The House of Representatives approved House Bill 216 on a 38-0 vote, sending it to the Senate, where it’s scheduled to be heard on Thursday by the State Affairs Committee.
Supporters clapped from the gallery as lawmakers pounded their desks in approval after House Speaker Mike Chenault announced the bill had passed.
Rep. Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins, D-Sitka, said in a House floor speech that even if the bill is largely symbolic, it’s still important to honor Native languages.
Eyak is one of the languages recognized in this bill. The last fluent speaker of Eyak passed away five short years ago,” said Kreiss-Tomkins, HB 216’s prime sponsor. “There are several other languages that are on the brink, have just a handful of fluent speakers left in Alaska.”
Kreiss-Tomkins said he hopes to someday learn Tlingit, one of three indigenous languages in Southeast Alaska.
Rep. Charisse Millett, an Anchorage Republican and co-sponsor of the legislation, said she regrets she never asked her Inupiaq grandmother to teach her the language.
“She told me stories of fish camps, and told me stories of moving from town to town to live a subsistence lifestyle, picking berries,” Millett said. “But I never learned the language.”
Millett said she hopes recognizing the state’s original languages will empower young people to overcome the shame her grandmother and mother felt about being Alaska Native.
“To engage in conversation, learn the language, the heritage of their elders. Learn the stories of what Alaska was, so they know how to make Alaska a better place,” she said.
The legislature’s only fluent speaker of an Alaska Native language is Rep. Benjamin Nageak, D-Barrow, who delivered about half of his remarks in Inupiaq. Nageak said the bill acknowledges indigenous languages have been spoken in Alaska since before European contact.
“Most of our languages are still alive, and we need to continue to make sure that those languages thrive and survive,” he said.
After some Republicans on the House State Affairs Committee received HB 216 skeptically last month, a section was added to clarify that it does not require governments to conduct business in languages other than English − currently the only official state language.