PULLMAN, Wash. — Creation of a pilot program to certify state of Washington tribal language and culture teachers will strengthen the cultural heritage of tribes and add to the cultural resources of the state, said a Washington State University official.

“The Washington State Board of Education’s decision last month represents a significant turning point for reversing historical educational practices and policies that severely and negatively impacted Native peoples, languages and cultures,” said Barbara Aston, WSU assistant to the provost/tribal liaison.

The First Peoples’ Language Committee of Washington State — a grassroots group of tribal elders, language educators, linguists and university representatives — proposed the new program, indicated Education Week, a newspaper published by Editorial Projects in Education Inc., a nonprofit, tax-exempt organization based in Washington, D.C. Committee members felt a sense of urgency to get more speakers of tribal languages into classrooms. Many Native speakers are elderly, unable to pass on their language knowledge. When they die, their knowledge dies with them.

On Jan. 17, during a meeting in Olympia, the board approved a three-year pilot program. In the program, each of the state’s 28 federally-recognized tribes may appoint and certify Native language teachers who meet the tribe’s criteria and submit their name with appropriate documentation to the State Board of Education. The state superintendent of public instruction will issue each teacher certified by a tribal government a Washington State First Peoples’ Language/Culture Certificate.

“No one in Washington state suggests that the new certification program in itself will ensure the recovery of tribal languages,” the newspaper said.

Larry Davis, the board’s executive director, said the program “opens the door. It’s up to the tribes to see if they can work out an arrangement with local school districts.”

While some district efforts may be starting new, there are some public schools on reservations in Washington state already have classes in tribal languages.

Prior to the board’s action, Aston attended an Olympia hearing, where tribal leaders said preserving Native languages and culture preserves a unique perspective and worldview that can’t be expressed in English.

The board received letters supporting the program’s creation. They included those from WSU administrators Robert Bates, provost; Barbara Couture, College of Liberal Arts dean, and Judy Mitchell, College of Education dean.

Over the years, WSU has been supportive of Native American language and culture preservation. Support includes WSU:

— signing memorandums of understanding in 1997, 1998 and 2002 with tribal leaders of nine tribes to establish a Native American Advisory Board to the President with a mission to improve educational opportunities for Native Americans.

— hosting Native Language Roundtable discussions in 1998, 1999 and 2000 at the WSU Pullman campus and two Native Language and Culture Conferences in Spokane in 2001 and 2002

Aston said, “I am pleased Washington State University has supported and advocated for the approval of this pilot project and we look forward to continuing to seek ways to be responsive to the needs of Native peoples and tribes within the state.”