“It’s Owed:” Advocates Call For More Federal Investment In Indigenous Language Revitalization

Jun 24, 2021

Outside of their home in Bernalillo, N.M., 11-year-old Mililani Suina and her 8-year-old brother Marshall talk about some of their favorite foods from their tribal communities: the Pueblos of Cochiti, San Felipe and Santo Domingo.

"Tortillas are the biggest from Santo Domingo," Marshall says, stretching his arms out wide. "And from Cochiti, they're kind of, like, medium."

Mililani shares the different Keres words for a treat that's served on feast days.

"Our Cochiti Keres word for cookie is 'pah-koo-weh,' but in Santo Domingo they call it 'kool-weh-pah.' So sometimes, the words are kind of reversed," she says.

Mililani and Marshall have grown up immersed in Pueblo culture, including the Keres language. They're   students at the Keres Children's Learning Center at the Pueblo of Cochiti, where everything from math and science to Pueblo culture is taught in Keres.

"I feel very lucky that I learned it at a very young age and I'm still speaking our sacred language," says Mililani, who first enrolled at KCLC when she was two and a half. "Because some of our relatives don't really know about our own language."

11-year-old Mililani and 8-year-old Marshall Suina
Credit Courtesy of the Suina family

Phoebe Suina, Mililani and Marshall's mom, says that she was once one of those relatives who struggled to communicate in Keres, even though her own adult relatives were fluent speakers of the language. Phoebe says they were survivors of government-run, assimilationist boarding schools.

"When I was a little girl, I never understood why they didn't speak to me in Keres. It was because they had trauma," Phoebe says. "When they spoke Keres, they were scolded in their school system. They were taught that in order to excel in the mainstream, [they had to speak] only English."

This linguistic trauma is present in tribal communities across the country, due to more than a century of federal policies that aimed to suffocate Indigenous languages and culture.

Christine Sims, a citizen of the Acoma Pueblo and director of the American Indian Language Policy Research and Teacher Training Center, says it's the legacy of those policies that makes revitalizing Indigenous languages so difficult, time consuming and expensive.

"A lot of the things that have contributed to the demise of our languages have happened by way of the federal government and government education," Sims says. "So, why not hold their feet to the fire in terms of supporting efforts to revitalize and bring those languages back?"

But federal support for revitalization efforts is limited. It comes in the form of short-term grants through the Administration for Native Americans. In a typical year, only about 30% of applications to this grant program are funded, and selected programs can only re-apply for funding every three years.

"For all the years that were spent eradicating those languages, it's not a matter of three years trying to bring them back. It may take a couple of generations to make those languages strong again," Sims says.

During the pandemic, Sims says language learning ground to a halt in communities where the financial and technological barriers of moving classes online were too high. Many Indigenous communities also saw COVID-19 take the lives of fluent and native speakers.

The latest coronavirus relief package, known as the American Rescue Plan, includes $20 million for Indigenous language revitalization. But the emergency funding is only expected to benefit eight language programs out of hundreds that were impacted by the pandemic.

Curtis Chavez, development director at the Keres Children's Learning Center, is hopeful that the school will be among those eight programs. But he's not banking on it.

"These federal opportunities are extremely competitive, so we really cross our fingers when we write these grants," Chavez says.

He says the most reliable federal support of children's Indigenous language learning comes through Bureau of Indian Education schools, where students may be lucky to receive an hour of language instruction per day.

"At KCLC, you hear the language from the time you get there until you leave. That's the difference," Chavez says.

It's also an expensive model for tribal communities to pursue on their own. The Keres Children's Learning Center's expenses include facilities and maintenance costs, staff salaries and, during the pandemic, the cost of getting many students' homes connected to the internet.

Chavez says KCLC is funded primarily through private donations and grants. He believes the federal government has a responsibility to support the school as well.

"I think it's owed. From stolen land and resources and such, it's owed to us," Chavez says.

For families like the Suinas, attending the school and keeping if viable is about breaking a cycle of cultural dispossession. Mililani and Marshall say one of their favorite parts of learning Keres is sharing the language with their parents.

"Sometimes we correct them with some words. My mother has hard times, so she encourages us to speak our language so she can learn, too," Mililani says.

Phoebe Suina hopes that her children will continue to be her teachers.

"I have this dream that when I'm hopefully a grandma sometime in 20, 30 years that I will just be speaking Keres," she says.

Phoebe says that if the federal government could pay for her older relatives to attend an assimilationist school, it should pay for her children and grandchildren to reclaim their language.

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, KUNC in Colorado, KUNM in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.