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Federal bill seeks to preserve Native American languages

Federal legislation could enhance Ute language education efforts
Rocco Fuschetto, Ignacio School District superintendent, supports a federal bill proposing a nationwide Native American language resource center. The district teaches Ute language classes in partnership with the Southern Ute Indian Tribe.

Local educators hope a federal bill focused on Native American languages will enhance local Ute language education efforts.

The bill, which would establish Native American language resource centers across the country, is in response to concerns that tribal languages nationwide are fading. The bill is in the early stages of the congressional process, but if passed, locals hope some of those resources could reach La Plata County and the Southern Ute Indian Tribe.

“I feel it’s important. You have to keep the language alive. Once the language dies, the culture will die, too,” said Rocco Fuschetto, Ignacio school superintendent. “I’m a Spanish teacher, and understanding how important language is in any culture ... you have to keep the language going.”

The bipartisan legislation seeks to bolster Native American language schools and programs with coordinated, experienced support, according to a news release from the U.S. Senate Committee on Indian Affairs.

It would create institutions, housed throughout the country, that offer resource support for Native language students at all levels of learning and for schools and programs teaching Native languages. It would also provide resources to enhance distance learning capacity, according to the release.

“The Southern Ute Indian Tribe has not had the opportunity to thoroughly review this bill,” said Lindsay Box, tribal government spokeswoman. “However, the tribe does support any effort and funding aimed to preserve and revitalize Indigenous languages and specifically the Ute language in a manner which is consistent with tribal sovereignty.”

The Southern Ute Indian Tribe has long prioritized helping tribal members improve their Ute language abilities, providing community classes for learners, teaching the language in the tribe’s Montessori academy and partnering with the Ignacio School District to continue Ute language education.

The school district offers Ute language at the high school level as a foreign language requirement, but the language program has faced challenges because of inconsistency in staffing, Fuschetto said.

The tribe has received a grant to offer teaching resources, which will allow the district to expand its Ute language programs, he said. The program is scheduled to start this summer.

But more resources always help, and Fuschetto said he supports the bill to create a Native American language resource center.

Democratic Sen. Brian Schatz of Hawaii introduced the bill in the Senate, while Republican Rep. Don Young of Alaska introduced the House version of the bill.

Linguistic resources are a big issue in Alaska, where 20 Native languages are spoken, Young said. In 2008, the last speaker of the Eyak language died, and in 2018, Alaska declared a linguistic emergency in the state, he said in the release.

“Too many languages spoken by Indigenous people in Alaska and across the country face the threat of being forgotten; that must not happen,” Young said.

smullane@durangoherald.com

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