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Alaska Native languages bill draws criticism

Posted: March 27, 2014 - 7:24pm  |  Updated: March 27, 2014 - 9:01pm

JUNEAU, Alaska — A bill that would symbolically make 20 Alaska Native languages as official languages of the state got some real-world pushback Thursday.

House Bill 216’s co-sponsor, Rep. Charisse Millett, R-Anchorage, was questioned about the ramifications of such designations during a House State Affairs committee.

Currently, English is the only official language for official business in Alaska.

Rep. Doug Isaacson, R-North Pole, said he worried others will read an intent in the bill that’s not there.

Isaacson made his statement after the bill’s co-sponsor Rep. Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins, D-Sitka, introduced an amendment clarifying recognition of the languages was merely symbolic and the bill was not introducing the languages into statute. Both Department of Law representative Libby Bakalar and Legislative Legal Affairs representative Hillary Martin also testified the bill as written would make the languages only symbolically official in Alaska and would not affect state law or procedures.

“This bill gives them the opportunity to grow and have pride,” said Millett, whose grandmother was Inupiat from White Mountain. Millett told the committee how her grandmother was not allowed to speak her language and thus was not able to pass it to other generations, including her.

Rep. Wes Keller, R-Wasilla, said he had problems with the bill noting the word “official” appears 650 times in Alaska statutes.

“I am really struggling with the format of this bill,” said Keller. “It might deepen a wedge we don’t need.”

Millett said she didn’t understand the pushback, noting the Legislature handles such bills as recognizing an official state flower. “It’s the beginning of a movement to restore pride. I get a little offended when people say this doesn’t do anything,” she said.

Testifying before the committee, Rep. Benjamin Nageak, D-Barrow, said the bill was a recognition that Alaska Native peoples had been in Alaska for thousands of years.

Nageak said the bill is in the same format used when English was recognized by the Legislature.

Isaacson and Rep. Lynn Gattis, R-Wasilla, said their grandparents had to give up their language of origin because English is spoken in America. Gattis said her family quit speaking Russian while Isaacson said his family quit speaking Norwegian.

“We weren’t from another country,” Nageak answered. “We were here for a very long time when the Russians came.”

According to the Alaska Native Heritage Center, 19 of Alaska’s 21 indigenous languages are in danger of becoming extinct. Though roughly 10,000 still speak the Central Yup’ik language, the last Eyak speaker, Marie Smith Jones, died in 2008. Eyak is listed in the bill.

Currently only Hawaii recognizes an indigenous language as an official language.

The bill remains in committee.

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