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Advocates Criticize Funding Program To Revitalize Indigenous Language Programs


The latest COVID relief package included $20 million to revitalize Indigenous language programs. But some people say this money is too little and it's too late. Savannah Maher of the Mountain West News Bureau brought us this story from New Mexico.

SAVANNAH MAHER, BYLINE: Eleven-year-old Mililani Suina knows that the Keres language is sacred. She only shares a few words in the two dialects she speaks from the Pueblos of Cochiti and Santo Domingo, which she calls SD.

MILILANI SUINA: A Keres word for cookie, which is pah-koo-weh. But in SD, they call it kool-weh-pah.

MAHER: Mililani is a student at the Keres Children's Learning Center.

M SUINA: Our school is very special.

MAHER: That's because everything from math and science to Pueblo history is taught in Keres.

M SUINA: I feel very lucky that I learned it at a very young age and I'm still speaking our secret language because some of our relatives don't really know about our own language.

MAHER: Mililani's mom, Phoebe Suina, says that for most of her life, she was one of those relatives who struggled to communicate in Keres even though her adult relatives were fluent speakers. She says they were survivors of the Indian boarding school system.

PHOEBE SUINA: When they spoke Keres, they were scolded because they were taught that in order to excel in the mainstream education system, it's only English.

CHRISTINE SIMS: We talk about historical trauma. Well, I guess you could call this linguistic trauma.

MAHER: That's Christine Sims, director of the American Indian Language Policy and Research Center. Sims says this federal investment in Indigenous languages is long overdue.

SIMS: A lot of the things that have happened to the demise of languages have happened by way of the federal government and federal government education. So why not hold their feet to the fire?

MAHER: In a typical year, the federal government gives out about $12 million in grants to a handful of Indigenous language programs, leaving the majority of applicants without funding. But this $20 million emergency fund is non-competitive. And with more than 200 applicants, that means each is likely to end up with $100,000 or less.

SIMS: (Laughter) You know, that's not even hardly a drop in the bucket.

MAHER: Sims says that's not a transformative amount of money, especially compared to how much the government spent trying to eradicate these languages. Curtis Chavez agrees. He's the development director at the Keres Children's Learning Center. He says the most effective tools for language revitalization, like the full-day immersion school he helps run, are also the most expensive to operate.

CURTIS CHAVEZ: You've got to think about your staff. You've got to pay them a salary - the supplies and materials, also the building itself, to keep it running.

MAHER: Chavez says the Keres Children's Learning Center runs mostly on private donations and grants, with federal support coming only sporadically through that highly competitive grant program. He says it should be easier for programs like the Keres Children's Learning Center to access federal funds.

CHAVEZ: I think it's owed to our people from stolen land and resources and such.

MAHER: For families like the Suinas, keeping the school afloat is about breaking a cycle of cultural dispossession. Mililani says that she and her little brother, Marshall, who's also learning Keres, love to share the language with their mother.

M SUINA: My mother is still trying to learn our language. So she's like - encourages us to, like, speak our language so she can learn, too.

MAHER: And Phoebe Suina hopes her children will continue to be her teachers.

P SUINA: I have this dream that when I'm, hopefully, a grandma sometime in 20, 30 years, that I will just be speaking Keres.

MAHER: She says that if the federal government could pay for her older relatives to attend an assimilationist school, it should pay for her children and grandchildren to reclaim their language.

For NPR News, I'm Savannah Maher in Albuquerque.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Savannah comes to Wyoming Public Media from NPR’s midday show Here & Now, where her work explored everything from Native peoples’ fraught relationship with American elections to the erosion of press freedoms for tribal media outlets. A proud citizen of the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe, she’s excited to get to know the people of the Wind River reservation and dig into the stories that matter to them.