Coghill proposes change to Alaska Native languages bill

John Coghill

Sen. John Coghill, R-North Pole, speaks on the Alaska Senate floor. (Photo by Skip Gray/Gavel Alaska)

With two days left in this year’s legislative session, a key member of the Alaska Senate is questioning a bill that would make 20 Alaska Native languages official state languages.

Supporters say House Bill 216 is an important recognition of the work scholars and advocates are doing to save Alaska’s endangered indigenous languages.

But Senate Majority Leader John Coghill, R-North Pole, says he’s not sure if those languages should be elevated to the same level as English under state law. In the Senate State Affairs Committee on Friday, Coghill pointed to a 1998 voter initiative making English the official state language.

“It [the bill] puts all these other languages right in the middle of what that initiative was under official language,” Coghill said. “And it would probably be better, if we’re really going to honor them, to say those should be the ceremonial languages used in Alaska.”

In 2007, the Alaska Supreme Court struck down part of the voter initiative that required English to be used for all government business.

After running into similar questions in the House, HB 216 was amended to include a section clarifying that it does not require the state and local governments to conduct business in languages other than English.

But Coghill said he’s uncomfortable changing a law passed by voters. He offered an amendment to the bill that would create a ceremonial languages section in state law.

“I think we should honor them. I just didn’t know if that was the right place to put this language,” Coghill said.

Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins

Rep. Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins, D-Sitka, is the prime sponsor of HB 216, which would make 20 Alaska Native languages official state languages along with English. (Photo by Skip Gray/Gavel Alaska)

Rep. Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins, D-Sitka, is prime sponsor of HB 216. At a Senate State Affairs Committee hearing on Thursday, Kreiss-Tomkins explained why the bill is important to Native language advocates.

“There’s a statewide movement to prevent the extinction of Alaska Native languages and promote the revitalization of Native languages, and this recognition quite simply means the world to a lot of people,” Kreiss-Tomkins said. “I’m not normally one for symbolic bills. But I think if a symbolic bill can create a sense of energy and momentum and excitement, then the bill in a certain sense achieves its purpose.”

House Bill 216 passed out of the State  Affairs Committee on Friday without Coghill’s amendment. The bill could appear on the Senate floor as early as Saturday, where Coghill could bring the amendment back up.

Sens. Fred Dyson, R-Eagle River, and Dennis Egan, D-Juneau, are co-sponsors of the bill in the Senate.

HB 216 passed the House on Wednesday on a 38-0 vote.