House approves Native language bill

Posted: Wednesday, April 19, 2000

JUNEAU (AP) -- Efforts to use and preserve Native languages could get a boost by a bill approved by the state House on Tuesday and sent to Gov. Tony Knowles.

Senate Bill 103, sponsored by Sen. Georgianna Lincoln, requires school districts that have predominantly Native students to set up Native language curriculum advisory boards.

The panels would recommend how to teach Native languages. Acting on the recommendations would be optional for school districts.

Lincoln said she got the idea during her campaign for a House seat in 1990. She said she walked into a Nulato classroom filled with Koyukon Athabascan children learning Japanese via a distance learning program on television.

''I walked away from there shaking my head and thinking, 'There's something wrong with this picture,''' she said.

While students could learn Japanese, German, Russian or Spanish, they had no classes to study their own language.

Lincoln said she offered the bill her first session and its passage is the culmination of 10 years of effort.

Language is crucial to the understanding of Native culture, history and connection to the land, Lincoln said. Learning Native languages should be an option just like the other languages.

''We have such a proud, proud Alaska Native heritage,'' Lincoln said. ''I would think the people of the state of Alaska would want to embrace that.''

Lincoln says many Alaskan Native languages are on the brink of extinction. Quoting Michael Krauss, professor of linguistics at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, Lincoln said 15 to 18 of Alaska's 20 Native languages will be lost by 2055 unless there is radical social change. Only Central and Siberian Yupik are considered healthy.

She said the loss of Native languages is rooted in education policies promoted by missionaries and educators. She said her own mother refused to teach her Koyukon Athabascan. Lincoln, like many other Native parents, could not teach her own children the language.

Lincoln said she envisions Native language distance delivery classes taught by a linguist and supplemented by community volunteers.

Rep. Carl Morgan, R-Aniak, said such a system might have advanced his language skills. Morgan said he spoke Yupik fluently until he reached grade school, when speaking his own language became ''not cool.'' Today he understands Yupik but does not speak it well.

But Rep. Gene Therriault, R-North Pole, said many of the bill's supporters are the same people who complain that the Legislature adds requirements for school districts without giving them more money.

''This is yet another one,'' Therriault said.

Nothing in state law prohibits school districts from offering Native language classes, he said.

''Why can't they make that decision locally?'' Therriault asked.

Rep. Lisa Murkowski said costs will be minimal, other than creating a board.

''There's no mandate after that,'' Murkowski said. ''There's no mandate that they establish a program.''

Rep. Fred Dyson, chairman of the Health, Education and Social Services Committee, said he sat on the bill for two months because he believes it does not do enough for promote Native languages.

He questioned why school districts are not doing more already. He also said that parents who want their culture preserved should not allow children to absorb hours of cable television programming, representing the worst of the dominant culture.

''There's a little hypocrisy there,'' Dyson said.

Native language curriculum advisory boards would be optional in school districts in which have less than 50 percent Native students.

Therriault and Rep. Vic Kohring, R-Wasilla, voted against the bill, which passed 37-2.

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