‘Without language, we are nothing’: New Mexico to pay Native-language teachers equally

By Murat Oztaskin

When New Mexico house representative Derrick Lente was growing up in the eighties and nineties, he was immersed in the indigenous Southern Tiwa dialect spoken by his family. 

He heard it in Sandia Pueblo, north of Albuquerque, where he stayed with his mom during the week, and in Isleta Pueblo, south of Albuquerque, where he stayed with his father over the weekends. 

His parents had to be his Tiwa teachers because there were none in the schools of nearby Bernalillo. And they taught him, he said, that “without language, we are nothing.”

Today, students in the same school system can study many of the eight indigenous languages of New Mexico’s 23 tribal entities. It’s an educational focus that was reinforced earlier this year when the state legislature unanimously passed House Bill 60, a law that classifies for the first time the state’s 155 certified educators of Native languages and culture as entry-level teachers.

Previously, the pay of Native-language educators was decided district by district, in an adhoc system that saw some paid as teaching assistants despite doing the work of teachers, including lesson planning and curricula development. In the 2020-2021 school year — the most recent numbers provided by New Mexico’s Public Education Department — Native-language educators made on average less than $30,000 a year, with several full-time teachers bringing in less than $20,000. 

Coupled with a new law that raises entry-level teachers’ salaries, House Bill 60 — which was signed into law by the state’s democratic governor, Michelle Lujan Grisham, in March — ensures that all New Mexico teachers with Native-language certification will make a minimum of $50,000 a year, starting this fall.

Educators gain such certification after the tribes to which they’re enrolled recommend them to the state as experts in their tribes’ language and culture.

“H.B. 60 brings to the surface language revitalization, particularly Native-language revitalization in our state, as inherent and core to educational success,” said Gwen Perea Warniment, who until this month was the education department’s deputy secretary of teaching, learning, and assessment. She now serves as the director of New Mexico’s Legislative Education Study Committee, a body within the legislature that crafts education-related laws.

She added that for the state’s Native students, education in their indigenous languages and cultures is critical for their success. 

“If education and societal wellness, community wellness, is linked — and we assume it is — then you must attend to who you are as an identity, as a group, as a community,” she said. 


New Mexico’s public-education system has routinely ranked as the country’s worst or close to it. It has the lowest high-school graduation rate of any state (around 70 percent) and by many standards the worst academic performance.

In 2014, the condition of the state’s public education system spurred a consolidated lawsuit called Yazzie/Martinez vs. State of New Mexico, in which a collection of plaintiffs sued the state. In 2018, a district-court judge found that New Mexico had violated its own constitution by failing to provide sufficient and uniform public education. 

Within this underperforming system, Native American students and English-language learners, two of four student populations the court deemed to be “at risk,” have been particularly disadvantaged, owing to an education that is inadequate in its cultural responsiveness. 

The court concluded that “the state had not developed effective educational systems for Native American students,” said Melissa Candelaria, the education director for the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty, which represented some plaintiffs in the consolidated lawsuit.. 

Candelaria added that the state was found to “not provide Native American students the necessary programs and services that meet their unique cultural and linguistic needs,” as outlined in New Mexico’s Indian Education Act, a 2003 law intended to furnish success among Native American students. Nor, she said, did the state “allocate sufficient funding to school districts to implement the law” themselves. 

Perea Warniment, formerly of the education department, said that H.B. 60 begins to tackle “an effort to honestly and entirely address the Indian Education Act,” a major purpose of which is to ensure “maintenance of native languages.” 

Perea Warniment is hopeful of H.B. 60’s potential impact on the recruitment and retention of Native-language teachers. In addition to bolstering language offerings, increasing the number of Native teachers would also make the education system more representative of the communities it serves: 10 percent of New Mexico students are Native American, but only 3 percent of its teachers are. 

It could also help ease a longstanding problem of recruitment and retention among all educators across the state. In 2021, there were 1,048 teacher vacancies, according to a report from New Mexico State University — about a 5 percent shortage.

In early May, Lujan Grisham’s office released a draft of the first state plan to directly address compliance with the Yazzie/Martinez ruling, and opened it up for public input. (The court ruling had mandated that the state take immediate steps toward compliance by April, 2019.)

The New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty said the state’s Yazzie/Martinez action plan was short on specifics and that it “doesn’t provide a good roadmap with details such as required funding and responsible entities to implement the plan.”

Still, she said, H.B. 60 may have a “huge impact” on its own. 

Education in New Mexico “needs to be relevant, responsive, and respectful to the languages and cultures of our Native children, and H.B. 60 helps to ensure the maintenance and continuation of our indigenous languages,” said Candelaria, who grew up in the San Felipe Pueblo and, like Lente, wasn’t able to study her indigenous language, Keres, in public schools in Bernalillo. 

“Native language is really the heart of our culture, our way of life, our identity, our connection to the land and to our ancestors,” she said.


H.B. 60 is the product of a grassroots, tribal-based movement. When he first entered office in 2017, Lente helped organize a set of community forums to understand what changes Native communities felt were most needed. 

“This wasn’t meant to be a high-level policy discussion,” Lente said. “We had these meetings with parents, with students, with tribal leaders, with education advocates — with kind of the lay people, if you will.” 

What resulted is the Tribal Remedy Framework, a comprehensive plan endorsed by all 23 of New Mexico’s tribal nations to push forward “five pieces of legislation which seek to focus in on how to transform education for Native American children,” Lente said. 

The first legislative contribution was House Bill 250, which passed the New Mexico legislature unanimously in 2019. The bill revised the Indian Education Act to codify the Tribal Remedy Framework’s aims, including requiring needs assessments for Native-impacted school districts. 

In doing so, it sought to establish a trust responsibility, in the federal mold, between the state and its tribal nations, Lente said, as a way to “create teeth within the law that will now enable Native American tribes to hold the state accountable.” 

H.B. 60 is the second legislative contribution. Native languages and “cultural competency” commanding greater focus in schools is crucial, Lente said. 

“Our students learn differently than those in other places in the world, and so utilizing how we learn best was going to be how we were going to change the system,” he said.

The rest of the Tribal Remedy Framework concerns addressing infrastructure gaps in Native communities—including internet, transportation and school buildings — and building up program capacities within tribal education departments.

Yazzie/Martinez ruling mandates that the state ensure all its students are “college or career ready.” But Lente said that, for Native students especially, a culturally relevant education can also affect civic readiness.

Understanding or mastering an indigenous language can foster “the ability to be a positive contributor to your Pueblo or tribal nation,” he said. For Native children who live “in two worlds,” he added, feeling a sense of purpose and place within their tribal community can help foster those same feelings of belonging and confidence outside of it. 

“If you don’t have that capacity, if you don’t have that confidence, and if you don’t see yourself represented in mainstream America . . . you just feel invisible,” he said. “And that’s where our students falter.”

This story originally published June 13, 2022, on Youth Today.

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