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Language council seen as hope for Native culture

Posted: June 11, 2012 - 7:46am

A new Alaska Native Language Council has the potential to bring threatened languages back from the brink of extinction, say experts in the field.

"Our hope is that we can really create living languages, and advocate for the importance of the languages," said Lance Twitchell, an assistant professor of Alaska Native languages at the University of Alaska Southeast.

Alaska's Native languages are in various states of decline, with only about 200 fluent Tlingit speakers left, while there are more than 10,000 speakers of Central Yup'ik.

The issue of disappearing languages was highlighted recently with the death of the last speaker of the Eyak language.

Rep. Cathy Munoz, R-Juneau, and other members of the Juneau legislative delegation supported the creation of the council, with Gov. Sean Parnell signing a bill creating it last month.

A growing realization of the threat faced by Native languages and the importance of taking active measures to save them has led to a wide variety of efforts around the state, said Annette Evans Smith, president and CEO of the Alaska Native Heritage Center in Anchorage.

The new council, which has yet to be named, will provide advice on how to preserve and protect the languages both to the governor and to legislators.

Smith said she hopes the council can also coordinate efforts around the state and show what's working here and elsewhere.

A recent roundtable discussion in Anchorage chaired by Lt. Gov. Mead Treadwell saw evidence of good, but disconnected, work being done all around the state, she said.

"There are efforts happening, but they are not connected with each other," she said.

She said there were representatives from the Lower Kuskokwim who had previously been unaware of work being done in Barrow, and everyone needs the information that will allow them to duplicate regional successes.

Other states and nations have dealt with similar issues and have had some strong successes as well.

Hawaii has adopted Native Hawaiian as one of its official languages, giving official support to a language that was once banned, while in New Zealand an effort to restore the Maori language in preschool has successfully expanded into grade school, middle school, high school and finally college.

"Now you can get your Ph.D. entirely in Maori," Smith said.

The official recognition of the establishment of the council is helpful, she said.

"We have to get over the mindset from when we were told the Alaska Native languages were backwards," she said. "It's not, its is actually quite complex and beautiful."

Young Alaskans are now recognizing the value of keeping the languages alive, Smith said.

"This next generation is feeling the importance and timeliness of this effort," Smith said.

While some of Alaska's languages are stronger, Twitchell said Tlingit has about 30 years to keep the language alive where people know it from the context of using it, not just in archival material.

"It's now or never, and never is right around the corner," he said.

Among the groups endorsing the council effort was the city of Barrow, which warned that is own Inupiaq language was one of those threatened by extinction. Data provided by Twitchell show about 2,100 Inupiaq speakers remaining.

"The indigenous languages of our state are critical and priceless components of the heritage of our state," and need to be nurtured to ensure they'll be preserved, the city wrote in support of the council.

Pat Forgey can be reached at patrick.forgey@juneauempire.com.

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