To the Legislature's credit, a new law makes it easier for Native-dominated school districts to educate students in their indigenous languages. The passage of SB103 into law is an accomplishment for its sponsor, Sen. Georgianna Lincoln, for two reasons.
First, the Native Language Education Act recognizes the importance of the state's indigenous cultures, particularly languages that are the cultures' glue. Disturbingly, too many are endangered. SB103 is a conscious attempt by state legislators to keep indigenous languages alive.
Second, the Interior lawmaker managed to push the bill uphill. For the past eight years, Sen. Lincoln has been in the minority. She has shown tenacity in shepherding the bill through a Republican-run Legislature. As she well knows, these are sensitive times in Alaska. Jockeying over natural resources and fighting over state dollars and clashing principles have led to infighting among Alaskans that has gotten downright nasty at times.
Race has played into some of the debates.
Ten years in the making, SB103 proved no exception.
Sen. Lincoln said Wednesday, ''I believe that there were individuals in the legislature who saw (a Native-language bill) as a racial issue and did not want to deal with it.'' One lawmaker went so far as to argue that if Native languages are to be taught, Norwegian should be offered too. Her counter there? ''Our Native languages are not from another country, not from another state, they're from Alaska.''
In working for passage of SB103, Sen. Lincoln noted predictions by state university linguist Michael Krauss. he contends that by 2055, and ''short of a miracle or radical social change,'' upward of 18 of the state's 20 Native languages will be lost.
SB103 is no ''radical social change'' but it is a step forward for Alaska nonetheless.
In addition to the race angle, other legislators worried about creating an unfunded mandate for school districts. To allay this long-standing concern, the bill's wording makes it optional for districts to adopt a Native-language curriculum. But if they do approve one, Sen. Lincoln says they must turn to local advisory boards in making decisions.
The goal of SB103 is not just to teach phrases and words but to help Native languages stay alive, to have practical applications, to be part of daily life.
If an educated populace is one of government's goals, then bilingual minority students have their own appeal. The Findings section in SB103 states: ''When Native children are proficient in their primary indigenous language they are more likely to do well in school; they also develop a higher degree of proficiency in English.''
The wait was all too long, but good for the Legislature for making room for SB103 in state law.
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