Alaska’s senior U.S. senator recently joined some of her colleagues to reintroduce a bill that expands funding to smaller-size tribal language programs.

In a Monday news release, Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) praised the Esther Martinez Native American Languages Programs Reauthorization Act.

The bill will maintain two programs that currently fund language revitalization, expand them to smaller-size tribal language programs and lengthen grant periods.

Sen. Murkowski released this statement on the bill:

“We understand our past, ourselves, and our relationships with our family and community through our language. For Native peoples, language is truly the foundation of their cultures and their identity. For Alaska, one example of the importance of this legislation is highlighted by the late Chief Marie Smith Jones. She was the last full-blooded Eyak, the last surviving Native speaker of the Eyak language, and a fierce activist for Indian rights.

After passing away in 2008, she left a legacy to her people—recordings of her speaking in the Eyak tongue. These recordings are truly a gift, but it’s a tragedy that young people have only those recordings of their own language and no living speakers. We must do more to ensure Native languages exist as more than just recordings, and with Esther Martinez, we can.

In places like Igiugig, Bethel, Juneau, and dozens of communities across Alaska, Native language revitalization has played a big part in preparing students to be college, career, and culturally ready while strengthening entire communities.  I’m proud that this bill invests in programs to protect Alaska Native culture, history, and tradition by insuring the vitality of Native languages.”

In 2014, the Alaska Legislature passed a bill that made the 20 Alaska Native languages official state languages, a bill that was largely symbolic. Last year, former Gov. Bill Walker signed an administrative order declaring an linguistic emergency for Alaska Native languages.

According to Monday's release, The Esther Martinez Native American Languages Program funds Native language immersion programs in which children and adults are taught in the Native language, training for language teachers and creating teaching materials.

The bill bears Esther Martinez' name for her work as a revered Tewa linguist and traditional storyteller from New Mexico, someone who published the San Juan Pueblo Tewa dictionary the release stated. The bill has support from the National Congress of American Indians and the National Indian Education Association, according to the release.

Sen. Tom Udall (D-NM) worked with Sen. Murkowski to reintroduce the bill. Other cosponsors include Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-NM), Sen. Brian Schatz (D-HI), Sen. Jon Tester (D-MT), Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto (D-NV) and Sen. Tina Smith (D-MN). Congressman Don Young (R-AK) is a co-sponsor of the companion bill introduced in the House.

Steve Quinn contributed to this report.

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