Law Encourages Schools To Use Indian Languages
WASHINGTON--Federal officials are assessing the potential impact of a new law that encourages the use of Native American languages in schools run by the Bureau of Indian Affairs and in public schools enrolling Indians or other native groups.
Spokesmen for the Interior and Education departments said that the statement of federal policy--contained in a bill approved by the Congress without public hearings and signed into law last week by President Bush--might well result in an invigoration of native-language instruction.
But they also said that the intent of the new Native American Languages Act could prove costly and difficult to realize because of the vast number of native languages and the paucity of native speakers who have been trained as teachers.
"On the one hand, it promotes the languages, which is positive," said John W. Tippeconnic 3rd, who heads the Education Department's office of Indian education. "But it does create burdens for the schools."
The law includes no penalties for noncompliance. But some officials suggested last week that it could provide legal ammunition for parents seeking native-language instruction, particularly in BIA schools and public schools with high concentrations of Native American students.
The measure declares that the policy of the United States is "to preserve, protect, and promote the rights and freedom of Native Americans to use, practice, and develop Native American languages."
It defines Native Americans as American Indians, native Hawaiians, and Pacific Islanders.
The measure was introduced last month by Senator Daniel K. Inouye, Democrat of Hawaii, as a last-minute amendment to S 2176, a bill reauthorizing the Tribally Controlled Community Colleges Act of 1978.
The Native Languages Act, proponents said, is designed to reverse an unofficial policy, dating to the waning days of the Indian wars, under which those languages have been denigrated or eradicated as a means of assimilating Indians into the mainstream.
Officials of both the BIA and the Education Department said they supported the intent of the bill.
But they questioned whether supporters fully understood the potential costs of implemention and the difficulty of adhering to the policy in schools that may enroll pupils speaking as many as 70 native languages.
A Democratic staff member for the Senate Select Committee on Indian Affairs, which Mr. Inouye chairs, said the measure was designed in part to empower Indian parents to demand that native lan be used in instruction.
"Basically, this gives communities in specific areas a basis for going into B.I.A. schools and saying we want these languages taught," the aide said. "But there's nothing legally binding in this and, even now, if two or three parents go in and the rest of the school is non-Indian, I'm not sure how far they'll get."
Mr. Tippeconnic noted that many tribes already have native-language requirements for employees in public schools built on Indian land.
But he also suggested that even schools in areas where Indians are in the minority could be affected by the law, because it "makes a policy statement for the government."
He said that the potential impact for the Education Department could go beyond the Indian-education office into such areas as bilingual programs, although the measure specifically states that the policy does not preclude "the use of federal funds to teach English to Native Americans."
The law also "recognizes the right of Indian tribes and other Native American governing bodies to use the Native American languages as a medium of instruction in all schools funded by the Secretary of the Interior."
A spokesman for Eddie F. Brown, the Interior Department's assistant secretary for Indian affairs, said the use of such languages could pose practical difficulties for BIA schools.
For example, he said, because Indian languages generally are orally transmitted, textbooks for teaching them often are not readily available.
The policy also urges schools to give credit for courses in native languages as they do for foreign languages.
The prospect of the new policy generated "incredible interest across Indian Country," according to Patricia Locke, a member of the legislative committee of the International Native American Languages Issues Institute, a prime mover in getting the policy before the Congress.
The law was enacted without committee hearings. Capitol Hill aides noted that a similar measure failed to make it out of committee in the last Congress and that supporters did not wish to repeat the experience.
Some proponents and committee aides said publicity was kept to a minimum because of fears that groups that favor making English the official language of the United States would derail the bill's passage.
But at least one such group, U.S. English, which had been unaware of the measure until its passage, subsequently urged President Bush to sign it. The group noted in a statement "the unique relationship of native North American nations to our country" as a reason to preserve languages that "otherwise would be in danger of extinction."