Funding supports preservation of indigenous languages
Congressman Brian Higgins announced a federal grant totaling $248,077 awarded to Native American Community Services of Erie and Niagara Counties Inc. (NACS). Funded by the American Rescue Plan and awarded through the Administration for Native Americans (ANA), the grant supports tribes and organizations seeking to ensure the survival and vitality of Native American languages.
“When a language dies, communities often leave behind the scientific, cultural, traditional and ceremonial knowledge developed by their ancestors,” Higgins said. “During the pandemic, indigenous communities are more vulnerable than ever. This funding supports wellness within these communities to ensure the health of cultural teachers in order to continue traditions and pass on knowledge through native language.”
The grant will be used to fund the Supporting Education and Empowerment by Developing Language Initiatives Needed for Growth and Sustainability (SEEDLINGS) program.
NACS’ Educational Achievement Coordinator Amy Huff said, “The goal of the SEEDLINGS program is to increase language proficiency of Haudenosaunee youth speakers in the Buffalo Public School District and initiate a pathway to fluency. This isn’t a project just about selected activities, it is the fact recognizing that culture and tradition – especially in regard to children – is the first consideration when developing a language initiative. Connecting the words and their meaning to the natural world and to emotions. Returning a child’s sense of security, belonging and joy. These liberties were taken from our children, and loss of language is a direct result of atrocities committed against Native children, their families, and our way of life.”
Focused on children, NACS’ educational achievement component will provide over 1,500 hours of language learning primarily at the Native American Magnet School (NAMS) during afterschool hours for 40 weeks (school year) and six weeks in the summer. To encompass a whole child concept for learning, an additional 40 hours of community-infused language events are included. This will increase the occurrences of intergenerational exchanges, keep the community informed and engaged, support learners and encourage change. Language learning will be transferred among the Haudenosaunee and across generations increasing the number of Haudenosaunee speakers.
The grant includes a language coach and digital learning specialist. These two positions complement one another. The role of the coach is to facilitate language learning, while the digital learning specialist enhances and captures that facilitation.
Higgins’ team said, “Coaches promote connections between culture and language, as the two go hand in hand. Coaches are not just teaching vocabulary; they are cultivating means to express gratitude, embrace feelings and acknowledge tradition. Following curricula and allowing for laughter, the coach stimulates learning using a technique called total physical response. TPR is a language teaching method built around the coordination of speech and action; it attempts to teach language through motor activity. When the coach provides multisensory prompts, the child’s brain makes several associations and words begin to have a feeling instead of just a meaning. This is the connection to the Earth and to one another. This will be recreated in the language learning classroom and extended to the community by participants and through community events.”
NACS Executive Director Michael Martin added, “There is a beauty embedded into our Native languages, as well as connections that get lost in translation. Empowering youth with an opportunity to learn and then enhance language skills is a path to healing from intergenerational trauma that our Native people have endured. As many say, we didn’t lose our languages, they were taken from us through residential/boarding schools and the intergenerational legacy of them. Before these traumas, we had a culture of health, and now our people are returning to our traditional teachings and perspectives that were always intended to keep us in peace and wellbeing – individually and collectively. Our language efforts are a direct response to helping our community meet this desire.”
Huff also noted, “Staff will acknowledge the child’s effort without revealing a numeric score to the child. This does not dilute the score, nor the results of the program. It retains the EA core philosophy that children are not to be labeled by a number on a proficiency scale. This is a critical piece of creating an environment conducive to language learning and acquisition. The child needs to be acknowledged for their effort, not be told they didn’t ‘meet a standard.’ ”
When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, tribal governments and native communities recognized elders and languages speakers were members of the populations most vulnerable to the coronavirus. Higgins’ team said, “Many quickly implemented health and wellness efforts to help them socially distance and receive priority COVID-19 vaccines, in addition to the safety measures put in place by governments like mask mandates and travel restrictions. Despite their efforts, many language speakers still succumbed to the virus. In some indigenous communities, these losses have put their native languages near extinction.”
Each year, ANA provides $13 million in funding for 50 community-based language projects. This year, an additional $19 million was allocated through the American Rescue Plan, which more than doubles the funding available. It allows ANA to reach a greater number of communities whose work to preserve indigenous languages has been impacted by the pandemic.
Native American Services is a nonprofit organization that serves primarily the indigenous population living off Native Nation territories across 17 upstate New York counties. It works to strengthen individuals and families mentally, emotionally, physically and spiritually by offering programs for economic self-sufficiency, family services, health and wellness, and community and cultural services. To learn more, visit www.nacswny.org.