Our Mother Tongues Blog

White House Issues Executive Order Promoting American Indian Education and Languages

January 18, 2012 - 9:07 PM | by Our Mother Tongues

At the December 2010 White House Tribal Nations Conference, President Obama became the first U.S. Head of State to enthusiastically endorse and commit to implementing the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Earlier administrations declined attendance (but often sent interns to take notes) at the annual U.N. Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, which built international Indigenous coalitions for nearly three decades and worked within the U.N. system to draft and pass in 2007 the groundbreaking international human rights instrument as a baseline standard for nation states to abide by in their relations, interactions, and negotiations with Indigenous Peoples. Speaking to the elected leadership of the nation’s 565 federally recognized Indian tribes to close his annual Tribal Nations Conference, Obama announced on December 2, 2011 he was signing Executive Order 13592, “Improving American Indian and Alaska Native Educational Opportunities and Strengthening Tribal Colleges and Universities.”


The brief five-part document affirms the “unique political and legal relationship with the federally recognized American Indian and Alaska Native (AI/AN) tribes across the country, as set forth in the Constitution of the United States, treaties, Executive Orders, and court decisions,” and foregrounds the Obama Administration’s “commitment to furthering tribal self-determination and to help ensure that AI/AN students have an opportunity to learn their Native languages and histories and receive complete and competitive educations that prepare them for college, careers, and productive and satisfying lives.” The National Indian Education Association (NIEA), a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit advocacy organization issued a press release commending the President’s positive focus on tribal languages and educational outcomes, and noted its membership’s hope “that the Congress will carry forward these principles in its reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act and will provide the appropriations necessary to ensure that the United States government’s trust responsibility to educate Indians is met.”


Throughout 2009-2010 Cultural Survival’s Endangered Languages Program collaborated with NIEA and more than a dozen Indigenous education organizations to declare Native languages in a state of emergency and push for an executive order (EO) specific to Native Language Revitalization. Led by the National Alliance to Save Native Languages and Cultural Survival’s Endangered Languages Program, the coalition passed two successive resolutions at the National Congress of American Indians annual conventions and even met briefly with key Obama administration officials who advise the President on education and Native American policy. These resolutions included the latest United Nations Educational, Scientific,and Cultural Organization’s (UNESCO) data on Indigenous languages remaining in the United States—139 spoken languages—and asked for the President’s immediate action at the cabinet level in supporting Native American languages. While these resolutions are not directly included in his latest EO, President Obama's active role in promoting Native student academic success is certainly unique among recent administrations. Twenty years have passed since the U.S. Congress adopted the Native American Languages Acts of 1990 and 1992, and in the intervening years Indigenous languages spoken within the U.S. have continued to atrophy and fall out of use, with only modest federal funding—approximately $12 million annually—available from the Department of Health and Human Services’ Administration for Native Americans to shore up local language revitalization efforts in tribal communities.

Comments (1) -

Tim Upham
9/25/2012 9:06:23 PM #

Let us make sure these languages are not just preserved in the names of states, cities, rivers, lakes, mountains, and wildlife.  But an American heritage to be preserved by all Americans.  The best way to do so, is by giving these languages commercial and economic value.  The Chinook were famous traders, who took their canoes up and down the Columbia River, and the Pacific Coast.  So when they counted, is was Ixt = One, Mokst = 2, Lun = 3, Lakt = 4, Kwann = 5.

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