Language an important part of Alaska's cultural heritage

This week, a bill that would add 20 Alaska Native languages as official languages of the state was advanced in the Legislature.

While the move is largely symbolic — one of the bill’s sponsors, Rep. Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins, D-Sitka, said state paperwork and forms would likely not become bilingual in the deluge of languages — it could pave the way for more measures designed to recognize the important cultural heritage of the Alaska Native population.

To speak a language fluently is to recognize the organization of a specific cultural mindset, each word a step toward understanding a philosophy often unique to the geographic location of the dialect. To lose a language is to see an ethnicity and way of life disappear into the annals of history where societal structure becomes an object of study rather than a blueprint for living.

House Bill 216 is an attempt to recognize the importance of language for Alaska Native groups whose rights to cultural self-determination have often been put aside in favor of the rights of an increasingly larger English-speaking majority.

Just 16 years ago, about 70 percent of Alaska’s voters approved an official-English initiative sponsored by the group Alaskans for a Common Language — opponents of the measure called it a war on language and the law was ultimately struck down as unconstitutional in 2002.

In a piece for the Juneau Empire, Xh’unei Lance A. Twitchell, an assistant professor of Alaska Native Languages at University of Alaska Southeast, called for legislators to vote in favor of the bill and help the languages survive.

“One of the things I hear repeatedly is that there is not enough resources to allocate toward language revitalization,” he wrote. “This always leaves me confused. We can extract millions and billions from the land, but we cannot look to fix something that grew here with the land over tens of thousands of years.”

Twitchell is right, it is time that the Legislature — and by extension all Alaskans — turn their focus away from being more efficient at taking everything they can from this state without paying homage to and supporting the ways of life that Native Alaskans have cultivated to live in harmony with their environments.

Perhaps, instead of offering a secondary language from a country on the other side of the globe, Alaska’s youth could learn to communicate with their neighbors in the same state — Y’upik instead of French, Gwich’in instead of German, Tlingit instead of Italian. Ultimately, a connection to the land and indigenous people of the state will foster healthier communities and perhaps even entice some of the up-and-coming youth to stay in the state where their lives are deeply rooted in the languages and thoughts of their local cultures.

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