#LANGUAGEJUSTICE: Esther Martinez Native American Languages Program Passes House

Updated: Dec 31, 2019

Update: Esther Martinez Native American Languages Reauthorization Program has been signed into law (12/20/19)

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WASHINGTON, D.C. – On Monday evening, the House voted to reauthorize the Esther Martinez Native American Languages Programs Reauthorization Act (H.R.912, S.256) through FY2024. Affectionately known as simply "Esther," the program is the only existing federal Native language education grant programs. The Senate passed an identical version of the bill earlier this year. It is now headed to the President's desk to be signed.


Stalled in committee over the summer, the bipartisan House bill saw a rapid rise in co-sponsors, gaining 187 supporters just in the last two-and-a-half months. The bill passed with 240 House members signing on.


Each language matters, for deeply rooted reasons of culture, human development, and ways of being.

“The long overdue passage of the Reauthorization of the Esther Martinez Native American Languages Program Act gives more opportunity and hope to Native American Nations who want to ensure the survival and growth of their languages," said Dr. Bill Rivers, Executive Director of JNCL-NCLIS. "Each language matters, for deeply rooted reasons of culture, human development, and ways of being. The Joint National Committee for Languages is proud of the 240 co-sponsors in the House of Representatives who ensured that this vital bill will pass and proceed to the president’s desk.”

Prior to the House vote, Representative Ben Ray Luján of New Mexico, the U.S. House Assistant Speaker, spoke on the House floor in support of the bill, a bipartisan piece of legislation to revitalize Native American languages. The full floor speech is available here.

The children of Esther Martinez posted a video to thank all the supporters of their mother's legacy to preserve, protect and expand Native American languages and cultures. The video is available here.

Who was Esther Martinez?

Esther Martinez was a Tewa speaker and member of the Pueblo tribe, born in Ignacio, Colorado. She attended, and survived, the Santa Fe Indian School and Albuquerque Indian School graduating in 1930. Despite the harsh conditions of this upbringing, she would go on to work almost single-handedly to revive the Tewa Language. Tewa is part of the Tanoan language family, spoken by the Pueblo people of New Mexico. She would produce a translation of the New Testament into Tewa and create the San Juan Pueblo Tewa Dictionary in 1982.


In December 2006, the Esther Martinez Native Americans Preservation Act (HR 4766) passed authorizing funding for new programs on focusing on preventing the loss of tribal heritage and culture. Despite the Act expiring in 2012, the program has been kept alive via annual appropriations. In April 2015, Representative Ben Ray Lujan (D-NM) firsted introduced HR 2174 to reauthorize appropriations until FY 2020.


The Esther Martinez Native American Languages Program

According to the National Indian Education Association, “The Esther Martinez Initiative funds immersion programs that are successfully passing on indigenous languages to American Indian, Alaska Native, and Native Hawaiian students. Native American language revitalization is a critical priority because language preservation goes to the heart of Native identity. In many ways, language is culture. Learning and understanding traditional languages helps Native students thrive. As a result, immersion programs ensure that a student’s language will be carried forward for generations to come.”


Between 2012 and 2018, the Department of Health and Human Services has continued to allocate funds for these grants, with about $10 million distributed to indigenous communities in FY 2018. After the original act expired in 2012, Congress has kept it alive via a series of annual appropriations. Senator Tom Udall (D-NM) introduced the Reauthorization Act (S256) which is moving to the House for final approval. The Act would reauthorize the program through FY2024 and further revise the qualifications for grants.


The program works specifically works to:

  • Ensure the survival of Native languages. The survival of native languages is fundamental to the success of Native communities and survival of traditional Native cultures.

  • Establish immersion programs, which has been proven to be the best model for creating fluent speakers and successful Native leaders.

  • Create grants provided under Esther Martinez, to empower Native communities to establish immersion programs to revitalize Native languages and improve Native economies.


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