House unanimously passes raises for Native American language instructors

Bill sets pay to match a level two licensed teacher salary, now moves to the Senate

By: - February 11, 2022 5:21 pm

The New Mexico House of Representatives, pictured Dec. 6, in Santa Fe. (Photo by Patrick Lohmann / Source New Mexico)

Legislation to boost pay for Native American language instructors to match that of a level two public school teacher unanimously passed the New Mexico House of Representatives on Friday.

House Bill 60 also gives Pueblos and tribal nations the lead on developing traditional language criteria and determining who qualifies to lead instruction. The state Public Education Department currently oversees the Native American language certification process.

A separate effort to boost overall teacher pay based on the level of their license is swimming through the legislature. Under that proposal, level two teachers starting salary would bump from $50,000 to $60,000.

Without language, culture does not survive.

– Rep. Derrick Lente (D-Sandia Pueblo)

Native American language instructors currently earn between $31,000 and $43,000 depending on experience and school district, and they would benefit from the overall teacher pay raise if both bills pass.

Representative Derrick Lente from Sandia Pueblo said the proposal is instrumental for the state to meet its legal requirements under the Yazzie/Martinez lawsuit – a judgment that holds the state accountable for developing, among other things, greater support for traditional language programs in public schools.

“Without language, culture does not survive,” he said. “School districts and even our public education department have put so much emphasis on language revitalization to ensure that we can retain this identity as Native Americans and so when you talk about the importance (of language), long story short, it means everything.”

Currently a $1.25 million appropriation from the public education reform fund will pay for the raises. However, if overall teacher salaries increase, state analysts say $2.6 million will be needed to cover Native American language instructors.

Indigenous educators ask lawmakers to support culturally sustaining programs

Increasing access to traditional language is also supported in the Tribal Remedy Framework, an education reform plan that is supported by all 23 Pueblos and tribal nations in New Mexico.

New Mexico’s Native American language and culture certificate is designed to bring community members into classrooms, many of whom do not have college or teaching degrees, but have an expert competency in the language and culture of their tribe.

The Public Education Department said 99 people currently have a certificate and are teaching in schools.

According to PED, there are at least eight tribal languages spoken in New Mexico. Seven — Diné (Navajo), Jicarilla (Apache), Keres, Tewa, Tiwa, Towa and Zuni — are currently taught by certified language teachers in public schools. More than 7,200 students enrolled in Native American language programs, according to the Tribal Education Status Report.

Tribal education departments directing the criteria and determining licensure is a major component of the proposal and will require the state and tribal governments to draft a memorandum of understanding on how this process will take shape.

Language access is a privilege for many Native American people and while there is a need to integrate it into classrooms, there is also a requirement to respect tribal sovereignty by following their lead on how and who teaches language in classrooms, supporters say.

“This has everything to do with trying to recover from those hundreds of years of just difficult histories that bring back images of individuals, torn from their families from their homelands, taken to a school, in this case in this town, right down the street at the Santa Fe Indian School,” Lente said. “Hair chopped, whipped, mouth washed out if they spoke their Native tongue and still had that courage to come back to retain that identity in their own villages.”

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Shaun Griswold
Shaun Griswold

Shaun Griswold is a journalist in Albuquerque. He is a citizen of the Pueblo of Laguna, and his ancestry also includes Jemez and Zuni on the maternal side of his family. He grew up in Albuquerque and Gallup. He brings a decade of print and broadcast news experience. Shaun reports on issues important to Native Americans in urban and tribal communities throughout the state, including education and child welfare.