Bill would rename, add voices to state Alaska Native language council

Ernestine Hayes and Lance Twitchell.
Ernestine Hayes and Lance Twitchell pose for a photograph in 2016, when they participated in an oral history project. On Tuesday, Twitchell testified in support of a bill making changes to a state council on Alaska Native languages. (Photo courtesy Juneau Public Library)

A bill advancing in the Legislature would rename a state council on Alaska Native languages and expand its membership. House Bill 47 would rename the Alaska Native Language Preservation and Advisory Council as the Council for Alaska Native Languages. 

Members of the House Special Committee on Tribal Affairs heard from bill supporters on Tuesday

X̱’unei Lance Twitchell, a council member and Tlingit language scholar, said the Legislature should do all that it can to support the 21 Alaska Native languages that are spoken today. 

“But by my estimations, and the estimations of language experts across the state, over half of them may have fewer than 10 speakers remaining, and we’re only talking about incremental change or only toeing a line that does keep us in a death spiral,” Twitchell said.

Twitchell said the word “preservation” should be taken out of the council’s name because it is trying to revitalize languages, not just preserve them. 

The bill would also add two members to the council, expanding it from five to seven members. Supporters say this would help the council represent more of the diversity of Alaska Native languages. 

Twitchell said cultural genocide led to the languages’ decline. 

“What kind of humans are we if we stand upon a foundation of racism and allow systems of communication that are tens of thousands of years old to be lost?” Twitchell asked the committee.

The council produces a report every other year. The report published last year encourages programs to immerse students in Alaska Native languages, among other steps. 

The committee voted to advance the bill to the House Finance Committee.

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