Jackie Martins

Fighting for Validity;
The Credentialing of Native Language Teachers

Jackie Martins has been teaching her language every year, except for two that she sat on the tribal council, to over 400 students in a public school each year for the past 17 years. She originally learned her language under a fluent elder who worked side by side with her each day until his death in 1996. She has attended many Native Language institutes, workshops and conferences, both locally and in other states for teacher training, and she makes all of her own curricular materials. As one of only a handful of people who know the language well enough to teach it, Jackie’s knowledge is invaluable and, until one of her students advance their knowledge of the language and commit to teaching it themselves, she is irreplaceable. However, Jackie is not a credentialed teacher and she is paid far less than a classroom teacher. Her salary is only 53% of a beginning, first year classroom teacher’s salary.

To meet California’s approved No Child Left Behind (NCLB) criteria for “Highly Qualified Teacher” a teacher must hold a four-year Bachelor’s Degree, must have successfully completed a teacher preparation program to obtain a credential, and must also establish “subject matter competency” through an examination process or through a concentrated single subject preparation program (major).

In April 2008, The California Commission on Teacher Credentialing (CCTC) approved an “Alternative Subject Matter Competency Assessment Plan for Native American Languages”. This plan addresses subject matter competency only. School districts and tribes and/or tribal organizations may now apply to the Commission to be an assessing agency for a teacher’s subject matter competency in a Native language. This plan presumes that the teacher already has a Bachelor’s Degree and holds a teaching credential in another subject area.

This plan, however, does not help Jackie or others like her.

Native Languages in California are at a critical stage. Most of the languages are at a place where their very survival is at stake. At the same time, research indicates that people who know more than one language have an advantage over people who don’t, and not just in terms of communication skills. It’s been determined that a bilingual brain develops more densely, giving it an advantage in various abilities and skills. For all these reasons and more, the public school system should be doing everything in its power to encourage and promote the languages that the educational system historically had a hand in trying to destroy. Creating unnecessary obstacles is unacceptable. The federal Native American Languages Act of 1990 (NALA) tries to correct the mistakes of the past. It states that, “there is a lack of clear, comprehensive, and consistent Federal policy on treatment of Native American languages which has often resulted in acts of suppression and extermination of Native American languages and cultures… acts of suppression and extermination directed against Native American languages and cultures are in conflict with the United States policy of self-determination for Native Americans .

And this law directly speaks to the credentialing of Native Language teachers:

SEC. 104. It is the policy of the United States to—
(2) allow exceptions to teacher certification requirements for Federal programs and programs funded in whole or in part by the Federal Government, for instruction in Native American languages when such teacher certification requirements hinder the employment of qualified teachers who teach in Native American languages, and to encourage State and territorial governments to make similar exceptions…

Raquelle Myers, Staff Attorney for the National Indian Justice Center, explains how, within Federal law, more specific laws control the general, “Law works on a basis of presumptions and burdens.  The “canons of construction” (or how judges must interpret law) require that laws of general application in the United States must specifically state that they apply or include Indian tribes. Thus, the burden would be on the State to prove that a federal law includes or applies to the tribes.” NALA should be the guide in how the State interprets NCLB in regards to the certification of teachers.

One section of NCLB (3125 of the Title III) actually supports the Native American Languages Act in spirit by stating that, “nothing in this part shall be construed to limit the preservation or use of Native American Languages.” But this support doesn’t go far enough. The requirement to have Native Language instructors credentialed only through the state’s process will most definitely limit the preservation and use of languages by delaying or eliminating the teaching of the languages for credit in public schools. It would be difficult for many Native language instructors to take the time away from continued language learning to attend school. When they would finally return to their communities, after several years of schooling, the elders from whom they are learning the language might be gone. It is also not often feasible financially as language instruction is rarely a full-time job. A person could spend years in school to become a state-certified teacher, only to teach the language for one period each day.

David Beaulieu, the Director of the Center for Indian Education at Arizona State University, wrote in the Journal of American Indian Education’s special issue on NCLB that “although NALA provides…language support, there is no corresponding connection to federal education statutes. The long established principle of tribal sovereignty, recognition of tribal government authority and the federal trustee relationship, and recognition of the federal role vis-á-vis state-tribal government relationships have no viable recognition in federal education law.” He suggests that a “strong affirmative version of NALA” be included in NCLB and that the development of a new Indian Education Act might ultimately be necessary, to reconsider “the relationships of federal, state, and tribal governments established by the original Johnson O’Malley Act in 1934, enabling tribes to assume parallel state government authority in education.”

Public Law 83-280, which originally affected six states including California, asserts that States may not apply laws to tribes that are related to such matters as environmental control, land use, gambling, and licenses, if those laws are part of a general state regulatory scheme. Public Law 83-280 gives states only law enforcement and civil judicial authority - not regulatory power. The licensing of Native Language teachers, therefore, should not be in the purview of the State, but rather under the authority of the tribes.

All this evidence appears to suggest that tribes should be able to certify their own teachers for language instruction in public schools. Sixteen other states have recognized tribal sovereignty and have worked with tribes to develop alternative Native Language credentialing processes.

However, the CCTC remains inflexible. CCTC staff will only say that, ‘Native American tribes may offer their language courses without a “highly qualified teacher” as an elective that would not count as a core academic content area’ . This means that a college-going student who is unable to take a Native Language for credit would have to find time in their schedule to take an elective Native Language course, and would still have to take an approved foreign language course (such as Spanish) to meet the University of California requirements. At a time when Native college-going rates have been steadily declining , this becomes yet another obstacle in the educational success of Native students. Currently, in at least three schools in California, Native Languages are offered for credit and are approved by the university system for college admittance. Ironically, saving and reviving tribal languages has been determined to be one of the “25 brilliant California ideas that are shaping the future” selected by the faculties of UCLA and UC Berkeley and published in CALIFORNIA, the magazine of the California Alumni Association.

While this impasse remains, Jackie and others like her do not make a living wage despite incredible dedication to their educational field; school district’s face sanctions for not meeting the Highly Qualified Teacher provisions of NCLB; and student enrollment in Native language classes continues to grow. A conclusion to this issue can only be reached by tribal government involvement throughout California. Tribes can assert their sovereignty on the issue and either lobby for an amendment to NCLB, or lobby the California Commission on Teacher Credentialing to accept tribal credentialing of Native language teachers.


Mechelli, A. Nature, October 2004; Vol. 431: p 757.

P.L. 101-477, The Native American Languages Act

Sec. 102, No. 5 and 8, The Native American Languages Act

Journal of American Indian Education, Arizona State University, Tempe, Vol. 47, No. 1, 2008, pp. 36-37

From “Public Law 280: Issues and Concerns for Victims of Crime in Indian Country” by Ada Pecos Melton and Jerry Gardner, American Indian Development Associates, 2004, retrieved from http://www.aidainc.net/Publications/pl280.htm

As per Phyllis Jacobson’s testimony presented in the Draft minutes of the American Indian Education Oversight Committee meeting, Thursday, March 6, 2008, Redding, California

From the California Postsecondary Education Commission Report, September 2006 available at http://www.cpec.ca.gov/OnLineData

Volume 118, No. 1, January/February 2007