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Alaska sends message of respect to native tribes

State Senate approves bill putting native languages on par with English after history of neglect
How do you say “finally”?

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If you don’t speak Inupiaq, Siberian Yupik, Central Alaskan Yup’ik, Alutiiq, Unanga, Dena’ina, Deg Xinag, Holikachuk, Koyukon, Upper Kuskokwim, Gwich’in, Tanana, Upper Tanana, Tanacross, Hän, Ahtna, Eyak, Tlingit, Haida or Tsimshian, the following news article is probably more a matter of curiosity than anything else.

But, for those members of Alaska’s native tribes who do speak one of the 20 languages listed above, the news that the state’s Senate yesterday voted 18-2 to put them on par with English as official languages was both an enormous and an emotional moment.

The vote comes after the bill was unanimously passed earlier in the month by the state House of Representatives. In order for it to become law, it must be signed by Sean Parnell, the state’s governor.

Should he do so, the impact on the state’s public administration will be largely symbolic. The bill explicitly states that it “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”.

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But for native tribes, many of whom now count their populations in just the hundreds, the symbolism of having their language being put on a par with English, which was enshrined as the official language of state administration in 1998, is gratifying.

“We are excited to bear witness to the Alaska Senate passing this landmark and history-making bill to officially recognise our Alaska Native languages in the state they were birthed in,” Liz Medicine Crow, the head of the First Alaskans Institute, said in a statement.

Fred Dyson, a state senator, called the bill a way to show respect for Alaska’s indigenous groups, but the measure was almost derailed as the state’s legislative session came to a close on Sunday.

Had the bill not been taken up by the Senate, supporters would have had to begin the legislative process again. In order to prevent that, about 30 members of Alaska’s native tribes staged a 15-hour sit-in starting early night and stretching into the early hours of Monday.  

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The vote finally came at 3am, passing after sometimes emotional testimony both before the legislature from those taking part in the sit-in. For many of them, the story was the same: years of active suppression of their language by teachers and other public officials.

“It was not that long ago that children were violently abused for just speaking their languages,” Lance Twitchell, an assistant professor of Native Studies at the University of Alaska Southeast, told the press. “The elders have told us their stories, and the state recognising these languages would do a lot to help heal those wounds.”

For some of the languages on the list, however, the measure comes too late. Some are already close to extinction, and in 2008, the last fluent speaker of Eyak died, making its revial all but impossible.