This week representatives from the Santa Ynez Band of Chumash Indians attended the annual National Native Language Revitalization Summit on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., a program organized for the celebration of our rights to continue to speak and revitalize our indigenous languages.

In addition to us lending support for the educational and advocacy events planned, I was also invited to be a guest speaker at the Library of Congress to help introduce the documentary feature, “We Still Live Here: As Nutayunean,” as well as participate in a Q&A session after the screening.

Also invited to speak was tribal member Kathleen Marshall, who works with me as a language apprentice. Our government affairs liaison, Sam Cohen, also attended with us. We presented the Library of Congress with a copy of our Samala language dictionary.

Organized by Cultural Survival, a proud member of the National Alliance to Save Native Languages, this annual summit’s 2011 goal was to convene language advocates at the Library of Congress and engage every one of the 62 members of the House and Senate Appropriations Committees with Native language revitalization success stories.

As a tribe that has established a language reclamation project, our story is an important one to share. It demonstrates that a tribe can take a language that is near extinction and revitalize it for current and future generations to enjoy. We showed how investing tribal resources in our language revitalization efforts will help our tribal nation’s future.

The National Native Language Revitalization Summit relied both on the expert recommendations of national tribal policy organizations and on the local knowledge and recommendations of hundreds of grassroots tribal language programs like ours.

With scarcely 139 spoken Native languages remaining in the United States — and 70 of those spoken fluently only by the very elderly — the summit organizers believed it was important to act immediately to increase the limited federal support available for the nearly 600 tribal nations with a stake in revitalizing indigenous languages.

We were excited to participate in the summit not only to share our tribal language story with others, but also to hear other tribal stories and meet with tribal representatives from all across Indian Country. We heard wonderful, heartfelt stories from tribes that put their native language into practice in their everyday lives, and stories about tribal language classes for all levels — from young children to the elderly. It was fun to share information and learn from each other.

Our tribe started several years ago by offering a few classes that taught our native language — Samala — and from there we expanded our language program. Since then, we have published an encyclopedia-type dictionary of our language, developed a comprehensive language apprenticeship program, organized a Samala singing and dancing group, and incorporated language lessons into our tribal cultural programs. Our tribal members — from the very young to the young at heart — have all enjoyed learning as much as they can about our native language.

Our languages are the core of our right to self-determination, and the foundation of our sovereign tribal governments and traditional institutions of leadership. I am proud and honored to have participated in the National Native Language Revitalization Summit. I hope that other tribes received as much from our Chumash Samala language revitalization story as I received from their experiences with their native languages.

Nakia Zavalla is the culture director of the Santa Ynez Band of Chumash Indians.


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