By Claire Stremple
Alaska Beacon 

Legislators bolster Alaska Native languages council


Lawmakers have added four Alaska Native languages to the state’s official language tally and renamed the council that advocates for their survival and revitalization.

Members of the Senate approved their version of House Bill 26 with a unanimous vote on May 6. State representatives concurred with the changes on May 10, which means it goes to Gov. Mike Dunleavy next. The House passed the original bill, sponsored by Juneau Rep. Andi Story, last year with a 37-1 vote. Wasilla Republican Rep. David Eastman was the lone no vote.

In addition to adding official languages, the bill contains other changes to the council. Its name was changed to the Council for Alaska Native Languages from the Alaska Native Languages Preservation and Advisory Council, with a goal of doing more than just preserving the 23 languages.

The number of members on the council will increase from five to seven. And the council will now reside in the Department of Education rather than the Department of Commerce, signaling the importance of education to its work.

Golovin Sen. Donny Olson said the changes reflect the council’s mission, which is to increase the usage of Alaska Native languages.

“These minor changes will have a major impact on the Council for Alaska Native Languages and will help carry languages from our past into the future for generations to come,” he said.

X’unei Lance Twitchell, the council’s chair, spoke in support of the bill in a Senate Finance committee meeting in January, where he called Alaska Native Languages the state’s “oldest living resource.”

Twitchell reminded the committee that Alaska Native languages are no longer spoken as a result of assimilation policy and the state’s history of boarding schools.

He said the state had not yet shown that the languages are a priority despite their worth. “Every single Alaska Native language is sacred and irreplaceable. It contains concepts that cannot be translated, it contains things that cannot be replaced, and that give a sense of fulfillment and wholeness and health to Alaska Natives and to non-natives in Alaska.”

The council’s biennial report was published this year. It calls for lawmakers to implement systemic reforms to support the languages, many of which are in danger of dormancy.

House Bill 26 adds Cup’ig, Middle Tanana, Lower Tanana and Wetal to the list, joining English, Inupiaq, Siberian Yupik, Central Alaskan Yup’ik, Alutiiq, Unangax, Dena’ina, Deg Xinag, Holikachuk, Koyukon, Upper Kuskokwim, Gwich’in, Upper Tanana, Tanacross, Han, Ahtna, Eyak, Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshian as official state languages. Middle Tanana and Lower Tanana were previously listed as one language.

The Alaska Beacon is an independent, donor-funded news organization.


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