FAIRBANKS — Native studies officials at the University of Alaska Fairbanks are praising an effort to reauthorize legislation that funds Native language immersion programs across the country. 

Alaska Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski and several other senators reintroduced the Esther Martinez Native American Languages Programs Reauthorization Act this week. The act works to maintain two national programs that fund revitalization, expand them to smaller-size tribal language programs as well as lengthen the grant periods.  

Sandra Kowalski, director of Indigenous Programs for Rural, Community and Native Education at UAF, noted the past of cultural trauma has contributed to a dwindling of Native language use in Alaska.

“There are 20 distinct and formally recognized Alaska Native languages that are in various states of decline,” she said. “Decades of colonialism and recent globalization have created chasms between older first language speakers and younger generations.”

“Western societal pressures resulting from this colonialism and globalization continue to contribute to the low success rates of Alaska Native students in the K-12 and university settings,” she said.

Education and teaching of the languages is on the rise, however, and is providing hope for a more culturally connected future, Kowalski noted. 

“Alaska is witnessing a renaissance. Alaskan Native individuals whose first language is English have, through immersion programs, master-apprentice partnerships and some working individually, become proficient in their own Alaska Native language,” she said. “These second language speakers’ stories have inspired interest and demand for opportunities for other Alaska Natives to learn to speak their own language at home and throughout the community.”

Reauthorizing the Native languages legislation is a positive step, Kowalski said.

Evon Peter, vice chancellor for Rural, Community and Native Education at UAF, echoed Kowalski’s sentiments in support of the bill. 

“It will take many people and entities working together to reverse the trend of language loss,” Peter said, “and so I am pleased to see the proposed reauthorization of the Esther Martinez Language Act with expansions to smaller tribes and lengthened funding periods.”

The bill is named after Esther Martinez, a revered Tewa linguist and traditional storyteller from New Mexico, who published the San Juan Pueblo Tewa dictionary.

If approved, the legislation will fund a number of language learning initiatives, including Native language immersion programs, language teacher training and creating additional teaching materials and curriculum.

Murkowski emphasized the importance of Indigenous language in Alaska while discussing the reauthorization. 

“We understand our past, ourselves and our relationships with our family and community through our language,” she said in a prepared statement. “For Native peoples, language is truly the foundation of their cultures and their identity.”

Murkowski pointed to the importance of revitalizing these languages as some are near extinction. 

“For Alaska, one example of the importance of this legislation is highlighted by the late Chief Marie Smith Jones. She was the last full-blooded Eyak, the last surviving Native speaker of the Eyak language, and a fierce activist for Indian rights,” Murkowski said. “After passing away in 2008, she left a legacy to her people — recordings of her speaking in the Eyak tongue. These recordings are truly a gift, but it’s a tragedy that young people have only those recordings of their own language and no living speakers.”

Alaska Republican Rep. Don Young has signed on to sponsor a twin bill in the House. Young was unable to be reached for comment.

Contact staff writer Erin McGroarty at 459-7544. Follow her on Twitter: @FDNMPolitics.