Alaska Moves to Officially Recognize 20 Native Languages

A bill recognizing 20 Indigenous Alaskan languages as equal to English has passed the state legislature and awaits the Governor's signature.

A bill passed by the Alaska state legislature has conferred official status upon 20 Native languages, making them -- for the most part, symbolically -- as valid as English in the state's eyes.

"All we want is equal value," Lance Twitchell, a professor of Native Languages at the University of Alaska Southeast, said, according to a KTOO public radio report. "And there’s nothing wrong with standing up and saying that."

The bill recognizes the following languages: Inupiaq, Siberian Yupik, Central Alaskan Yup'ik, Alutiiq, Unangax, Dena'ina, Deg Xinag, Holikachuk, Koyukon, Upper Kuskokwim, Gwich'in, Tanana, Upper Tanana, Tanacross, Han, Ahtna, Eyak, Tlingit, Haida, and Tsimshian. Throw in English and the state of Alaska would have 21 official languages.

The only other state to recognize an Indigenous language as equal to English is Hawaii, which conferred that status on the Hawaiian language in 1978. But such theoretical equality isn't necessarily reflected in the real world, as seen by one man's campaign, last year, to make driver's-license tests available in Hawaiian.

It seems unlikely that Alaska will take recognition of the 20 Native languages any further, as the wording of House Bill 216 makes clear; the measure "does not require or place a duty or responsibility on the state or a municipal government to print a document or record or conduct a meeting, assembly, or other government activity in any language other than English." The bill still needs to be signed into law by Governor Sean Parnell.

The bill was approved by the House 38-0, and supporters staged a 15-hour sit-in at the state Capitol to ensure its passage in the State Senate. Some of those present were elders who recalled being physically abused for speaking their Native tongue. "Sometimes I wonder when my hand hurts, is it on account of me speaking Tlingit?" Irene Cadiente said to KTOO. "My hands were rulered. Is that why it hurts? I never forget that." The sit-in began on Sunday and lasted through the night, and early Monday the Senate voted 18-2 in favor. 

The bill's sponsor, Sitka Democratic Rep. Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins, wrote that it is "an important step in recognizing the living, breathing, Alaska Native languages of the state of Alaska, which continue to grow into daily use by many speakers around the state who both practice and teach as has been done for millennia prior to statehood."