The Barnes Committee Room at the Alaska Capitol erupted in cheers Tuesday morning, as a panel of lawmakers unanimously moved a bill that would make 20 Alaska Native languages official state languages.
Dozens of people testified in favor of the measure, House Bill 216.
University of Alaska Southeast Native Languages Professor Lance Twitchell greeted the House Community and Regional Affairs Committee in Tlingit.
While English is the only official language of Alaska, Twitchell said this is not an English-only state.
“For over 10,000 years there have been other languages here, and they are still here today,” Twitchell said.
He described a crisis point in the effort to save Native languages. The average Alaska Native tongue has fewer than 1,000 speakers, the vast majority of whom are over the age of 70. The last fluent speakers of Eyak and Holikachuk Athabascan died within past decade.
Twitchell said language loss is tied to a history of repression and discrimination against Alaska Natives.
“I see dying languages and escalating suicide rates, and think, how can those things not be connected? I see the end result of cultural genocide, and think, how can we just decide to accept this?” he said. “There is no magic solution for language loss. But there is the promise of unity and recognizing that solutions exist.”
He said House Bill 216 is one of those solutions.
“I sit here as your peer. I sit here as your equal. We may speak different languages, but mine is just as valuable, just as necessary, and just as useful as yours,” said Twitchell.
Bethel elder Esther Green taught Yup’ik in the Lower Kuskokwim School District before she retired. Green said learning a language is a form of cultural preservation.
“Language and culture go together and they cannot be separated,” she testified.
Savoonga High School students Beverly Toolie and Chelsea Miklahook introduced themselves in Siberian Yup’ik. The language is no longer taught in their school, but the girls said they learned to speak it from their grandparents.
Nome Democrat Neal Foster asked if they would be interested in taking Native language classes.
“If the classes were to be reintroduced into the school, are those classes that you would want to take?” Foster asked.
“Yes,” the girls responded in unison.
Barrow Democrat Ben Nageak is the only member of the legislature who’s a fluent speaker of a Native language, Inupiaq. Fittingly, he made the motion to send HB 216 to the next committee.
Prime sponsor and Sitka Democrat Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins said he was moved by the support for the bill.
“This is a bill that very much felt as though it’s of the people, belongs to the people who testified today, and belongs to people across Alaska who believe in the cultural importance of Native languages,” Kreiss-Tomkins said.
Nobody testified against the legislation. Its next stop is the House State Affairs Committee.
Watch Gavel Alaska‘s coverage of the hearing: