Act Preserves Heritage & Honors Life of Tewa Storyteller
WASHINGTON – The New Mexico Congressional Delegation today announced that President Bush has signed into law the Esther Martinez Native Languages
The new law helps prevent the loss of an important part of New Mexico’s
heritage, the Native American languages that are rapidly disappearing. The
bill, written and introduced by Congresswoman Heather Wilson in February, was
passed by the House in September and the Senate earlier this month with the
support of the entire New Mexico delegation.
“These languages will be preserved with attention and effort. Once lost, they
will never be recovered,” Wilson said. “The native languages were precious to
Esther Martinez, and this bill is designed to help preserve them. It is a
fitting tribute to her life’s work.”
“This bill is a tremendous way to honor the memory of Esther Martinez. It aims
to preserve the unique linguistic heritage of Native Americans, and I’m pleased
to see it become law,” said U.S. Senator Pete Domenici, who worked to ensure
passage in the Senate.
“For many years, tribes were discouraged from speaking their native languages
and now many languages have disappeared. This legislation will help ensure
native languages are preserved, and passed on to future generations,
Senator Jeff Bingaman said.
“Considering Esther’s dedication to preserving her native language, it is a
fitting tribute that this legislation be named after her,” said Rep. Tom Udall.
“The urgent need to protect and preserve Native American languages is clear. We must invest in their preservation by implementing immersion programs. This
legislation is an important step toward reversing the trend of disappearing
native languages. I would like to congratulate Congresswoman Wilson on this
legislation being signed into law, and thank her for her efforts on this
“This innovative and timely legislation helps stem an impending tragedy for our
nation; the rapid decline and potential loss of Native American languages,”
said Rep. Steve Pearce, also a co-sponsor of the legislation. “I commend Rep.
Wilson for her leadership in reconnecting younger generations of Native
Americans to the language and culture of their ancestors while preserving an
irreplaceable treasure for every American.”
The bill was designated in honor of Esther Martinez of New Mexico, following
her death in September. On September 14, Esther Martinez of Ohkay Owingeh was awarded a National Heritage Fellowship in Washington, DC. She died at 94 years of age in Espanola en route home after attending a ceremony at the National Endowment for the Arts.
Sadly, only an estimated 20 of more than 300 pre-colonial indigenous languages
will remain by the year 2050. In 1996, 175 of these languages remained, but now
we’re losing them at a rate of 12 languages every 3 years. New Mexico is home
to 19 different pueblos and 3 tribes. Among the tribes and pueblos, there are
six major languages, plus varying dialects. Language is a key element of each
A recent survey of Native languages found that among the Lipan Apache on the
Mescalero reservation in southern New Mexico there are just ten speakers of the
native language remaining. At the Sandia Pueblo, north of Albuquerque, most of
their Native speakers are middle aged or older. Even Navajo, spoken more than
any other Native Language in the U.S., is spoken fluently by less than half of
the Navajo children entering kindergarten.
The bill authorizes competitive grants through the U.S. Department of Health
and Human Services to establish Native American language “nests” for students
under the age of seven and their families. It supports Native American language
survival schools. It will help to preserve all the indigenous languages that
are still being spoken, and increase the support for Native American language
immersion programs to create fluent speakers, and allow tribes and pueblos to
develop their own immersion programs.