Gov. Sean Parnell signs HB 216 at the 2014 Alaska Federation of Natives Convention. The bill makes Alaska's Native languages official state languages. Looking on as the governor signs is Tlingit language teacher Lance Twitchell, Rep. Bennie Nageak, Rep. Charisse Millett, Lt. Gov. Mead Treadwell, First Alaskans Institute President Liz Medicine Crow, Sen. Lesil McGuire, Rep. Chris Tuck, Rep. Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins, Rep. Doug Isaacson, Rep. Les Gara and others.

Gov. Sean Parnell signs HB 216 at the 2014 Alaska Federation of Natives Convention. The bill makes Alaska’s Native languages official state languages. Looking on as the governor signs is Tlingit language teacher Lance Twitchell, Rep. Bennie Nageak, Rep. Charisse Millett, Lt. Gov. Mead Treadwell, First Alaskans Institute President Liz Medicine Crow, Sen. Lesil McGuire, Rep. Chris Tuck, Rep. Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins, Rep. Doug Isaacson, Rep. Les Gara and others. (Photo by Jennifer Canfield/KTOO)

When American missionaries began arriving in Alaska in the 1880s, it was the beginning of a very dark era for Alaska Natives around the state. As Bureau of Indian Affairs and state-sponsored schools were established, things became even worse for Alaska Native languages and cultural practices. Today, elders’ stories about being beaten for speaking their Native language or for practicing traditional dances or rituals are common.

So, fast forward to Thursday when dozens of elder Native language speakers found themselves in a packed room at the Dena’ina Center in Anchorage. Lawmakers and others clapped and cried as speakers young and old declared in their native tongue that their language was now an official language of the State of Alaska.

Kaséix̱ Selina Everson, originally from Angoon, was given the honor to speak first after Gov. Sean Parnell signed the bill.

Tlingit elder Kaséix̱ Selina Everson speaks after Gov. Sean Parnell signed a bill making Alaska's Native languages official languages of the state of Alaska. Former Tlingit Haida Central Council President Ed Thomas and Lance Twitchell look on in the foreground. (Photo by Jennifer Canfield/KTOO)

Tlingit elder Kaséix̱ Selina Everson speaks after Gov. Sean Parnell signed a bill making Alaska’s Native languages official languages of the state of Alaska. Former Tlingit Haida Central Council President Ed Thomas and Lance Twitchell look on in the foreground. (Photo by Jennifer Canfield/KTOO)

“Gunalchéesh, governor, to all the people who are here for our beautiful languages to be recognized after all these years we were forbidden to speak it, and every time we’d remember how we were forbidden,” Everson said. “An elderly gentleman from Angoon, he was 87, every time he spoke about us being forbidden to speak our own language on our own land, he cried like a baby.”

Everson thanked the bill’s prime sponsors Reps. Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins, Ben Nageak and Charisse Millett.

“For every Native person standing here, in my language I will say gunalchéesh to all of you, all the learners, to the children, gunalchéesh. You’ve made this day an honorable day to honor all the people of Alaska,” Everson said.

Tlingit language teacher Xh’unei Lance Twitchell was also at the bill signing. Twitchell worked with a group of other language learners from around the state to advocate for the bill’s passage, even staging a sit-in protest at the capitol building in the final days of the past legislative session.

After 15 hours of sitting in the capitol hallways and observing lawmakers on the Senate floor go in circles trying to reach consensus on other bills, the protestors were finally rewarded. The legislature passed the Alaska Native languages bill around 2 a.m. on Easter morning.

Xh'unei Lance Twitchell addresses the crowd that had gathered for the signing of HB 216, a bill making Alaska's Native languages official state languages. (Photo by Jennifer Canfield/KTOO)

Xh’unei Lance Twitchell addresses the crowd that had gathered for the signing of HB 216, a bill making Alaska’s Native languages official state languages. (Photo by Jennifer Canfield/KTOO)

Twitchell says not all of the lawmakers were supportive of the bill in the beginning.

“I had a chance to tell them, ‘People are going to remember you for this. Regardless of what side they are on, people are going to remember,'” Twitchell said. “There was a real fear that someday languages were going to be mandated and I don’t see that as a fear. I think a logical step for Alaska is that if you graduate from high school in Bethel you know some Iñupiaq. If you graduate from high school in Juneau you know some Tlingit.”

For the rest of the day at the convention, there was plenty of talk on-stage and amongst delegates about the “historic moment” that they’d all shared.

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