JUNEAU — Amid cheers and clapping from spectators in a packed room, the House Community and Regional Affairs Committee advanced a bill symbolically making 20 Alaska Native languages official languages of the state along with English.
“I love to see clapping when a bill passes,” committee co-chair, Rep. Gabrielle LeDoux, R-Anchorage, said. “I have never seen that before.”
Misty eyes and emotional voices accompanied much of the public testimony.
“There is no one in school to teach us our language,” said Savoogna High School student Chelsea Miklahook. “Our grandparents taught us our own language.”
When asked by Rep. Neal Foster, D-Nome, if she would want to learn Siberian Yup’ik in school, Miklahook and fellow student Beverly Toolie said they would. Savoogna High is located on St. Lawrence Island.
Rep. Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins, D-Sitka, told the committee his bill will make the 20 Native languages listed in it symbolically official rather than having the force of law.
“This is not a step for bilingual state paperwork or forms,” said Kreiss-Tomkins. “But we hope it opens the door for more subsidiary measures down the road.”
Kreiss-Tomkins said he hopes next year that steps will be taken to allow for announcements on the ferry system in English and the Native language of the area. He also would like to see roadblocks removed in becoming teacher’s aides for individuals whose primary language is an Alaska Native language.
Konrad Frank of Angoon, who testified in favor of the bill, said he sees the measure as a first step toward replacing English with a Native language for a number of public functions, including education.
“This law also helps our grandparents and our parents who have fought to keep their language alive,” Frank said.
Many of the speakers gave testimony on how they were discouraged from using Native languages, including committee co-chair Benjamin Nageak, D-Barrow, who speaks Inupiaq.
“We grew up being punished for speaking our own language,” said Nageak, the only Alaska Native language speaker in the Legislature.
According to the Alaska Native Heritage Center, 19 of Alaska’s 21 indigenous languages are endangered of becoming extinct. Though roughly 10,000 still speak the Central Yup’ik language, the last Eyak speaker, Marie Smith Jones, died in 2008.
Currently only Hawaii recognizes an indigenous language as an official language.
The bill advanced with unanimous support. There was no testimony opposing the measure. It now goes before the House State Affairs Committee.