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Bill looks to boost knowledge, awareness of Native languages

Posted: May 6, 2012 - 12:16am

A new bill aimed at helping to keep Alaska’s Native languages alive hasn’t even gone to the governor yet, but the issue is already getting the attention the legislation was intended to bring.

Lt. Gov. Mead Treadwell will chair a meeting of the Alaska Historical Commission on Monday, starting a new focus on the saving some of the state’s endangered languages while there is still time.

“If we lose our Native languages, I think we lose a big part of who we are as a people whether we are Native or not,” Rep. Cathy Muñoz, R-Juneau said.

There’s a growing awareness of the problem that made passage of the bill possible, she said.

“Alaska’s indigenous languages are in need of support just as much as historic buildings and archeological sites,” Treadwell said. “The Alaska Historical Commission seeks to help.”

The commission will meet Monday in Anchorage, and by teleconference from around the state, to host a dialogue about ways to revitalize Alaska Native languages.

Muñoz successfully pushed legislation in the last legislative session to help with that.

“Our languages are in dire straits,” she said. “Here in Southeast with the Tlingit language, I believe we may have only 200 or 250 fluent speakers left,” she said.

Muñoz’ bill would create the Alaska Native Language Council, which would set up a volunteer panel of language experts to recommend ways to the state and Legislature to strengthen the state’s endangered languages.

Muñoz and Rep. Alan Dick, R-Stony River, sponsored the legislation in the House, with Sen. Donny Olson, D-Nome, sponsoring similar legislation in the Senate. Rep. Beth Kerttula, and Sen. Dennis Egan, both D-Juneau, were co-sponsors.

Olson’s Senate Bill 130 was the bill that passed first and is awaiting the governor’s signature.

Muñoz said he is expected to sign the bill, which passed nearly unanimously. It’s also helpful to have the endorsement of the lieutenant governor and the Historical Commission, which began work on the bill’s goals even before it was signing.

Among areas the meeting participants may look at to replicate elsewhere are the standout Native language program at the University of Alaska Southeast, and school-based programs as well.

“Here in Juneau we have the Harborview program, the Native language program at the elementary school, which has been quite successful,” Muñoz said.

Among the those participating in the Historical Commission meeting are U.S. Sens. Lisa Murkowski and Mark Begich and Congressman Don Young, who will appear via videotaped remarks.

Olson will discuss Senate Bill 130, and Dr. Lawrence Kaplan, director of the University of Alaska Fairbanks’ Alaska Native Language Center, will speak about programs for Native language revitalization underway in Alaska.

Muñoz cautioned that the new Alaska Native Language Council was a “baby step” towards language revitalization.

“It’s the first step, it’s not the answer but it will lead to other good things in the future,” she said.

• Contact reporter Pat Forgey at 523-2250 or at patrick.forgey@juneauempire.com.

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