of them worked with peers or mentored younger tribal members to learn language and traditional cultural practices.  Summit attendees remarked that this was their favorite panel, as the youth were so inspiring. Hearing the youth share how learning their languages made them feel proud of their background, connected to their culture and as a way to honor their ancestors was both moving and uplifting.

I think my colleague, Charles “Monty” Roessel, the Director of the BIE, summed the Summit up best when he said, “language is who we are and who we want to be.”

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