Departments of the Interior, Education, and Health & Human Services Launch Multi-Agency Initiative to Protect and Preserve Native Languages

Interagency efforts will align federal language preservation programs to ensure the viability of Native languages

Last edited 11/15/2021

Date: Monday, November 15, 2021


WASHINGTON — The U.S. Departments of the Interior, Education and Health and Human Services launched a new interagency initiative today to preserve, protect, and promote the rights and freedom of Native Americans to use, practice, and develop Native languages.

The announcement was made as part of the 2021 White House Tribal Nations Summit, which brings government officials and leaders from federally recognized Tribes together to discuss ways the federal government can invest in and continue to strengthen the nation-to-nation relationship and ensure that progress in Indian Country endures for years to come.

The three agencies joined five others in signing a memorandum of agreement (MOA) to further the Native American Languages Act of 1990 by establishing new goals and programs that support the protection and preservation of Native languages spoken by federally recognized American Indian and Alaska Native Tribes, Native Hawaiians, and other Native American groups in the United States. The MOA reaffirms the establishment of an annual national summit on Native languages, which will take place this year on November 18-19, 2021.

“The cornerstone of any culture or community is its language. Languages are where oral histories are passed down, knowledge is shared, and bonds are formed. As part of our commitment to strengthening and supporting Indigenous communities, the Interior Department is resolute in its efforts to ensuring Native languages are preserved and protected,” said Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland. “From our libraries and schools to museums and cultural centers, the Department is proud to help lead this interagency effort to encourage programs and projects to include instruction in and preservation of Native languages.”

“The Department of Education is committed to advancing equity and excellence in our nation’s education system for Native American students to fulfill our commitment to furthering Tribal sovereignty and self-determination. A vital part of that work entails ensuring that the cultural and linguistic identities of Native American students are affirmed in school,” said Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona. “Native American languages connect to a delicate and meaningful balance with belief systems and treasured heritage. And as I’ve learned in speaking with Tribes, these belief systems, in turn, provide a way of understanding and connecting to the past, present, and future through Native American values that have been transferred over generations. For all these reasons, I’m proud that the Biden administration is committed to supporting the preservation and revitalization of Native languages.”

“Preserving Native languages, at a time when many communities have lost a great many linguistic experts, is critical. Throughout the pandemic, many people have not been able to practice or access cultural resources due to a high risk of COVID-19 infection,” said Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra. “Many ceremonies and healing practices that are typically conducted in Native American languages have been paused for almost two years. In certain Native communities, language is at risk of being lost altogether. Investing in linguistics is key to supporting our tribal communities and protecting their history, and today’s investment should help achieve this important goal.”

For more than 150 years, Native languages in the U.S. have been subjected to suppression and elimination from a variety of factors such as federal boarding and other types of schools that forced American Indian, Alaska Native, and Native Hawaiian children to forgo speaking the language of their peoples.

Additional signatory agencies include the U.S. Departments of Agriculture, Transportation, Institute of Museum and Library Services, the Library of Congress, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Native language preservation has for many years been cited by Indigenous leaders as important to their self-preservation, self-determination and sovereignty. Native preservation and language revitalization is a critical priority because languages go to the heart of a Tribe’s unique cultural identities, traditions, spiritual beliefs, and self-governance. Native languages are not simply collections of words nor are they interchangeable with one another. Even within their languages, a variety of dialects can be spoken.

These themes were recently re-emphasized in Tribal consultations and through listening and learning sessions conducted by the Biden-Harris administration that identified barriers, challenges and needs regarding Native language preservation. In addition, the COVID-19 pandemic highlighted another serious threat to Native languages: the loss of Tribal elders, who are bearers of their Tribe’s culture, traditions, and history, and fluent speakers of its language.

The MOA includes specific interagency goals, including, but not limited to:

  • Identifying statutory or regulatory barriers that impede federal implementation of Native language activities;
  • Identifying research that explores educational attainment and Native language retention and/or revitalization;
  • Simplifying the process to integrate Native language instruction and language and other cultural activities into educational settings, including libraries, museums, cultural and historic preservation programs, and in the arts; and
  • Strengthening Tribal consultations on the issue of Native languages.

To further the goals set out in the MOA, the agreement further supports the Native Language Workgroup (NLW) comprised of senior officials from ED, HHS, and DOI’s Bureau of Indian Education (BIE). The NLW will be chaired by the executive director of the White House Initiative on Advancing Educational Equity, Excellence, and Economic Opportunity for Native Americans and Strengthening Tribal Colleges and Universities, the commissioner of the Administration for Native Americans within HHS, and the director of the BIE.


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