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Learning indigenous language is vital for Native students

This month our nation took one more crucial step in promoting early childhood education by helping millions of American Indian and Alaska Native children sustain their Native languages and heritage as an essential component of their academic success.

We commend the federal Office of Head Start for reaffirming its commitment to the integration of American Indian/Alaska Native tribal languages and culture in Head Start and Early Head Start Programs across the country. This action will help the 45,175 American Indian/Alaska Native children currently served by Head Start to thrive both academically and culturally.

Research studies conducted by Neblett and Umaña-Taylor; Phinney; and the Office of Head Start have shown that culture-based education increases Native students’ socio-emotional development and improves educational outcomes.

It can be seen firsthand with the ‘Aha Punana Leo Native Hawaiian immersion schools, where students have achieved significantly higher graduation and college attendance rates than their counterparts in other schools. Learning their Native language can give children a sense of security and pride in their cultural identity, which in turn is associated with greater self-esteem, more positive peer and family relationships and stronger ties to the community.

Immersion and dual-language teaching approaches are essential to reverse the tragic and rapid loss of indigenous languages. At one time, there were more than 300 indigenous languages spoken in North America. By 1998, this number was reduced to 175, and unless urgent action is taken scarcely 20 of these languages are expected to be spoken in 2050.

The Office of Head Start’s recent action acknowledges the important federal role in revitalizing Native languages, since the Native American Languages Act of 1990 found that the “lack of clear, comprehensive, and consistent Federal policy … has often resulted in acts of suppression and extermination of Native American languages and cultures.”

This is why the tremendous language revitalization, racial healing and early childhood education work taking place in Native communities in New Mexico and other parts of the country is so important — and supported by the Kellogg Foundation.

The Pueblo of Jemez has developed a clear vision for culturally based early childhood development and is now implementing a Towa language immersion approach in their Head Start programs.

Additionally, the University of New Mexico’s American Indian Language Policy Research and Teacher Training Center is increasing the overall quality of Pueblo Indian tribes’ early learning programming by providing Native language curriculum design, development and implementation support.

The federal guidance to support language immersion and dual language models in Head Start should be applauded as a key step in revitalizing our nation’s indigenous languages. This action taken by the Office of Head Start can contribute to improved outcomes for children and families if accompanied by funding that supports strong tribal governance and partnerships; improved teacher training and support; robust parent engagement and leadership; and the creation of tailored curriculum, materials and assessment tools.

While the federal government has a primary role in implementation, state and tribal governments and the private, philanthropic and nonprofit sectors each have an important part to play.

At the Kellogg Foundation, we believe every child, regardless of race or income, deserves an equal opportunity to succeed in school and life.

The early childhood years are the most critical in establishing our children’s trajectories for success. The need for educational systems serving Native students to embrace indigenous languages and cultures builds on a racial justice framework that is focused on ensuring that all Native children thrive.